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Why Engineers Resist Change & 4 Ways To Change Their Minds

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Engineers do not like trying new things.  This is a fact of life in any high-tech industry.  Whether it is a new tool, new software, new design flow, new co-worker, or just a new place to eat lunch, engineers generally resist.  Engineers thrive on the routine.  However, change is a regular and necessary occurrence in the corporate world.

While mostly driven by management to maximize profit margins, change can be very uncomfortable and even unproductive for those working in the technical trenches.  Although it may seem stubborn and counter-productive to try new software and tools, engineers have their reasons.

Now, if we all resisted change all the time, we as designers of course would not be able to improve and advance technology.  Change is, without question, inevitably necessary to evolve our products.  Below I discuss the four main reasons engineers resist change and what you must know to change their minds.

1) We’ve Already Figured It Out

Engineers go through rigorous scientific process when making decisions.  They rely on experiment, trial, hard data, user experience, cost analysis, potential and future benefit, and product efficiency to evaluate new tools, products, and design flows.  As one can imagine, this often takes a hefty chunk of time.  In economic terms, this is considered a “fixed cost”, not a “recurring cost”.

Engineers put in the time and effort now, and plan on using the eventual choice for many recurring projects.  It is a significant investment for both the engineer and the company to evaluate and make these difficult choices.  Why then, would an engineer want to repeat this process?  The choice has been made through a rigorous process.  Going through this again is not only second-guessing the original choice, but costing both the engineer and the company valuable resources.

The motivation for change must be painfully obvious and very compelling.

2) The Dreaded  Re-Work

Undoubtedly the worst time for change is mid-project.  When the new tool, product, software, and/or method is sprung upon the engineer mid-project, it inherently brings with it the need to re-design, re-verify, or re-build that which has already been done.  Not surprisingly, this is maddeningly frustrating for the one in the trenches doing the work.  Admittedly, the change often brings with it improved performance and verification, which is certainly a value-add to the project design cycle.  But, the time and effort required by the engineer to do the re-work often outweighs this added benefit.  As noted in #1, it’s assumed that the previous method was painstakingly proven already, certainly with excellent data to back it up.

The design re-work necessitated by a change must be PROVEN worthwhile to the engineer.

3) Laziness Is The Essence Of Efficiency

Back in college, my roommate and I had a plan.  It was to set up the ultimate comfort zone to enjoy all of our favorite activities: namely, watching sports, playing video games, and eating copious amounts of unhealthy food.  The goal was to enjoy our past times as much as humanly possible, all the while exhausting minimal amounts of effort.

Remote controls were within arm’s reach, mini-fridges were moved to face the couch, furniture was re-arranged for optimal viewing of TV’s and monitors, the door was propped open and unlocked so visitors provided no interruption, and of course cell phones were sitting right next to us for any pressing delivery needs.

Seems simple, but it was well-conceived.  All fun at our fingertips, no energy wasted.  It was the ultimate cost function.  This was not laziness, this was efficiency at its finest hour.

Now, what if someone walked into the room and said, “Your TV needs to be replaced with this low-cost, but less mobile wall-mounted set. The only place to put this is on the wall behind you.”  Or, “The bowl you are using for your chips has to go.  Your more eco-friendly, but much smaller receptacle is down the hall on the right.”  AHHH!!!

Engineers struggle with changes like this every day.  They meticulously plan their method, choose their products, design their parts, etc. to maximize efficiency.  Lower costs, smaller size, and better performance are always the goals.  Change invariably throws a monkey wrench directly into this plan.  Even the smallest of modifications to the existing flow can cause ripple effects throughout the entire process.  The nice, efficient design flow is thrown way off course, and time is thus wasted.

It’s imperative that exhaustive research and design be done early in a project to avoid the need to reverse poor decisions later on.

4) Human Sources Of Error

The absolute, #1 reason why engineers resist change is the induced source of error it creates.  Data, efficiency, routine, repeatability, design flow, common toolset… they all lend a helping hand to reducing human error.  If you regularly adjust your routine, your tools, or your people, you are messing with the accuracy of your design.

It’s much easier to validate a design using time-tested, product-proven toolsets.  Any time a change is forced upon this process, the internal engineer-worry-meter spikes.  If the designer is worrying more, that means he or she will be taking more time and use more company resources to ensure the product will work in the end.  Until that first prototype comes back, there will be legitimate concern about how well it functions and performs.

