The Unwritten Laws of Engineering

The Unwritten Laws of Engineering

The Unwritten Laws of Engineering

Part 1 of 3:WHAT THE BEGINNER NEEDS TO LEARN AT ONCEBy W. J. King and James G. Skakoon

TIMELESS ADVICE FOR ENGINEERSThe Unwritten Laws of Engineering by W. J. King was first published in 1944 as three articles in Mechanical Engineering magazine. It has been in print as a book ever since, becoming a classic of engineering literature. Recent editions, including a trade version, The Unwritten Laws of Business, have revisions and additions by James G. Skakoon. Mechanical Engineering magazine is excerpting laws from the book, presented in three articles just as in 1944, with comments from contemporary authorities.For the first in the series, we start with “What the Beginner Needs to Learn at Once.” Future installments will be “Relating Chiefly to Engineering Managers” and “Professional and Personal Considerations.”

The originating author of The Unwritten Laws of Engineering, W. J. King, observed that the chief obstacles to the success of engineers are of a personal and administrative rather than a technical nature. King, a wartime engineer with General Electric and later a UCLA engineering professor, conceded that he and his associates were getting into much more trouble by violating the undocumented laws of professional conduct than by violating the well-documented laws of science. So he laid down some “unwritten” laws into house rules for professional conduct. None of these laws is theoretical or imaginary, and however obvious they appear, their repeated violation is responsible for much of the frustration and embarrassment of engineers everywhere. Many laws were derived by King while directly observing four engineering departments. These have been supplemented, confirmed, and updated by King and others from numerous discussions, observations, and literature; they do not reflect the unique experience or characteristics of any one organization.Many of these laws are generalizations to which exceptions will occur in special circumstances. There is no substitute for judgment and, in an emergency, vigorous initiative is needed to cut through formalities. But notwithstanding the infrequent striking exception, these laws cannot be violated too often with impunity.



However menial and trivial your early assignments may appear, give them your best efforts.

Many young engineers feel that the minor chores of a technical project are beneath their dignity and unworthy of their college training. They expect to prove their worth in some major, vital enterprise. Actually, the spirit and effectiveness with which you tackle your first humble tasks will likely be carefully watched and may affect your entire career.You may worry about where your job is going to get you—whether it is sufficiently strategic or significant—and you will do well to take stock of this from time to time. But by and large, if you perform your present job well, the future will take care of itself. It is also true that if you do not make a good showing on your present job, you are not likely to be given a chance to try something else more to your liking.Karen Kelley counsels beginning engineers even before they finish college in the cooperative education program within Northeastern University’s Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department. “I can tell you, this is certainly a hot topic for both my employers and our co-op coordinators who are helping to shape young engineers’ careers,” Kelley said.According to Kelley, who is a faculty co-op coordinator for one of the nation’s largest engineering co-op programs, employers pay close attention to the enthusiasm, as well as the skill, that beginners bring to an assignment, even if it may seem menial. Furthermore, menial tasks could very well be unnecessary, so why not “challenge the system,” Kelley said. “Develop new methods that might streamline the process and present them to others. Managers love when employees ‘think out of the box’ and save time and money.”Summing up the value of this unwritten law, Kelley said, “One employer told me this should be a ‘law for life,’ not just for early in your career.”


Demonstrate the ability to get things done.

This quality is achieved by various means under different circumstances, but it can probably be reduced to a combination of three basic characteristics:Initiative, which is expressed in energy to start something and aggressiveness to keep it moving.Resourcefulness and ingenuity, or the faculty for finding ways to accomplish the desired result.Persistence or tenacity, which is the disposition to persevere in spite of difficulties, discouragement, or indifference.Persistence is sometimes lacking in engineers to the extent that their effectiveness is greatly reduced. Such dilettantes are known as good starters but poor finishers. Of these it is said, “You can’t take their type too seriously; they will be all steamed up over an idea today, but by tomorrow will have dropped it for some other wild notion.” Finishing a job may be worthwhile, if it has at least some merit, just for the sake of finishing it.It is ironic, or perhaps telling, that despite normally sufficient effort, we were unsuccessful in finding a prolific entrepreneur or inventor who would respond with comments on this law. Everyone is busy these days and returning a call or an e-mail outside of normal responsibilities taxes one’s time. But busy people get things done not only by being busy but also by carefully selecting what they do, and commenting for print wasn’t selected. Likewise for you when demonstrating the ability to get things done, do not overlook the profit in selecting the right things.


