In a college final exam, you’re on your own. If you can solve the problems fast enough and without help, you’ll pass. If you’re caught copying from the smartest kid in the class, you’ll flunk…or be expelled.
Originally, I applied the same mentality to my professional development: in order to be a successful engineer, I reasoned, I had to know everything well enough to develop engineering solutions by myself. Big brain = success, or so I thought.
Most of my real-world engineering projects were larger and more complex than I could handle by myself, of course. Fortunately, I read a passage in the book “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman that fundamentally changed the way I approach my work as an engineer:
Researchers Robert Kelley and Janet Caplan studied star performers at Bell Labs, a renowned research lab near Princeton, New Jersey. The telecommunication systems the Bell Labs engineers developed were highly complex…more than any one person could understand…so everyone worked in teams, ranging from 5 to 150 people.
While everyone at the lab had a high IQ, only some stood out as stars. At the beginning of the study, managers and peers were asked to pick the top 10% of their colleagues.
The assumption was that those with the highest IQ or best academic performance would also excel in this highly technical environment. That assumption was wrong…by standard cognitive measures such as IQ, standardized tests, and academic performance, and even social measures such as personal inventories, there were no discernible differences between the stars and everyone else. The researchers had to dig deeper.
By performing detailed interviews, they discovered the critical difference was the stars’ interpersonal skills and how their professional relationships impacted their engineering work performance. The star performers put time into cultivating good relationships with people whose services might be needed in a crunch. When faced with a challenging problem, they were able to pick up the phone, call the right person, and get a quick answer that was usually correct. The average engineer, on the other hand, either struggled mightily to develop a solution on his own — and frequently an inferior one — or wasted his time with unreturned calls and unanswered emails.
The researchers summarized it this way: ‘The formal organization is set up to handle easily anticipated [and routine] problems. But when unexpected problems arise, the informal organization kicks in. Highly adaptive, informal networks move diagonally and eliptically, skipping entire functions to get things done.’
– Paraphrase of Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence, p. 161-162
- Image credit: Amazon.com / Bantam Books
An engineer I worked closely with for several years, Keith, embodied the lessons I took of the Bell Labs study. Keith wouldn’t initially strike you as a straight-A braniac student. I never saw his transcript, but I would guess that he enjoyed socializing as much as he enjoyed studying. But, man, he is one of the best engineers I’ve met. Whenever he’s faced with a challenging problem, he’s able to research it quickly and thoroughly enough to be able to ask the right questions. He then tracks down the best subject matter experts he can find, calls him them up, picks their brains, and, if necessary, visits them in person that same week. That’s usually enough to rapidly solve most challenging problems, but if not, he’ll contract them to see a solution through to completion. He repeats this day after day. The result is an ability to solve engineering problems that have vexed his entire industry for decades.
Based on the lessons from Goleman’s book and Keith’s example, I make a concerted effort each day to stay in touch with other bright people in my industry and pick their brains on a regular basis. I still code and design hardware, but it’s the continuous, informal expert input that allows me to incorporate best practices and lessons learned, and minimize the risk of the schedule delays and budget over-runs that typically kill projects.
In my post next week, I’ll write about what I see as the “corollary” to the emotional intelligence problem with engineers: what happens when engineers — including myself at the start of my career — undervalue outside feedback and ignore lessons learned. It’s a problem of “asymmetric information” that leads to costly efforts to re-invent the wheel. Stay tuned.
Special thanks to Mark Kasrel for teaching me about Emotional Intelligence and its importance.
Photo credit: iStockPhoto