I had a chat with my engineering manager the other day about a problem we were having with a component we had specified for a project. We were chatting about all the options we had on the table, and at the end of that list we added “Do Nothing”. Today, I want to talk about the “Do Nothing” option, and what the difference is between the decision to do nothing and doing nothing because “that’s just the way things are”.

Doing Nothing

The Engineer's Dilemma

Photo Credit: Zach Klein

My guess is that most of my readers would think that this topic is a bit strange. Most people on this blog are probably go-getters – people who like make things happen. You probably value bold action and taking risks. That’s awesome. I like to think of myself as the same kind of person. I believe that one of the most powerful things a young engineer can do to show their abilities as a leader is to take action.

All that being said, there’s an option that many of us ignore when trying to solve a problem: doing nothing.

The Engineer’s Dilemma

Engineers face tough problems every day. We’re paid to come up with innovative solutions to technical problems. That’s what gets us up in the morning and keeps us going throughout the day. We ask tend to be perfectionists. After all, during school, there was always a “right” answer to the quantitative questions we were given in assignments and tests. We carry that notion of there always being a right answer with us to work after we graduate. This, I would argue, is what fuels the engineer’s dilemma.

The engineer’s dilemma, as I see it, is that we work in a world where no solution is perfect, yet we are driven to find perfect solutions. This is why engineers don’t like “doing nothing”. Invariably, the current solution to any given problem has some holes in it. It’s not perfect. And that makes an engineer’s skin crawl.

The Problem with the Engineer’s Dilemma

The problem with the engineer’s dilemma is that when we see a problem, we jump to the conclusion that something must be done. Maybe, but maybe not. All too often, we limit our scope of possible solutions before we even begin seriously evaluating an issue. We forget that it’s possible that the current scenario may in fact be the best case, given the real-life constraints of money, time, and resources. When we ignore the possibility that something might be as good as it’s going to get as it is, we never bother to evaluate as a proper option. Then what ends up happening is we chose the best solution out of a pool of ideas that didn’t include the best idea. Then, tragically, when you implement all your hard work, you realize that your “solution” made matters worse.


How to Fight the Engineer’s Dilemma

So, how do you fight the engineer’s dilemma? Simply put: pay attention to your assumptions. If you make the assumption that things have to change, then you’re handicapping yourself from the start. Sure, there’s always room for improvement for almost any system, but given the current real-world circumstances, maybe you’re got the best you’re going to get. As my engineering manager will say – don’t fix problems that aren’t actually there.

Even though it goes against the very stuff you’re made of, sometimes doing nothing is the best way to approach a given system. You have to decide to do nothing, though. This is very, very, different from doing nothing for lack of will, which is a big problem.

So, the next time you get a brilliant idea at the office, don’t forget to do a little compare and contrast versus the existing conditions. It could save you a lot of time and a lot of face.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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