Design standards and methods must be meticulous and current.  Modifications to these facilitate innovation and should be encouraged.

What is the most discouraging barrier to change that you encounter in your job?

Category: Efficiency, Engineering & Design, Industrial B2B Sales

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31 Responses

  1. UngaMan says:

    Easy…

    my Boss!

    regards!

  2. [...] (improved profit margins, more advanced technology), with the associated risks (my recent post: Why Engineers Resist Change & How To Change Their Minds).  Engineers need to embrace change under the following [...]

  3. Eric Richter says:

    People resist change, not engineers. In the companies where I’ve worked, it’s been groups outside engineering that don’t want to change – and for the same reasons you cited above! This is not to say that I’ve never run into engineers that resist change. My experience is engineering driving the change and forcing others to adapt. How to explain the difference between your experience and mine? Maybe we’re in different industries. Maybe we’re in companies with different cultures. Or maybe the issue is not that people resist change, they just resist change that is forced upon them by an outside force over which they have no control.

  4. Not Surprised says:

    Eric could not have said it any better. To pin the resistance to change on the engineer is like pinning resistance to waste reduction on the janitorial staff. The author of this article is not only myopic, but also cowardly not to address the real issue – conflict between those who “get it” and those who think they do. I would add that change is unavoidable, and therefore anyone with an interest in improving a process (change), increasing production (change), and/or many other examples of business necessity (changes) should embrace and adapt to change or they risk failure. To resist, either consciously or otherwise, is a weakness – one that is shared universally among all professions.

    • t!b! says:

      There are subcultures within any organization, and a good boss must realize this fact. A company exists to make profits, therefore change is oriented towards this goal. Engineers are passionate people. They form a category of individuals, they’ve been selected and formed by the educational process. They are not business people. It is all about understanding how to communicate. If the management wants success, they need to understand how to push for change. Perhaps the organizational structure of classical companies is outdated. We need, because we can, to create more inclusive organizations, based on more complex value systems.

  5. Ryan says:

    Great discussion on this topic. I think it was slightly misconstrued regarding the intentions of the engineer. While an engineer is often resistant to change, an engineer should NEVER be resistant to innovation. The scope of the article really focuses on changes in the workplace that inhibit design innovations. My point is that engineers take great responsibility in their designs to ENSURE innovation occurs: accurate measurements, data validation, limiting sources of error, etc. Design flows are put in place in order to cultivate cutting-edge products, techniques, and services. Recall this snippet from the opening paragraph:

    “Now, if we all resisted change all the time, we as designers of course would not be able to improve and advance technology. Change is, without question, inevitably necessary to evolve our products.”

    I talk about these topics in more detail in my next blog post, located here:
    http://industrialinterface.com/blog/2009/09/10/when-engineers-should-embrace-change/

    My next post will be regarding what companies, managers, and engineers can all do to foster innovation.

    Great discussion on this topic. Be sure to subscribe to the RSS.

  6. Anonymous says:

    SHAME ON YOU! You have made five statements in your introduction that are incredibly harmful stereotypes:

    -”Engineers do not like trying new things.”
    -”This is a fact of life in any high-tech industry.”
    -”..engineers generally resist.”
    -”Engineers thrive on the routine.”
    -”..change can be very uncomfortable and even unproductive for those working in the technical trenches.”

    Perhaps you are trying to be humorous? In reality, you have damaged the profession you wish to engage with your baseless assertions.

    You have done better. You can do better. If you don’t, you will lose your audience.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Wow. I’m impressed enough with these words to share with other people in my life.
    So thank you for your words Ryan

    thank you Very Much

  8. Witness of the financial crisis says:

    I don´t think so…
    Engineers seek new challenges. Just look the semiconductor industry…
    Where did the semiconductor industry stand 30 years ago and where does it stand now!

  9. TT is the greatest ! says:

    If you try to be innovative and spend some of your free time in the company you are “rewarded” that your bosses spy your computer remotely – even your PC at home. And then they motivate others to mob you by talking bullshit on the corridor or firing you for no reason.

  10. Scott says:

    Another reason–I have 8 million things to do, and you want me to waste 2 weeks learning new drawing software I won’t use again for a year, then expect to strat the learning cycle all over again? I personally could use the services of about 20 different types of software that I will use at most once or twice a year. Who has the time to learn and stay proficient enough to use those 20 different software codes when I do need them?

