5 Ways to Improve Engineering Communications

How many engineers does it take to communicate a concept or idea to a team effectively? The answer is six; five to develop a collaborative communication system, and one to explain it. As an engineer, I've heard my share of engineering jokes over the years. I know the story: we're poor communicators who chose engineering so we don't have to communicate.

By Michelle LaBrosse September 1, 2005
  • Engineering communications

  • Ensure flexibility

  • Pass along information

  • Create positive settings

How many engineers does it take to communicate a concept or idea to a team effectively? The answer is six; five to develop a collaborative communication system, and one to explain it.

As an engineer, I’ve heard my share of engineering jokes over the years. I know the story: we’re poor communicators who chose engineering so we don’t have to communicate. While there is often a grain of truth in any joke, what I’ve experienced as an entrepreneur and business leader in the field of project management is that communication is essential to the success of any project.

Communication is not a soft skill reserved for human-resource folks and marketing types. Instead, it is the skill of connection and understanding. It is what often makes the difference between a project’s success or failure.

Five communication tips can guide you and help lead your next project to success.

Create ‘living’ project agreements.

Let’s face it, things happen. Customers change their minds about what they thought they wanted, market forces change, new threats and opportunities arise, and new priorities surface. All of these changes can make the original goal of a project obsolete.

When creating a project agreement, make it a living document written knowing there will be changes. Make it a document that everyone understands and feels a part of. When you write a project agreement and simply file it, it doesn’t breathe and set the stage for further communication and discussion throughout the project.

When a project is directed by agreement, project changes often mean a re-launch of the project. It’s better to spend half a day re-launching based on the new project agreement than to create a final deliverable that no one wants, or to attempt to complete a project with inadequate resources and lack of support from the project sponsor.

When you’re developing a new project plan from the new project agreement, you may also be able to use interim deliverables you’ve already created for the new project, ultimately shortening project cycle time.

Improve team dynamics.

We’re humans. It’s true that we don’t always get along. The bad news is that an inability to work together towards a common goal can mean failure. The good news is that you can find the root of the cause and change behavior.

Look for these gnarly roots: lack of commitment, lack of interaction, and lack of interest in constructively resolving conflict. Many projects also lose and gain people during the execution of the project. When this happens, it is important that the team spend a half hour together developing their new team guidelines and meeting protocols. With any new people joining the team, it becomes a new team. Re-developing guidelines and protocols is done for the same reason it is done initially—to facilitate working relationships, to create a way to positively interact, and to prevent destructive conflict. Don’t let ‘new’ deter you. Instead, let new people bring ideas and energy to the project.

Create institutional memory.

How smart is your company? Industry standard project management practices require a critical project closeout phase that collects lessons learned and gives your organization powerful historical knowledge from across the enterprise. Think of it as giving every project a chance to take center stage and be a stand-up for the day. A company that can learn and grow, rather than continually repeat mistakes, will move faster. As an employee, it’s frustrating to recreate the wheel. It’s empowering when you see your work building upon that of others and vice versa.

Create contagious commitment.

People need to see, hear, smell, and taste success; even small victories have a big impact. It’s important to communicate and show success with early adopters, so people will understand what you’re doing and how they can be a part of the ongoing success.

Create a safe ‘blue sky’ environment.

For people to communicate openly, they have to be in an environment that’s safe and allows for some blue-sky and off-beat thinking. If you foster an environment that shoots down ideas, then people will stop sharing ideas, and instead just take the path with least resistance. This is what we call mediocrity.

The next time you conjure up a stereotype of yourself as a non-communicator, think about communication as a business lubricant—one that makes systemic detours bearable and understandable to team members. Think of communication as a tool that clarifies, illuminates, and unifies, and ultimately brings you closer to the goal that is just ahead.

More about the author
Michelle LaBrosse, PMP, founder and chief executive officer of Cheetah Learning also is author of “Cheetah Negotiations” and “Cheetah Project Management.” LaBrosse has been designing and teaching accelerated learning programs for business since the early 1990s and traditional courses since the 1980s. She holds a B.S. in aerospace engineering and an M.S. in mechanical engineering and has done postgraduate work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Educational Studies and the University of Washington Industrial Engineering Program in accelerating adult learning in corporate environments. Her research focused on using the Internet to accelerate adult learning and in determining effective adult learning strategies using accelerated learning with improvisational comedy.

In 1995 she prototyped the concept of accelerating learning using “virtual classrooms” and created online courses in business development. In the late 1990s, LaBrosse created and extensively tested a one-day approach to teaching project management while a corporate research scientist in learning techniques and technologies for a large multinational corporation. LaBrosse has 15 years practical experience in project management on small- to medium-sized projects.

Based on her accelerated learning and project management experiences, LaBrosse created a very fast way for launching projects called Cheetah Project Management. She is the leader of the course development team at Cheetah and sets the strategic direction for the company.

Author Information
Michelle LaBrosse is CEO, Cheetah Learning,