Develop a “Let’s go see!” attitude.

Throughout your career people will approach you to solve real-life problems they will have observed on devices or equipment for which you are responsible. A wonderfully effective response is to invite them to have a look with you. That is: “Let’s go see!”This phrase comes from a singularly insightful 1992 book about visual imagery, Engineering and the Mind’s Eye. The author, Eugene Ferguson, was an engineer, university professor, and historian who wrote extensively about the history of technology. In the book, he states: “The engineer and the worker must go together to the site of the difficulty if they expect to see the problem in the same light.” He further explains that remaining at one’s desk to speculate about causes and solutions, or to retreat to drawings, specifications, and reports won’t provide the insight needed to solve a problem. That insight can only be developed by observing first-hand what might at once be too subtle and complex to imagine.Ferguson went to see, even when many of us would shy away. According to author and historian David Hounshell, professor of technology and social change at Carnegie Mellon University, early employment for Ferguson included investigating dynamite accidents for DuPont. “One of his jobs after an explosion was to plot where the body parts landed, and to figure out what caused the explosion.” Hounshell was a student and colleague of Ferguson’s, and is a past president of the Society for the History of Technology, for which Ferguson was a founding member. Of him, Hounshell said, “He was always interested in things and how they operated. Whether they were attractive and worked well, or didn’t work so well, he wanted to see what made them go.”


Don’t be timid—speak up—express yourself and promote your ideas.

Too many new employees seem to think their job is to do what they are told. Of course there are times when it is wise and prudent to keep silent, but as a rule, it pays to express your point of view whenever you can contribute something. The quiet, timorous individual who says nothing is usually credited with having nothing to say.It frequently happens in any sort of undertaking that nobody is sure of just how a matter ought to be handled; it is a question of selecting some kind of program with a reasonable chance of success. The “best” scheme usually cannot be recognized as such in advance, so anyone who talks knowingly and confidently about the project will often be assigned to carry it out. If you do not want the job, say nothing and you’ll be overlooked, but you’ll also be overlooked when it comes time to assign larger responsibilities.Kelley confirms this law to the Northeastern University co-op undergraduates she counsels: “I tell students this is the time to take a chance.” Kelley said that speaking up speaks volumes about a beginner’s interest in the topic or assignment. “Saying nothing makes the manager believe [an intern] is not invested or interested in the work,” she said.Kelley also noted that the opposite is true: “Sometimes my students will tell me their suggestion was pretty small so they almost didn’t say anything.” But she noted that these small ideas can sometimes make a very big impact on a project.


Strive for conciseness and clarity in oral or written reports; be extremely careful of the accuracy of your statements.

If there is one most irksome encumbrance to promoting urgency in the workplace, it is the person who takes a halfhour of rambling discourse to say what could be said in one sentence of twenty words. Engineers often surround the answer to a sim-ple question with so many preliminaries and commentaries that the answer itself can hardly be discerned; they explain the answer before answering the question. To be sure, very few questions endure simple answers without qualifications, but the important thing is first to state the essence of the matter as succinctly as possible. There are times when it is important to add the pertinent background to illuminate a simple statement, but try to convey the maximum information in the minimum time.Many engineers lose the confidence of their superiors and associates by guessing when they do not know the answer to a direct question. A wrong answer is worse than no answer. If you do not know, say so, but also say, “I’ll find out right away.” If you are still not certain, indicate the degree of certainty upon which your answer is based. A reputation for conciseness, clarity, and reliability can be one of your most valuable assets.Good engineering requires good communication, according to Trevor Young, author of Technical Writing A-Z: A Commonsense Guide to Engineering Reports and Theses. “I see myself as an engineer, not a technical writer, and part of being a good engineer is being able to communicate in a way that is accurate, complete, and efficient.”Some recommendations for technical writers from Young’s book, condensed here, include:• Use serious, but normal, conversational language: avoid long convoluted sentences.• Be precise: avoid fuzzy, ambiguous, or inexact statements.• Be concise: get to the point promptly.• Be explicit: avoid figures of speech and euphemisms.• Use formal language: avoid colloquialisms, slang, inappropriate abbreviations, contractions, jargon, and exclamations.• Get the emphasis right: structure ideas in sentences, lists, and paragraphs to convey not just the information, but also the relative importance of the ideas.• Report results honestly and objectively.Young, a senior lecturer in aeronautical engineering at the University of Limerick in Ireland, weighing in on the need for accurate reporting, said: “I see this as the essence of good engineering: to be appropriately accurate in the technical work and in the reporting of that work.”