  11. Kerry Kirsch says:

    What a load! You obviously don’t have a clue what engineers do. My sister was told in college by a leberal arts professor that he felt sorry for engineers because after they graduate, they soon became obsolete due to new technology. Where in the hell does this new technology come from? My experience is that it is extermely difficult to get an engineer to not re-invent the wheel every time. They are constantly tweeking things to make it a little better every time.

    Anyone that believes engineers are not the innovators and resist change probably believes that the new economy will be saved by the new green technology – “solar panels and windmills are the futre”. NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS ARE THE FUTURE. A return to an insustrialized automated economy with a few winmills thrown in is the future.

    If you think engineers resist change, I bet you believe electricity is generated in the socket – just like the current administration.

  12. ali65 says:

    Obviously you misunderstand engineers.

    Don’t call engineer those who received their certification by mistake or because the school system has big problems.

    Real engineers will too try to resist change sometimes, when they were left out of the evaluation process choosing the new technology. They sometimes know that in advance that this new technology is a dead end, they would help you managers choosing the right one if you would sometimes ask them.

  13. Ron Graham says:

    I’ve never been a big fan of painting with the broad brush.

    I dare say that some engineers might be resistant to some changes, especially those that may change the fundamental nature of their jobs, and especially as they get nearer retirement.

    But I have known hundreds of engineers in my life, and I can tell you that nearly all of them recognize change to be essential.
    - the software changes
    - the operating systems change
    - the suppliers change
    - the components change because the suppliers have changed
    - the co-workers change because some retire, some leave, new ones are hired
    - the organization changes because some functions are eliminated
    - the products change because some product lines are eliminated and new ones launched

    I could go on with this literally all day. To make the blanket statement “engineers resist change” given that everything is changing around them is pretty much the same as saying “change” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

  14. Admittedly, we all resist change to some degree. We’re invested in our work, we take things personally, and we have a comfort zone. But hey, that just means we’re human and want to be treated with respect.

    When dictated from outside, by someone who is not an authority but is “in authority,” the change should at least be discussed before implementation. If the engineers were any good, they have probably already considered the alternatives and have good reasons for choosing the current system. While the situation could possibly be improved, the sunk cost of the engineers’ decision process and all the tooling/documentation/training/etc. are not trivial, nor are the risk/evaluation/rework/training required to implement the change. In such discussions, big mistakes can be avoided and synergistic solutions can be realized. This is what engineers do – and to impose change without at least allowing them to debate the merits shows contempt.

    If the engineers are invited into the change discussion they will certainly explain and defend the logic of their work (they’d better be able to) and point to the risks and costs of re-doing it all. That doesn’t make them stubborn: If they can see the merits they will usually embrace the change. The truly stubborn are those who say “change good – book say so,” then stereotype engineers as resistant without even listening to what they’ve paid for, and then tell the engineers that there’s no bonus this year because of “unexpected cost overruns.”

    Another frustration is that engineers are frequently paid a salary but expected to work overtime, and told that maintaining currency is to be done on their remaining personal time. If we spend our weekends learning software and writing code, then someone from IT takes it off our machines without warning, well, it’s just robbery.

    It all comes down to respect within the company culture. A collegial culture creates a successful company.

  15. Engineer says:

    What a waste of an article… this may have been relevant for our grandparents generation. I am sure that the “old timers” had a hard time giving up their slide rules… Engineers today are usually early adopters of new technology. Engineers are always learning new techniques to forward their own development efforts. If these aren’t characteristics found in any engineer then they will soon find themselves polishing up their resume. If this article was titled “why do bad engineers resist change” it would be more logical.

    • Engineer:
      As someone who started with a sliderule, I can vouch for how enthusiastically we forked over $400 of our own (then-real) money for an HP-35. Our colleagues created the first microprocessor because we could see the advantages over soldering transistors. We bought our own Apple II’s and Osbornes and Kay-Pros. We created bar-code readers and found lots of places to implement them.

      No, it’s not about old-timers. It’s about messing up what works, at great risk and unnecessary cost, because someone just thinks change is good, period. I hope THAT era is coming to an end.

