Articulate the Feasible

Posted by bob on February 19, 2019

My wife is very smart. For years she has suffered through my diatribes about bad company management, and then offered up an extremely short summary. Today she told me that she thinks an engineer’s job is to “Articulate the Feasible.”

I had to think about that for a while, and then re-phrase it to see if I understood her correctly. She meant that engineers often need to explain clearly what we can (or cannot) accomplish—to people who don’t want to hear about those limitations.

For example, we might be able to achieve a feature that a customer is requesting, but at a price they are not willing to pay. Or maybe we can achieve that feature, at a reasonable price, but it will take us 2 years to develop the factory and tooling needed. Or perhaps we can achieve that feature within budget and project schedule, but only if the customer can guarantee to purchase 2 million units per year. (In this last example, we might be amortizing a high tooling cost across many units.) In some cases, the laws of physics or limitations of our current science might preclude a desired solution that a creative salesperson has cooked up. For example: we are not quite ready today to build starships with warp drives.

In any case, the task falls to the design and manufacturing engineers to clearly explain (in relatively non-technical terms) what we can (and cannot) accomplish. We might be totally logical and base our discussion upon sound facts, but if the presentation of the information is confusing or disorganized, management might reject our entire analysis.

Thus the ability of an engineer to create brilliant balance of people-time-money-results might be dashed against the rocks of their limited communication skills. This is why clear documentation and communication of our efforts are so critical to our eventual success (or failure).

When your task is to articulate the feasible, you will need to call on every weapon in your communications toolkit. Use annotated photographs, use graphs, use tables, and maybe even a few bar or pie charts. Make sure that the data and the presentation are factually correct, and correctly presented. When you make it easy to see the best decision, most managers and customers can be logical. But when you give them a jumbled and error-laden presentation, don’t be surprised if they make choices that seem unreasonable to you.