One of the first things you owe your supervisor is to keep him or her informed of all significant developments.

How much must a manager know? How many of the details? This is always a difficult matter for the new employee to get straight. Many novices hesitate to bother their superiors with everyday minutiae and this can be overdone. But more often than not, the manager’s problem is to extract enough information to keep adequately posted. It is much safer to risk having your supervisor say, “Don’t bother me with so many details,” than to allow your supervisor to ask, “Why doesn’t someone tell me these things?” Your manager must account for, defend, and explain your activities to others, as well as coordinate these activities into a larger plan. Compel yourself to provide all the information that is needed for these purposes.No matter how hard you try nor how good an engineer you become, unexpected evils will occur that you will dread having to inform your supervisor about. Although no manager delights in being surprised by unanticipated problems—even though you are obligated to report them without hesitation—you will improve your predicament immeasurably if you can also recommend solid solutions while presenting the problem. The best you can hope for in this dreaded situation is a solution that can be implemented with the greatest urgency.


Do not overlook the steadfast truth that your direct supervisor is your “boss.”

This sounds simple enough, but some engineers never get it. By all means, you are working for society, the company, the department, your project team, your project leader, your family, and yourself—but primarily you should be working for and through your supervisor, the manager to whom you directly report.You will no doubt encounter conflicts—you are assigned to a project team with a demanding leader, a corporate executive orders a task be done, and so forth. Whenever this happens, discuss it with your supervisor, whose job includes resolving conflicts.You can serve all ends to best advantage by assuming that your supervisor is approximately the right person for that job. It is not uncommon for young engineers, in their impatient zeal or imprudent disrespect, to ignore or to go over or around their superiors. Generally speaking, you cannot get by whoever evaluates your performance, for he or she rates you in part on your ability to cooperate. Besides, most of us get more satisfaction out of our jobs when we’re able to display at least some personal loyalty to our superiors, with the feeling that we’re helping them to get the main job done.


Be as particular as you can in the selection of your supervisor.

For most neophyte engineers, the influence of the senior engineers with whom they work and, even more so, of the engineer to whom they report is a major factor in molding their professional characters. Long before the days of universities and textbooks, master craftsmen absorbed their skills by having been apprenticed to master craftsmen. Likewise, you will do well to use those with more experience, especially a well-selected supervisor, as your master, your mentor. A properly selected mentor will likely have been through gauntlets as severe as your present one, and will guide you better than you can guide yourself.But, of course, you don’t always get your preferred choice in a boss. What if yours turns out to be less than you hoped for? There are only two proper alternatives: (1) accept your boss as the representative of a higher authority and execute his or her policies and directives as effectively as possible, or (2) move to some other department, division, or company at the first opportunity. Consider the mischief created when you, disliking your leader, ignore or modify orders to suit your individual notions, or, worse, purposefully undermine your superior’s authority.While the above two alternatives still apply to today’s workplace, mentoring outside of the traditional chain of command is now endorsed as another way to gain from the experience and knowledge of others.Long-time management consultant, Theodore Ryan, now an adjunct professor in the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, views today’s best mentor/mentee relationships as bi-directional exchanges of knowledge, unlike those of the traditional master and apprentice. When choosing a mentor, Ryan said to choose “someone who has some complementary talents and experience that you don’t have and is willing to share them, but also is willing to learn from you and to engage in an actual dialogue with you.” Ryan explained how, nowadays, novices are often just as likely to impart new knowledge to a mentor as the other way around. “Sometimes it’s obvious. The mentor knows things the mentee doesn’t know, and that’s great,” Ryan said. But he also noted this: “There is much more of a collegial dialogue framework for great mentoring these days than there was earlier. It’s really another source for continuous learning.” So Ryan recommends choosing a mentor who wants that.Ryan, whose experience includes leadership development and organizational consulting for a wide range of U.S. corporations and government agencies, also advises to screen potential mentors for shared human values and ethical principles. Asking questions about these topics might be uncomfortable, but Ryan said, “It’s a nice way to see how open they’ll be. That’s pretty personal. It’s a little bit sensitive. If the mentor welcomes those questions, then that’s quite a sign that this will be an open dialogue.”But Ryan warned not to expect everything from just one mentor. “Don’t ask for something that someone can’t give you,” he said. “There is specialization in everything. One of my premises is that you may have two or three different mentors for different reasons.”


