Thinking is Hard

Posted by bob on January 25, 2015

While reading a science-fiction anthology the other day, I came across a character who says, “Thinking is hard!”  In context, the character actually could view this as a revelation, something they had not previously considered.

I was struck by the simple truth and power of this observation.  There are lots of different kinds of thinking that we do every day.  Much of engineering life is simply reacting to changes. Sometimes we receive new requirements from our customers and sometimes management moves the goals around or re-assigns us to respond to new conditions.  Many times the new condition is self-inflicted: we failed to plan for problems that we all knew were likely to arise in a project.

There is one kind of thinking that I personally believe is not so difficult: brainstorming.  This is where we throw ideas out and simply capture lots of them without judgment or selection.  In brainstorming exercises, we typically try to not make decisions or grade the quality of any particular idea.  We just want to have a very big collection of ideas to draw from as the project or problem-solving process moves forward.

The difficult kind of thinking comes when we have to make decisions.  These choices will greatly affect the people, time, money, and results of our project.  Early in the project, we might make a decision that will cost somebody many hours of extra work later.  We might look at an early test result and say, “Oh, that is close enough to success; the engineers can polish that approximation up and make it fly.”  Some of those early decisions to go a little cheap can add big costs later when the specifications cannot be met.

One of the key benefits of experience is that little voice in your head that says, “Danger!  Don’t fall for this hand-waving.  The real result is much harder to achieve!”  This is especially true of projects under great competitive or commercial pressure.  Engineering is all about making compromises.  It can be very difficult to predict and explain that a cost reduction being considered now will most assuredly incur higher costs and schedule slippage later.  Yet we must not discount the value of a management vision for a cheaper, better, product—sooner.

Good management will plan for the appearance of obstacles in their yellow brick road.  They will allow for some recovery time, manpower, and budget.  Good management will constantly evaluate if their solutions are greater-than-or-equal-to the problem.

One of the surprises that experience has brought me is the huge difference between managers who actually think about their plans and those that simply want a plan in place that shows the last milestone on the schedule and their budget both meeting arbitrary targets.  Real constraints always apply (no project has infinite personnel, budget, or time) but the best managers ask their team and apply some shared wisdom to realistic plans.

The best bosses understand that thinking, when it involves making hard choices and compromises, is difficult and can actually cause real human pain; both immediately and later.