The Engineering Question

I admit it: I’m a geek. And that’s Mister Geek to you, thank you very much. But that’s just another way of saying I’m a technologist, which means at heart I’m an engineer. What do engineers do? They solve problems. (That statement may start an argument, and I’m OK with that. It’s my definition of Engineer that I’m talking about here; YMMV).

People who work with me will often hear me asking: “What problem are you trying to solve?“. If they work in my company’s regulatory, project or program management teams, hearing those words usually results in a headache and mutterings along the lines of “Oh, no! Ken’s challenging things again!”. But I find it to be a very useful tool. It shifts the focus away from how we’re doing things and puts the spotlight firmly on why. It’s a great way of establishing clarity. 

I use The Engineering Question (perhaps I should trademark it? :)) when customers are asking for something. Typically, the customer has already formed an idea about how to solve the problem, so he asks for that. In doing so, he may have missed a better solution. Asking The Engineering Question – clearly phrased as “What problem are you trying to solve?” – will lead to a much more valuable discourse, and may well lead to a much more appropriate implementation. It’s a valuable weapon in the hands of Requirements Engineers, Business Analysts, Software Engineers, Quality Engineers, and so on. It’s also handy for Development Managers when they’re challenging a process :).

If you find you don’t have a clear and immediate answer to The Engineering Question™, you’re probably wasting time and getting in the way.

It can be useful way outside of the software development world too. Recently part of my garden fence blew down during a really windy week. I immediately started looking up fencing contractors and also researching how to replace the panels myself… getting deep into solving the problem without having first asked myself what problem I was trying to solve. “The fence needs repairing” doesn’t really answer The Engineering Question™. “There is a lack of privacy and security in my garden” is much better. So how do we solve that problem? Repairing the fence is certainly an option. But so is tearing down the rest of the fence and building a brick wall. Asking The Engineering Question™ can help open up options. It’s also very useful when metrics-driven maniacs are trying to measure everything to death, forcing them to focus on what’s actually important instead of trying to put a number/value/percentage/traffic-light on everything including the cat.

I invite you to try The Engineering Question™ over the next few weeks, and give me some feedback on how it worked for you.

The postings on this site don’t necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer, professional organisations, political party, family, car manufacturer or anybody at all, really. I don’t know where they come from. It scares me sometimes.

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I'm a grumpy old fart. I know a lot about leadership, culture & agility, something about wellbeing, and a little about woodworking.

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