Teamwork and successful engineering

March 2009 » Columns
One of the keys to Dr. House’s success in the TV show "House" is his diagnostic team. Through his team, House’s brilliance is expanded, challenged, focused, and most of the time, a timely diagnostic is achieved. Engineering teams function in a similar manner: The effectiveness of the team dictates the timeliness and the accuracy of the process and the success of the project.
Cathy Bazán-Arias, Ph.D., P.E.
One of the keys to Dr. House’s success in the TV show "House" is his diagnostic team. Through his team, House’s brilliance is expanded, challenged, focused, and most of the time, a timely diagnostic is achieved. This may be due to the team’s brainstorming sessions that generate possibilities that otherwise House may overlook. Or, perhaps it is the team’s drive to explore options that House may not immediately consider, and therefore speed, and increase the accuracy of, the deduction process. In the end, the correct diagnosis is achieved just in the nick of time.

Engineering teams function in a similar manner: The effectiveness of the team dictates the timeliness and the accuracy of the process and the success of the project. Various organizations and instructors amply cover team dynamics and their effectiveness; my aim is to highlight the top three characteristics, in my opinion, that make engineering teams unique.

Only the facts, please
In my experience, engineers tend to be more factual in our team interactions. That is, most engineers are direct and up-front, not necessarily earning diplomatic awards yet conveying factual information with limited regard for individual sensitivities. Some of my colleagues have no qualms about pointing out an incorrect calculation—their own or others’—or critically questioning an approach, implementation, or procedure. Thankfully, most professionals typically do not take these as personal attacks (most of the time these encounters are not personal); rather, their aim is to arrive at the correct or feasible engineering solution.

I love a challenge
Most at-heart engineers can handle the math, physics, and otherwise technical "mumbo-jumbo" that makes other professionals run for the hills. In a team setting, this means that our teams can talk minute, detailed shop—sometimes for hours—without requiring a translator for the technical aspects of the work. Therefore, addressing adjustments, mistakes, or special requirements by the client or other team members can be done in a relatively efficient and effective manner.

We also support checking our work as a rule rather than an exception. Other professions tend to be sensitive about second opinions or colleagues’ reviews because this is related to pre-judging their work as shoddy or incorrect. Most engineering professionals have their work back-checked, sometimes more than once, to avoid overrun in costs and timelines or to address special aspects of the project.

There’s no "i" in "successful project"
Most critical or ambitious engineering projects are awarded to a team rather than an individual. Sometimes special teams—joint ventures, consortiums, or similar collaborations—are created to address particular projects for this reason. Typically, these teams comprise several consultants and experts and bring several factors to the endeavor. The parties agree to share in the revenues, expenses, and control of the project—no small feat if you have ever participated in these negotiations. These efforts generate some benefits that typically the team exploits: complement of skill sets sometimes extending to geographic presence; ingress into markets that require several engineering specialties; and prolonged ties to assess team dynamics and how to continue joint efforts or establish more effective teams.

Go team!
I think most people have the incorrect impression that engineers work in isolation. This simply can not be true for a successful engineering project.

While some or most of the work may be individual, engineering teams are achieving the "impossible" in the 21st century: Burj Dubai, Millau Viaduct, Torre Mayor, and advances in nuclear and tissue engineering, among other specialties.

What do you think of teamwork in engineering? E-mail comments in care of bdrake@zweigwhite.com.


Cathy Bazán-Arias, Ph.D., P.E., is senior staff engineer for DiGioia, Gray & Associates, LLC, Monroeville, Pa.


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