by Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PE, NPDP, PMP®, CPEM
Like most of us, I have seen tremendous changes in my way of life over the past two months. January and February were extraordinarily busy for me as I conducted innovation best practice training online, in the Washington, D.C. area, and in Germany. My business was flourishing.
Now, since conferences are cancelled and company budgets for training and consulting are dried up, I don't know when or where my next assignment will be. My professional worries are compounded by personal concerns - my aging father had a heart attack and my husband's job transferred us to a new city where I literally know not one single person.
As an engineer and as a leader, I have chosen to tackle the plunging economy with a strategic approach. As engineering managers, we must deliberately choose steps to support our teams during what is expected to be a very long economic recovery.
The Six Stages of Grief
Psychologists teach that whenever we experience a loss, we grieve. The loss can be the death of a beloved family member or friend. A loss is also a significant change. Many people have, and are, experiencing job loss. Students have lost contacts with classmates and teachers,and as Americans we have lost many freedoms through “stay-at-home” orders.
I don't know about you but over the past two months, I have felt all these emotions and I've circled back to shock, anger, and depression more than once. But as engineering and technology leaders, we must demonstrate hope to begin to rebuild. Our team members and direct reports need to understand our mission and vision for recovery.
Doing Less with Less
So often we hear the phrase “do more with less.” That is probably not an option under the current economic conditions. I have heard reports that we should expect unemployment levels of 20% or more. Such rates of unemployment have not been witnessed in America since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
It also stands to reason that as the U.S. government sends out stimulus checks to put money into peoples’ pockets immediately, we will see higher taxes and inflation in the weeks and months to come. Some people will find the stimulus checks more attractive than working and the labor shortage will impact manufacturing, logistics, and the availability of education and services.
Even more dismal is the glut of oil in reserves. Because people cannot go to work and airplanes are not flying, we are not using gasoline or jet fuel as much. This has caused refineries to scale back production. The Railroad Commission of Texas is considering quotas on oil production for the first time in 80 years (that is, since the Great Depression).
Honest engineering managers will note that they are going to have less money and fewer people to accomplish goals and to get business going again. What are some actionable steps you can take? What will create hope?
It is natural for businesses to reallocate budgets from training and R&D to operations when their very survival is at stake. As an engineering manager, you should examine every cost to verify the continuation of the service. If you have been successful with staff working from home, do you need as much office space? Perhaps, with the crisis, you have found ways to bypass bureaucratic forms and approvals. Maybe you don't need a luxury vehicle fleet anymore.
Let me caution, however, to not cut too far. Costs and investments are different. In order to survive an extended economic downturn, engineering and technology managers need to identify products, services, and features that add value. Such innovations require adequate investment, and research shows that companies that continue to invest in R&D during stock market declines are best positioned for growth when a recession ends.
The percentage of Americans employed has gradually shrunk for about 50 years already. We know that many companies have been forced to furlough, layoff , and fire workers during the corona-panic. Many of these people will not return to their jobs for a lot of reasons. It would be naive to assume your team will be the same size - or have the same skill sets –- as you had just two months ago.
Your team will still be grieving, and they are frightened by the rhetoric from constant television coverage. As a leader, you must consult with each individual one-on-one and with the whole team together. Discuss the organization’s goals and plans for survival. Prioritize the projects and actions that will provide short-term revenue over the next three to six months. Then, list the projects and plans that will deliver results in the next 12 to 18 months. Finally, add projects that are growth-oriented for the long-term .
While it will likely be “all hands on deck” to assign teams to short-term survival projects, recognize the projects that inspire passion in your team members. Short-term projects will include adding operational efficiencies, enhancing automation, and managing increasingly complex distribution systems with limited supplies. You may have some of the front-end work already done on these projects, so be sure to have open discussions with all available team members and senior executives regarding a strategic path forward.
Nothing is ever bad forever and nothing is ever good forever. Unless we all plan to hibernate in caves, business will someday resume in some fashion. As engineering managers, we must recognize our team members are traumatized and that our operations are maimed. Yet, we can offer hope by listening to our stakeholders (bosses, customers, employees), and quickly implementing survival tools. We must do less with less. So, consider your most critical recovery projects for investing, and assign your best skilled workers to execute those projects.
We have a long road ahead to rebuild our businesses after committing economic suicide. But the leaders in recovery can be – and should be – data-driven, hardworking engineering managers!
What steps will you take personally and professionally as an engineering manager to support economic recovery?
About the Author
I am passionate about innovation and inspired by writing, teaching, and coaching. I tackle life with an infusion of rigor, zeal, and faith. It brings me great joy to help you build innovation leadership. I am an experienced innovation professional with a thirst for lifelong learning. My degrees are in Chemical Engineering (BS and PhD) and in Computer and Information Decision Making (MBA). My credentials include PE (State of Louisiana), NPDP, PMP®, and CPEM, and I am a DiSC® certified facilitator. Contact Teresa Jurgens-Kowal at email@example.com or connect with me on LinkedIn.