Whenever you are asked by your manager to do something, you are expected to do exactly that.

If your supervisor sends you off to perform a specific task, you have two possible responses: (1) you do it exactly as requested, or (2) you come back and talk it over some more. (Take special note of this law, for it applies to anyone with whom you have agreed on a task to be done or a course of action to be taken.) It is simply unacceptable either not to do it, or to do something different instead. If you become concerned in view of new data or events that the planned action isn’t worth doing as originally assigned, you are obligated to discuss the entire matter again. State your intentions and reasons so that your manager can properly reconsider it.Despite the responsibility to do exactly as instructed or agreed, you will sometimes want to prove your initiative by doing not only that, but also something in addition thereto; perhaps the next logical action has become clear; perhaps a promising alternative has come to light. Doing these within reason will make your drive and inventiveness immediately apparent.The other side of this law is that you needn’t be too eager to embrace agreed-upon instructions. In general, a program laid down by your manager, a department, a project leader, or a design team is a proposal rather than an edict. It is usually intended to serve only as a guideline, one that will have been formulated without benefit of the new information that will be discovered during its execution. The rule therefore is to keep others informed of what you have done, at reasonable intervals, and ask for approval of any wellconsidered and properly planned deviations.



Cultivate the habit of seeking other peoples’ opinions and recommendations.

Particularly as a beginning engineer, you cannot hope to know all you must about your field and your employer’s business. Therefore, you must ask for help from others. This is particularly useful advice during a confrontation of any sort; a good first question to ask is “What do you recommend?” Your confronter will usually have thought about it more than you have, and this will allow you to proceed to a productive discussion and avoid a fight.A warning about soliciting others’ opinions deserves mention. Condescending attitudes toward others and their opinions are gratuitous and unwelcome. If you have no intention of listening to, properly considering, and perhaps using someone’s information or opinion, don’t ask for it. Your colleagues will not take long to recognize such patronizing and to disdain you for it.


Promises, schedules, and estimates are necessary and important instruments in a wellordered business.

Many engineers try to dodge making commitments. You must make promises based upon your best estimates for your part of the job, together with estimates obtained from contributing departments for theirs. No one should be allowed to avoid the issue by saying, “I can’t give a promise because it depends upon so many uncertain factors.” Of course it does. You must account for them, estimating best and worse cases, and then provide neither laughably padded nor unrealistically optimistic schedules. Both extremes are bad; good engineers will set schedules that they can meet by energetic effort at a pace commensurate with the significance of the job.A corollary to this law is that you have a right to insist upon reasonable estimates from other departments. But in accepting promises from other departments, make sure that you are dealing with a properly qualified representative. Bear in mind that if you ignore or discount other engineers’ promises you dismiss their responsibility and incur the extra liability yourself. Ideally, other engineers’ promises should be negotiable instruments in compiling estimates.Dorothy Kangas, a business process improvement specialist for The Nielsen Co., said that despite the many tools and techniques available for managing a project, sound estimating of resources and schedules is fundamentally important: “Getting reliable estimates is key to creating and maintaining a project schedule.”Kangas, who contributed to the Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, has seen both extremes: “Engineers or project team members sometimes provide estimates based on the assumption that every task will be executed on time; that nobody goes on vacation, nobody is sick, and absolutely no other factors interfere with the scheduled activities. I’ve seen others try to pad every one of their tasks. Suddenly what seemed to be a realistic product development project will take twice as long as expected.” But Kangas noted this as well: “A good project manager probably knows which engineers are pessimistic and which are optimistic and tries to work the middle!”One area that is often overlooked in planning projects, according to Kangas, is risk. “If there are uncertain factors, or risks, those should be compiled and managed according to their impact and likelihood of actually occurring,” she said. Furthermore, according to Kangas, project risks and project issues are two different things; risks can be predicted and managed, whereas issues arise unpredictably throughout a project. So risk management activities should be scheduled into a project right from the start, but issues must be squeezed onto the schedule as they appear.


