Friday, March 4, 2011

Overlooking the Client's Real Problem?

Are engineers good problem solvers? That's a question I often ask when speaking to groups of engineers. Some inevitably fall into my trap.

"Of course, engineers are good problem solvers; that's a core competency for engineers," is a typical response. But then someone usually provides the right answer: "Engineers are good problem solvers if it's an engineering problem."

I want to be careful to avoid stereotypes, but my 38 years in this business offer ample proof that many engineers and other technical professionals are not always the best problem solvers. They may knock it out of the park when dealing with complex technical challenges only to whiff completely on relatively simple nontechnical matters.

Unfortunately, the client's biggest concerns are often nontechnical matters. Yet they may disguise themselves as A/E projects. There's a technical component, of course, but the real problem may have little to do with engineering, architecture, or science. Fail to look beyond the technical issues and you can easily fail to deliver a successful project from the client's perspective.

Years ago, the engineering firm I was working with submitted a proposal for a federally-funded flood control project in eastern Colorado. Our firm was one of two finalists for the job. The client was a small, rural town surrounded by farms and ranches. Our project team went into the shortlist interview prepared to discuss an engineering project and completely missed the point.

The successful team? They focused on the issues that mattered most to the client: How they were going to avoid interrupting the flow of irrigation water during construction. How they would maintain access to farmers' fields. How they would minimize the impact of construction on downtown businesses and traffic flow.

Losing the job is one thing, but what if we would have won? We had very capable engineers, but they weren't always attuned to the nontechnical problems that concerned our clients most. Would our firm have delivered good value from the client's perspective? I doubt it.

I could tell many other similar stories. The disconnect between what matters most to clients and what A/E firms focus on is a common problem. If we only meet technical needs, there's a good chance that we're overlooking problems that motivated the project to begin with. The best A/E firms know how to connect their technical solutions to meeting strategic and personal needs as well.

Common Problem Definition Problems

Delivering superior solutions starts with properly diagnosing the problems. Following are some common shortcomings that I've observed in this regard:

Not adequately engaging the client. The real problems we're addressing don't exist independent of the client. We need to understand their concerns, perceptions, priorities, and--yes--even their feelings. A satisfied client is not an objective standard; it requires exploring the realm of subjectivity. Even technical issues will be viewed differently by different people.

Failing to construct the big picture before analyzing the details. Engineers tend to be analytical thinkers, which is a great asset in breaking down technical problems. But it can be a shortcoming on complex A/E projects where there is a web of interconnected issues that define the problems we're trying to solve. It's helpful to involve people who are good at "synthesis," seeing this larger picture. They don't necessarily have to be strong technically to add value to your problem definition process.

Focusing almost exclusively on technical issues. This is the comfort zone of the average technical professional. But the problems clients expect us to solve aren't always confined to the limits of our expertise. It's critical that we be able to link our technical solutions to addressing human needs, which always extend beyond narrow technical disciplines.

Neglecting an integrated, multidisciplinary approach. Even within the realm of technical expertise, we can suffer shortsightedness by not drawing on multiple perspectives and experiences. The best project teams excel at collaborative problem solving. A good start is to avoid the usual linear project process (planning to design to construction, for example) and engage experts across disciplines in all phases of the project (e.g., involving construction experts in the planning stage).

Favoring a specific solution, biasing your problem definition. Whenever we have a really successful project, what's our natural inclination? To do it again. So we can become the proverbial hammer in search of a nail, trying to force-fit a solution to a problem that would be better addressed in another manner. This happens more often than we'd like to think.

Not addressing the needs of other crucial stakeholders. Most of our projects involve other parties besides the owner who have a stake in determining the ultimate success. It's important to engage them too in problem definition and selection of the best solution. Sometimes this can require that you convince your client of the value of proactively involving other key stakeholders. For example, regulators inevitably are in control, so why not talk to them early to understand their needs?

Identifying and solving problems is such a natural part of what we do in our business that I wonder if we take the process for granted. We assume that we're good at it, when the truth may be a little humbling. Let me encourage you to spend some time evaluating your firm's real problem solving abilities. Are you guilty of any of the above shortcomings? Your problem solving skill may depend on properly diagnosing your own problems first.

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