Rules for Engineers #9 — Never Present A Problem Without Presenting At Least One Possible Solution

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One of my most important goals with my writing is to provide advice to all Engineers. One of the ways that I have decided to do this is to maintain a list of Rules for Engineers however, the plain rules list on that page simply states the text of the rule, not the context behind it. I would like to take the time to explain each rule and why it is important for success to give people the context behind it and how they might be able to use it in their daily lives.

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So to start, I decided to pick one at random. I would like to take a tiny aside here and let you know about an awesome function, let’s call it an easter egg, in good search. If you need a quick random number you can get one through search by rolling dice. For those familiar with DnD, dice are referred to as “d20”, “d10”, “d8”, etc, with the first meaning a 20-sided die. If you simply search for “d10 roll” then google will roll that die and give you a random result. So I tolled a d10 and got 9 and therefore the first Rule for Engineers to discuss is:

Never present a problem without presenting at least one possible solution.

Let’s start with a simple fact. In any Engineering role you will experience problems and challenges. Period. This is a certainty. It isn’t one of those axioms that happens to most people save for a lucky few; every engineer will experience issues one way or another. The people you work with will hit roadblocks and the people you work for will hit roadblocks and if you are ever in a management role the people who work for you will hit roadblocks. With that out of the way one of the most basic responsibilities for an Engineer is to find ways around these roadblocks. We do this all the time every day and for the most part, it is easy. Finding solutions to problems is one of the main reasons that people become Engineers. We all want to scratch that itch, and the more solutions we find the more dopamine that will flood our systems and create that wonderful feeling when you finally solve a problem and have a solid solution in front of you. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your viewpoint), the short-lived feeling of success is soon gone and there will always be another problem to solve.

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This all sounds great, right? Well not everything is hunky-dory in Engineer land. There will come a time when something pops up that there isn’t an obvious solution for. This could be something on another project. This could be a brick wall instead of a simple roadblock. This could be something that you just don’t want to deal with or something that you see as beneath you. Whatever the reason — this issue is something that instead of you being able to handle and find a solution for, instead it gets tossed over the wall for someone else to deal with. Stop. Right. Here.

If you are ever fortunate enough to even be a parent you will quickly find that small humans embody this methodology. Ask first, look later. Everything is a problem that someone else needs to solve. Where is my favorite shirt? I am hungry, why isn’t there food in front of me. I need toilet paper because forgot to look before sitting down. Hey I am 2 feet away from the silverware drawer but can you stop what you are doing and get me a fork? As a parent you quickly learn to look in the obvious locations for an article of clothing or a video game controller. For some reason humans do not develop an ability to think before speaking until later in life. C’est la vie. However — most of us grow out of this stage as we transition to adults. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to revert back to this kind of behavior when we meet a challenge that we don’t feel is in our direct scope to address.

That is where the Rule comes into play. As issues will always come up they need to be handed off with appropriate communication. Remember, issues will occur. Therefore, if we are all going to work together as the best cohesive and functioning team that we can be then I need to give you as much information as I can in order to give you the best chance at resolution of the issue. What I can’t do is to just throw this over the fence and walk away. I don’t know if you have ever been on the receiving end of this type of interaction. It just plain sucks. Hey, you, here is this issue that I found. Go fix it while I walk away and go have another cup of coffee. Ack, yuck, no, stop!

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This idea of throwing an issue over the wall is so known that there are entire popular subreddits devoted to it. You had one job! and Not my Job are both good examples of people shirking responsibility and only following the letter of the law. Yes, they are also potentially prime examples of people not paying attention to the details, not having common sense, or just plain not caring about their jobs — but I have never associated any of those things with Engineers. Maybe it is personal sense or driven by pride. Maybe it is a generational experience reason. I have just never looked at any job as something to phone in and as something to comply strictly against the role. Some of these could even be considered to be malicious compliance against the stated objective. You want me to paint the lane marker? I am on it boss! Oh wait — you didn’t explicitly state to make it straight line…

Before we dive into how to not be “that guy” I would like to take a minute and consider the ramifications when people don’t follow this rule. As a manager and leader, I refuse to pass the buck and work to come up with solutions or ideas for solutions against problems that I don’t own all the time. When people come by my office and toss in problems without any suggestion of ideas to address them it adds a lot to my plate because I want to work at a place where people take on the responsibility for making the organization better. I choose to lead from the front and to set an example for others to follow here. That is the type of organization that I want to be a part of. This can cause a great deal of frustration when someone cracks my office door, lobs in a problem grenade and then shuts the door and runs away while I deal with the outcome of that problem. The reason I am calling this out is that while we think a lot about what I can do as an Engineer to be better, we don’t always stop to consider the downstream effects of our actions. Sure, I did a great job in catching and identifying a problem! Give me a pat on the back. I even reported it to the person or people that should handle it! Awesome! Great! Now where are my brownie points?? However, by simply handing it off as-is I am not really helping here — I am just adding to someone else’s workload in a negative way. I am creating work out of nothing without contributing anything to that effort. I am not helping my team here. At the minimum while we need to address the issue, I can at least try to easy that burden in any way that I can.

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So how do I as an Engineer be the best I can be and not just play hot potato and throw it over the wall and walk away? It is pretty simple, assume responsibility and provide effective communication. I am going to propose that it is not just a good practice — it is your responsibility as an Engineer to try and come up with some possible solutions for this issue as you hand it off! Treat your co-workers like a customer and provide the best possible customer service. Provide them with some ideas and assistance to try and ease the burden that you are handing off. Think about what value you can add to turn a negative hot potato into a positive and successful resolution.

It may be easiest to think about this in terms of a bug report. Don’t think about what you would report — think about what you would want to receive in a bug report. You don’t need to be a developer or Engineer to participate here. Imagine that there is a bug or issue with something that you created. It could be software, it could be that you are a car mechanic, it could be something that you cooked for dinner. If someone just says that there is an issue and drops their car off or returns the cooked dish — where do you start in trying to address things? Instead — spend some time trying to understand what the issue is. “The right front has a grinding noise that gets louder when I turn right, but not when I turn left. It also only makes noise when I am in drive, but not reverse. Could we take a look at the front right assembly or the steering mechanism” is much, much better than “it is making a noise, fix it.”

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We could even apply the golden rule here: give others the issue report with potential solutions that you would want to receive so that you can address the issue in the most effective and efficient manner possible. If you can do this when you are reporting a problem then you will be fulfilling Rule #9 — Never present a problem without presenting at least one possible solution. We might not be able to solve it ourselves — but we can always be part of the solution. By helping others when you find a problem you are definitely being the best teammate that you can be!

Written by

Engineer. Manager. Husband. Father. Wanna-be Writer. Editor-In-Chief & Grand Poobah of www.kevinwanke.com

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