Engineering and Leadership || The importance of why

One of the things I get asked about more than almost anything else is about how to improve engineering productivity. Not surprisingly, engineers love to find better ways of doing things, not just in their designs, but in the way they work as well. My articles on productivity are some of the most popular ones on the blog.

For the most part, my productivity tips have to do with little things you can do throughout your day to save time and be more effective. They’re best thought of as tips or tactics. Today, I want to zoom out and talk about one big idea that has the potential to help more than all those other little tips and tricks combined.

How to improve engineering productivity with one question

When we think of productivity, most people ask “How” questions. How can I do that faster? How can I be more effective? How can I get more done? 

These are great questions to ask. I’ve asked them all myself. In fact, you should always be asking yourself these questions – there’s nearly always room to become more effective and more efficient in your tasks.

The problem with asking these questions is that they focus on the tactical to the exclusion of the strategic. None of these questions ask “Why”. I believe understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing is the single most important question you can ask with respect to your work. Failure to ask and answer that question can be the single greatest oversight an engineer makes when it comes to work. Those who do have a strong sense for why they are doing their work are more effective and more efficient in everything they do.

The power of knowing why

Before getting into how best to approach your work, understanding why you’re doing it in the first place is critical. Your why serves as a compass in the messy day-to-day work of an engineer. It’s so easy to get caught up in the minutiae of chasing part numbers, formatting reports, reading emails and attending meetings that you forget what you’re trying to really accomplish in the first place.

Knowing why you’re doing your work serves two fundamentally important purposes: it motivates you and it orients you.

Getting motivated

Knowing why you’re doing your work is motivating because it reminds you that all the BS you have to go through in the run of a day is actually worth it to someone. The work you do really is  important to someone. The chances are that the product you’re designing or the service you’re offering will benefit real people somewhere. That’s part of the beauty of engineering. The work, even the paper-pushing nonsense, will actually matter to someone. Forgetting this fact makes it easy to get discouraged and overwhelmed by the day-to-day grind that engineering can often be. No number of productivity hacks can overcome the effects of being overwhelmed and disengaged from your work. Knowing the true purpose of your work is the single best way to combat this.

Getting oriented

The second big benefit to really understanding why you do the work your do is that it orients your decision-making. If you don’t have a clear vision what your work is for, it can be easy to overlook things and make silly decisions. For example, you might spend weeks designing some complex feature in a new software product because you think it could be super useful. If your end users value simplicity over extra features, it’s clear that you’ve forgotten them and the why of your work. You’ve wasted your time – even if the code is brilliant.

The point here is that knowing your why can serve to give you more energy to tackle your work and help remind you what work really needs to be done so that you’re not wasting your time on other stuff. It can make you both more efficient and more effective.

My why

I work in the rail industry. The division I work in designs automated commuter rail systems. As you might imagine, these systems are incredibly complex. You need to get 100,000 tiny things right to make sure it all works. What you end up with at the end of a project’s design phase is amazing (i.e. trains are pretty badass). But, the process you need to take to get through the design can be very draining. This is why it’s important for me to remember my why.

The reason I do my work – my why – is to help people live better lives. Our products help people move in the cities they live in so they can generally live more comfortably and get more done. Beyond that, our products help keep cars off the road, which is good for the planet. That, to me, is very motivating and helps me to get through some of the rough spots at work.

Keeping your why in the forefront

To help keep me from losing sight of my why, I designed a simple poster to put up in my office. Here it is below:

This is why - How to improve engineering productivity

The image in the background is to remind me that the products we build solve a real problem – traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. The text “This is why.” doesn’t need much explanation at this point. This poster hangs in my office right in front of my desk where I can see it whenever I’m working.

I just made it up in PowerPoint using a royalty free image for the background. Then, I used the website to turn the image into huge wall art. You can hammer out your own in probably less than 15 minutes. If you’d like to, go ahead and use the template below as a starting point. Just remember to change the dimensions to suit whatever space you’re going to put your poster in.

Download the poster template here.

What’s your why?

Now that I’ve shared with you what my why is, I’d love to know yours. Use the comment section below to let me know and how knowing your why has helped you in your career and day-to-day productivity.

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