I work on a number of programs in a number of different roles. This is part of the pleasure of what I do. I am the CTO for one company and a lowly structures engineer for another. I get to see projects from above and below.
There is a good way to use consultants and then there are other ways.
Let’s imagine a company. This company has just finished its prototype. The prototyping has been very successful. The aircraft met all the technical goals and has validated the investment, time and effort – and more importantly it validates the business case for a production version of the aircraft.
The board of the company spent a bit of time creating a plan for the production version and attempting to raise money. But there is something missing – some magic spark to galvanize the enthusiasm of the investors and harness the energy of the technical team.
The board meets an interested party and thinks they could potentially be the new CEO. This makes a lot of sense. The company has to transition out of prototyping and into production. It is a different mindset and a new CEO with vision and energy is just what they need.
So after working with him and discovering that they like how he operates they make him an offer and he comes on board and injects the energy and enthusiasm that they were missing.
The CEO does not have any aircraft development experience but he has a lot of aviation experience and he leads with confidence.
The design of the aircraft starts to head off in a new direction and resembles the original configuration less and less. This is not necessarily bad. The aircraft has to meet a market need and the CEO is using his wider experience to drive the engineering team to create a viable aircraft.
There is some concern starting to grow amongst the engineers, as the desired aircraft requires that some of the fundamental parameters of the design are set so they are borderline at best and unrealistic at worst, they skirt the boundary of technical, compliance and supply chain risk.
The experienced engineers know that a combination of multiple parameters set like this are unusual and introduce a fatal level of risk. They know these factors will likely combine in the final synthesis of the aircraft into a result that will be entirely unsatisfactory.
Whenever concerns are raised with the executive the engineers are acknowledged but asked to continue with these parameters and do their best to meet them. The company has selected a path and they have to do their best to support it. The engineers grumble but what choice do they have? They mention it in a few more meetings but eventually those issues fade into the background.
Over time the development continues until the executive notices that the engineering team are having problems meeting the brief, the schedule is short and the task is complex and the engineers appear to have dropped the ball. They have forgotten about the warnings from the engineering team of a few months ago and they need to find out what is going on. They hire a consultant.
The consultant examines what is going on and the parameters the project is based on and warns that the aims of the project are likely going to be impossible to achieve and the project will end in a compromised product that matches the original warning from the engineering team.
The executive is dismayed, disappointed and still suffering from memory loss. The executive immediately deploys the engineering team to repeat the original work. Not with the aim of replicating the work of the consultant but to justify the answer they got originally because that is the answer they like.
The blame for this situation is not wholly with the executive. Engineering has to learn to communicate clearly upwards – grumbling or giving warnings is not clear communication. As a team lead, managing the people who work for you is easy – there is a relationship where they have to do what you say (within reason). Managing your managers is much more difficult. As not only do they not have to do what you say or even ask, they will often act in utterly illogical ways.
So, whenever you communicate upwards be specific and explicit. Use presentations (put it in writing) in bold red ink. Repeat it. If an answer or projection is high risk, explain that another way to think of ‘high risk’ is ‘project destroying’. Yes, you ‘might’ create a leprechaun powered aircraft capable of Mach 1.7 (if we finally crack the problem of high yield leprechaun farming). If you base the future of the company on this and direct all the investment towards this goal, the chance of failure is so high that for all intents and purposes failure is guaranteed. Everyone loses their jobs and the capital investment is destroyed and we all get an entry on our resumes that we try to avoid drawing attention to.
Of course, there are always other engineering team members and engineering leads who will take the happy clappy position and support whatever management desires. Remember that when you communicate sideways in the organization, profanity can be a useful tool…..although not in writing.