In dealing with customers and outsiders, remember that you represent the company, ostensibly with full responsibility and authority.

You may be only a few months out of college, but most outsiders will regard you as a legal, financial, and technical agent of your company in all transactions, so be careful of your commitments.



The Unwritten Laws of Engineering

Part 2 of 3:



The Unwritten Laws of Engineering by W. J. King was first published in 1944 as three articles in Mechanical Engineering magazine. It has been in print as a book ever since, becoming a classic of engineering literature. Recent editions, including a trade version, The Unwritten Laws of Business, have revisions and additions by James G. Skakoon. Mechanical Engineering magazine is excerpting laws from the book, presented in three articles just as in 1944, with comments from contemporary authorities.

The first installment in the series, “What the Beginner Needs to Learn at Once,” was published in September. Yet to come is “Professional and Personal Considerations.”

Every business era has a preferred management philosophy promoted by a prominent management guru, from Frederick Taylor to Peter Drucker to Tom Peters to Jim Collins. The Unwritten Laws of Engineering has no such backing. Neither is it a complete managerial philosophy. Although prominent business executives have endorsed many of these managerial laws for all managers, not just for engineering, the endurance of the laws is perhaps their strongest endorsement—and they seem to work. W.J. King’s words tell it best:The following is a partial list of basic commandments, readily subscribed to by all managers but practiced only by the really good ones.


{ INDIVIDUAL BEHAVIOR AND TECHNIQUE }Do not try to do it all yourself.

This is one of those elementary propositions that everyone endorses, yet many carelessly violate. It’s bad business: bad for you, bad for the project, and bad for your employees. You must delegate responsibility even if you could cover all of the ground yourself. It isn’t wise to have so much depend upon one person, and it’s unfair to your subordinates. Executives should have their business organized so that they could be away on business or vacation at any time and still have everything move along smoothly. A common justification for hogging the whole job is that subordinates are too young or inexperienced. It is part of your job to develop your subordinates, which includes developing initiative, resourcefulness, and judgment. The best way to do this is to load them up with all the responsibility they can carry without danger of serious embarrassment to any person or group. Selfrespecting engineers resent being babied to where they cannot act on a most trivial detail without approval from their manager.On the other hand, it must be granted that details are not always trivial, and that it may sometimes require a meeting of an executive committee to change the length of a screw in a critically important mass-produced assembly. It is a matter of making sure not only that technical items are handled by engineers of appropriate competence and experience, but also that all considerations have been made.Dorothy Kangas, a business process improvement specialist for The Nielsen Co., has seen first-hand the harm from a controlling manager. The manager “demanded that all communication go through him, and every document needed to have his signature,” Kangas said. “After a period of time, it was clear he couldn’t keep up with the pace of the project.” He didn’t trust his own team, according to Kangas, and they, in turn, quickly lost confidence in him and became resentful. The project fell behind in large part because of this controlling management style. Kangas also said that managers need to use all available resources to plan and execute a project, whether they are in one’s own department, elsewhere in the company, or even outside the company. And using resources appropriately also counts, Kangas said: “As a manager, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of each team member as it relates to the project’s activities will alleviate much of the angst and stress when deadlines draw near.”


Every manager must know what goes on in his or her domain.