      Let’s see if I can give you a sense of what I mean: “Why not tint your windshield red? Just do it, don’t resist. I expect compliance. It’s a change and change is good. How do you know until you try? Now we’re going to re-do all our files so the papers fit upright instead of sideways. New cabinets will be here Monday. Europe uses higher voltage – let’s rewire the plant for 205. We’ll do it in three phases. Gee, I’m getting a lot of resistance from you – maybe you need to have some training in teamwork.”

      I hope you never encounter that, but it does explain why even today there are good reasons to resist some change.

  16. Victor Neubern says:

    I shouldn’t even bother commenting on that statement. The majority of the opinions below the article already express my idea and feelings about the author’s thoughts. Maybe has had some trouble with a particular engineer and has generalized his unfortunate experience to the entire porfession, which he obviously does not know at all.
    He misses two critical points: 1 – EVERYONE resists change. that is part of human nature.
    2 – Engineers are taught to create, to design, to implement, to build, etc. in other words, dealing with change and making changes it what they do all the time. If it were not so, they would no be engineers!
    I consider the article an open attack to the engineering profession, and its author should be sued by the Engineers’ Association. Nobody can take seriously someone that writes arguments as the ones on point 3 of that article.

    But that is the dark side of internet and we have to live up with it: anyone can post any kind of trash he wants ….

  17. Yogendra Namjoshi says:

    According to my past experience, I have observed that engineers or rather I would put it – design/development engineers, resist change in developing something out of the box or a whole new thing, while innovators/scientist engineers keep on trying on new things that would revolutionize world. This is justified for following reasons.

    The design engineers cater to corporates and manufacturing firms which have a chain of other departments like production, service, sales, marketing, purchase & vendor development, logistics and supply chain etc.Every section individually have their “set” of “algorithms” already planned to work on day-to-day basis. You really cannot bring out a product (one fine morning) that is whole lot newer and feature-wise most distinct than its predecessor as it will generate problems in these sections which generates kind of “inertia”. Lot of loss can be a consequence of all this.

    On the other hand, engineers who play the role of scientists/innovators do not cater to all such major chains said above and can really jump around different orthogonal technologies to bring out newer stuff.

  18. Witness of the financial crisis says:

    I think there is an error in this article. The title should be:

    “Why investment bankers resist change & 4 ways to change their minds”

  19. [...] past blog posts (here and here), I discussed change in the high-tech design workplace.  Today’s blog is about innovation: [...]

  20. Witness of the financial crisis says:

    You can delete my comments if you want. I am unemployed and I am willing to do something else, but the most companies don´t want to employ me. So what should I do in your opinion?

  21. Bernie says:

    I do not totally agree with Ryan, however I think #3 hit the nail on the head “Lazyness” I have been an engineer for the past 45 years, I have 15 patents and for the past 8 year have owned an import business.
    Good engineer welcome changes, their thrive on changes. whenever I wanted an idea for a patent, I would walk in the manufacturing and assembly plants and ideas were all around me. I would listen to people, key word hese is “listen”
    As an engineer you have a responsibility to change the future. Today’s generation of engineer want to get a MBA and an walnut desk. Forty years ago, mos of our time was spend on the floor, we got our hands dirty and we learned from machinists, assemblers, foremen, mold makers, inspectors, etc…..how to become better engineers.
    Today’s engineers want to stay in the office and surf the internet. Don’t get me wrong, we still have plenty of good engineers around, otherwise technology would be standing still.
    on a yearly basis, China is graduating more engineer than we do and they are surely more dedicated then us. My fear is that we are quickly losing vast areas of expertise and skills. At this rate will lose our techonoligical dominance very quickly, if it not already gone

  22. anon says:

    i’m just here for the lulz

  23. Sturopa says:

    iv been an engineer for 15 years. most good engineers i have worked with change and adapt very well. I have found that some engineers dont like change and think they know best. These people are very limited in what they can do. lets be honest, engineering and development is all about changing things and adapting things for the best! is it not? how can you be set in your ways when your deveolping something new? thats what we do!!!!!!!!!!

  24. John Yater says:

    All engineers should resist change. All engineers should embrace change. The question is when and why. With any change comes work and risk. As an engineer I resist change when the potential benefit of the change is not proportional to the risk or amount of work involved with the change. I embrace change in which the potential benefits outweigh the risk and work required to bring about the change.

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