There is a similar law for beginners: One of the first things you owe your supervisor is to keep him or her informed of all significant developments. Be aware, however, that you cannot always depend on others—not subordinates, colleagues, nor your own manager—to keep you informed; you are responsible to keep yourself informed.This applies primarily to major or significant developments and does not mean that you should attempt to keep up with every minor detail of activities assigned to subordinates. It becomes a vice when carried to the extent of impeding operations. Nevertheless, the more information managers have, the more effectively they can manage their business.Every manager has his or her own methods that work. “Some will create highly structured, detailed reporting requirements, and some may manage by walking around with a clipboard and a pen,” Kangas said.


Cultivate the habit of “boiling matters down” to their simplest terms.

The faculty for reducing apparently complicated situations to their basic, essential elements is a form of wisdom that must usually be derived from experience. But there seems to be marked differences between otherwise comparable individuals in this respect. Some people seem eternally disposed to “muddy the water,” or can “never see the forest for the trees.” Perhaps one cannot correct this innate tendency simply by taking thought, but it appears to be largely a habit—a habit of withdrawing mentally to a suitable vantage point to survey a mass of facts in their proper perspective, or a habit of becoming immersed and lost in a sea of detail. Make it a practice to integrate, condense, summarize, and simplify your facts rather than to expand, ramify, complicate, and disintegrate them.Many meetings, for example, get nowhere after protracted wrangling until somebody finally says, “Well, it all boils down simply to this...,” or “Can’t we agree, however, that the basic point at issue is just this...,” or, “After all, the essential fact remains that....”The mental discipline to instinctively impel one to the heart of the matter is one of the most valuable qualities of a good executive.


Cultivate the habit of making brisk, cleancut decisions.

This is, of course, a difficult and important part of a manager’s job. Some have a terrific struggle deciding even minor issues, mainly because they never get over being afraid of making mistakes. Normally, facility comes with practice, but it can be hastened by observing a few simple principles:(1) Decisions will be easier and more frequently correct if you have the essential facts at hand. However, almost any manager can make decisions knowing all of the facts, whereas a good manager will make the same decisions without all the facts. So you might ask yourself: “Am I likely to lose more by giving a snap judgment or by waiting for more information?”(2) You do not have to be right every time; nobody is.(3) The very fact that a decision is difficult usually means that the advantages and drawbacks of the alternatives are pretty well balanced. It is likely better, in that case, to decide the matter now than to arrive at the best decision later. So take a position and see it through.(4) It is futile to try to keep everybody happy. Give everyone a fair hearing, but after all have had their say, dispose of the matter decisively even if someone’s toes are stepped on. Otherwise, everyone will be dissatisfied, and many may accuse you of straddling the issues.The following questions are helpful in choosing a course of action when the factors are indecisive:• Does it expedite and forward the undertaking, or does it only produce procrastination and delay?• Is it fair and square and aboveboard?• Is it in line with established custom, precedence, or policy? A good reason is generally required for a departure.• Is it in line with a previous decision or understanding? Even a good reason for a change might not offset the unfortunate impression of instability.• Can we accept the risk? How does the penalty compare with the gain for each of the choices?• Are there suitable future alternatives or corrective actions if a decision turns out to be misguided?Gary Klein, an author and a senior scientist at MacroCognition LLC, has observed indecision in leaders and managers. “They are afraid of making decisions, and so they hope that the situation will magically become clear,” Klein said. “And sometimes that happens, which rewards their procrastination. More often, it doesn’t happen, and they have missed windows of opportunity while chewing up time and energy.” Klein is an experimental psychologist who has written extensively on human cognition, intuition, and decision making, including his latest book, Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making. According to Klein, excessive rumination often signifies a leader’s fear of making a mistake. But this fear drains decision makers, as well as their colleagues and subordinates, and prevents them all from working on other high priority issues.On the opposite side, never mistake the true meaning of, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.” Decisions that result in catastrophic consequences such as huge financial losses or personal injury will not be overlooked, and may be criminal. Those who coerce you into making decisions, despite whatever aphorisms they employ, will not accept a catastrophic result. Make clear-cut, swift decisions, but only if a mistake won’t create wreckage for you and your organization.



Learn project management skills and techniques, then apply them to the activities that you manage.

Your organization probably has, or certainly should have, standard procedures for its major engineering efforts such as developing new products or processes. You will also need to apply techniques commonly used for managing projects. Some of these include resource planning, calendar scheduling, and progress tracking. Simply stated, to manage projects properly you must plan your work, then work your plan.The following formula for carrying out any engineering project seems to be more or less standard in the best engineering circles:• Define your objectives.• Plan the job by outlining the steps to be accomplished.• Define the required resources, including people, money, and facilities.• Prepare a definite schedule.• Follow up; check on the progress of the work.• Revise your schedule as required.• Watch for bottlenecks, logjams, and missing links; hit lagging items hard by applying additional time, money, and people.• Drive to a finish on time.Engineers can be disinclined toward project management, as Kangas confirms. “Many engineers look at the PM function as an ‘administrative’ function,” Kangas said. “And for the most part, indeed, it is.” But Kangas cited the example of a symphony orchestra: “Without a conductor, they may be hard pressed to start together, end at the same time, and create the flow of music that one would expect from world-class musicians.” A conductor isn’t an expert musician on every instrument, if any, just as a project manager isn’t an expert in every engineering discipline. But conductors—and project managers—still coordinate everyone’s playing.Kangas also warns of a common pitfall in project management: scope. “Sometimes knowing the scope…clearly what is included and excluded, can be highly important,” Kangas said. She added that one of the processes covered by the Project Management Institute in its publication, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, to which she contributed, is scope management. “What I find most disturbing is when PMs use the excuse that ‘the scope changed.’ ” Generally, Kangas said, an inaccurate scope results more from poor estimating, poor resource planning, or poor product definition at the start of a project than from any uncontrollable influence from outside the project team.



Make sure that everyone, managers and subordinates, has been assigned definite positions and responsibilities within the organization.

It is extremely detrimental to morale and efficiency when employees do not know what their jobs are or what they are responsible for. If positions are unclear, interminable bickering, confusion, and bad feelings are a likely result. Do not keep tentative organizational changes hanging over people; effect them as soon as they become reasonably clear. Changing them later is better than leaving people in poorly or erroneously defined positions.“Make sure each employee has a job description, and that it’s accurate and up to date,” recommends Sharon Armstrong, a human resources consultant and trainer who has written several books for HR professionals, including The Essential HR Handbook: A Quick and Handy Resource for Any Manager or HR Professional.


Make sure that all activities and all individuals are supervised by someone competent in the subject matter involved.

In an engineering organization, at least ideally, every novice engineer working in a technological area will be supervised by a veteran seasoned in the same area. Neophytes can get themselves, their departments, their employers, and their supervisors into embarrassingly difficult spots if left on their own.As a manager, you should offer your subordinates complete competence when overseeing their technical activities. If you are uncomfortable with or incapable of this responsibility, you’d better do something about it. A particularly good method to use, outside of directly learning what you need to know, is to complement yourself with other experienced people under your supervision, people who can properly judge what you cannot.Although having an accomplished veteran directly supervising every novice might be desirable, it isn’t always possible. “In the real world, not all departments are set up like that,” Armstrong said. So, according to Armstrong, there are other ways to accomplish the necessary supervision of beginners. “Sometimes that is a supervisor, sometimes someone in another department…but the basic premise still remains that there should be someone that any worker can go to for guidance, for input, for direction.” One possibility is a matrix organizational structure, which, according to Armstrong, is alive and well. “Two or more intersecting lines of authority can run through the same individual. Matrix management considerably leverages knowledge and skills, opening opportunities for employees to branch out from their usual offices and disciplines.”



Never misrepresent a subordinate’s performance during performance appraisals.

The most serious responsibility of managers is to review the performance of their subordinates. As a manager, you have the distinct obligation to do this as accurately as possible. Not only would misrepresentation be unfair to your subordinates, but it also would not be the least bit helpful to anyone involved.Along the same line, it is your inalienable responsibility to talk things over with employees if—and as soon as—you become sincerely dissatisfied with their work, or you recognize deficiencies that are working against them. This won’t be easy, and it requires much tact to avoid discouraging or offending an employee. But if you ultimately must fire a subordinate, you may have two pointed questions to answer: “Why has it taken you five years to discover my incompetence?” and “Why haven’t you given me a fair chance to correct these shortcomings?” Remember that when you fire someone for incompetence, it means not only that the employee has failed, but also that you have failed.Armstrong, whose latest book is titled The Essential Performance Review Handbook, warns about misrepresenting an employee’s performance: “It can be very bad. There are legal issues around that.” According to Armstrong, a manager needs to be honest with the employee to avoid creating the case for an employee of not having been helped—as he or she should have been—before being let go, if it comes to that. “There should never be surprises,” Armstrong said.Armstrong confirmed that this unwritten law is good advice, but emphasized the caveat about ongoing communication. According to Armstrong, managers must give coaching and counseling throughout the performance review cycle, not just during the performance review itself. “You should give positive reinforcement when you see employees doing the right thing and gently redirect them when that is appropriate,” she said. “It’s the manager’s duty to help each employee be successful and to grow professionally.”


Make it unquestionably clear what is expected of employees.

Number one on the list of required communication between supervisor and subordinate is the explicit understanding of expectations on the job. All too often, managers avoid direct discussions and rely on implicit instructions, generalized goals, or corporate policies. It is not enough for you simply to hope for certain behavior or performance from your subordinates; more often than not you will be disappointed. Successful managers clearly set down goals and expectations with their subordinates, then follow up with monitoring and support.Armstrong said that expectations and goals go together, but that “goals ratchet it up a bit, so it’s kind of expectations on steroids. It’s really having a clear idea at the start of any cycle exactly what you want the employee to do, and how you’re both going to know at the end that it’s been done.” Armstrong is a fan of “SMART” goals, those that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based, especially when these goals are defined with an employee’s input. “If managers can get accustomed to helping their employees write SMART goals—and they should come from both sides of the desk—then there will be ownership on the part of the employee,” Armstrong said. “It will be realistic for the employee if they’re part of the writing of it as well, rather than having it trickle down to them, and then not feeling connected to it.”


You owe it to your subordinates to keep them properly informed.

In the catalog of raw deals, next to responsibility without authority, comes responsibility without information. It is unfair to ask engineers to acquit themselves creditably when they are held responsible for a project without having adequate knowledge of its history, present status, or future plans. An excellent practice is to hold occasional meetings to acquaint employees with major policies and developments in the business of the department and the company.An important part of the job of developing engineers is to furnish them with ample background knowledge and, as a rule, this involves a certain amount of travel. You will find it worthwhile to take or send a young engineer on a trip for what he or she can get out of the experience, regardless of how little he or she contributes directly. Likewise, when outsiders visit, it is good business, as well as good manners, to invite junior engineers to participate, even if their direct contribution is small.


Never miss a chance to commend or reward subordinates for a job well done.

Remember that your job is not just to criticize your people and intimidate them into getting their work done. A firstrate manager is a leader as well as a critic. The better part of your job is, therefore, to help, advise, encourage, and stimulate your subordinates. Along the same line, never miss a chance to build up the prestige of your subordinates in the eyes of others.On the other hand, this is not to suggest perpetual lenience. By all means get tough when the occasion justifies it. An occasional sharp censure, when it is well deserved, will usually help to keep employees on their toes. But if that’s all they get, they are apt to go a bit sour on the job.Theodore Ryan, a Ph.D. psychologist who provided advice on selecting a mentor for the first Unwritten Laws excerpt, warned not to overlook your top performers when commending, advising, and encouraging subordinates, as managers too often do. “It’s the sub-performers and marginal performers who get most of the feedback. Often, the best performers get rewarded by not getting as much positive feedback and as much developmental feedback,” Ryan said. Ryan believes that putting extra time into the best performers can be among the most successful tools for recruiting, motivating, and retaining employees.Ryan encourages expanding the ideas of commendation, reward, and critique into a team framework. According to Ryan, it should become part of a company’s “best practices” for team projects. So at a project’s start, critical points, and end, the team should ask, “How did it go? What went really well? What didn’t? How can we approach this differently?” Ryan said that the ideal is “when all of us expect that we [commend, reward, and critique each other], so we all, individually and collectively, can get better. That really helps a team.”


Always accept full responsibility for your group and the individuals in it.

Never pass the buck, or blame any of your employees, even when they may have let you down badly. You are supposed to have full control, and you are credited with the success as well as the failure of your group.