Engineering Management Success: Two Secrets to Enable Behavioral Change

23 Nov 2020 3:42 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

by Atul Kalia

EMBOK Domain 2 covers “Leadership and Organizational Management”. This is arguably the hardest Engineering Management aspect to learn and master. Let me explain why I feel so. Leadership and organizational management involves inspiring individuals to be their best self and leading teams and organizations through transformational change. This involves self-awareness as a leader, understanding others behaviors and then utilizing this knowledge to drive transformational behavioral change. In fact any other EMBOK domain, e.g. Project Management, that requires a good understanding of the human psyche, is a challenging domain. Other domains that deal with Technology, Quality, Operations, Supply Chain, etc. are also very difficult but perhaps not as dependent on the vagaries of human nature.

How can we as Engineering Management professionals –educators as well as corporate managers– succeed in these difficult domains? Obviously there is no simple solution for this challenge. However, I would like to share key tips from a TED talk about changing behavior by Dan Ariely. Dan serves as a James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. He has written 3 New York Times bestseller books.

Dan mentions the example of a program where financial tips are taught to the attendees. Immediately after the program only 3-4% of attendees follow through on the changes taught in the course. Long term, this drops to less than 0.1%. Clearly behavioral change is very rare simply based on providing good information to people. This is true not just for financial education but for most topics including engineering management and leadership & organizational management.

Dan talks about focusing on two things to ensure success in driving long-term behavioral change. These two things are similar to what is needed to send a rocket to space: reducing friction and providing fuel.

Reducing Friction

This concept involves reducing the difference in effort required for maintaining status quo and the effort required to enable the new behavior. In general, human tendency is to follow the path of least resistance. So we must understand the “friction” inherent in the new desired behavior and must figure out ways to reduce it.

Dan mentions the example of an online pharmacy in his talk. The online pharmacy wanted people to switch from branded to generic medication for their condition. They asked patients to mail back a letter in case they wanted to switch to generic medication. The response was very poor. The task required effort. Status quo: keep getting a branded prescription requires less effort. After consultation with behavioral experts, the company sent letters to patients telling them that their prescription service would end unless they responded and explicitly stated their preference: branded or prescription drug. Now that they were forced to respond and with the same effort required to choose branded or generic, the majority of patients chose generic.

How can we be aware of the effort required for behavioral change we seek in ourselves and others? Understand what is causing “friction”? How can we use that knowledge to trigger transformation?

For example, let’s say an engineer is struggling in interactions with a key customer’s team. The engineer is not responding in a customer-centric manner. Hence, the engineer’s manager would like to trigger a behavioral change in the engineer. He wants to ensure that customers do not have to escalate to the manager for day-to-day issues. “Friction” could be due to the engineer’s lack of skills in customer service and the effort required to learn these vs. the effort required in maintaining the status quo. Intervention could be to provide ongoing coaching for the engineer, allowing engineers to shadow to observe how others do a good job in customer interactions, providing continuous feedback – positive as well as constructive that enables growth for the engineer and reduces the “friction”.

Typical engineering managers do not provide such support. They simply reiterate the need for the engineer to be more customer-centric without coaching them on how to change. They may simply give the engineer a bad performance review or, at most, provide a one-time training or workshop. Such short-term training is highly ineffective in bringing about long-term behavioral change since it doesn’t eliminate the underlying friction.

Providing Fuel

Fuel for a rocket is similar to the motivation for an individual. As an engineering manager and leader we need to understand what drives each unique individual. There is no one size fits all solution. Dan’s TED talk mentions an effort to inspire villagers in Kenya to save a certain amount every week. The study tried various methods including weekly reminders, providing some financial incentive by matching a small percent of the villagers savings, loss aversion, emotional messages from kids, and a symbolic scratching of a coin every week that they saved money. The goal was to determine which approach might result in achieving the highest savings. They found that savings were almost double compared to other motivational methods when villagers had to scratch a mark on a coin every week to indicate that they met their savings goal. The coin was displayed in a prominent location in the hut. A visual indicator of an otherwise invisible task –savings– helped the family understand why it was important and stay on track.

As Engineering Management professionals providing fuel or motivation is a very significant and yet difficult task. We don’t always know what may work in any given situation and with any given person. This is where our skill as an engineering management leader comes into play.

In the example of the engineer above, what are some things that a manager could do to motivate the engineer? Would love to hear your thoughts. Do email me.

Career Summary

Atul Kalia,, is passionate about enabling success for individuals, teams and organizations. This success manifests itself as professional growth for individuals, successful delivery of complex programs by high performance teams and sustainable profitability for organizations. Atul is a firm believer in the “Art of the Possible” and uses a generative approach. Using self-awareness as the foundation, Atul enables results for clients by sharing insights from his corporate and consulting career of 25+ years.

Atul is the Founder of SN Group LLC, a consulting firm delivering success for clients through coaching for engineering and program management professionals, leadership development workshops and program management consulting. Atul has experience in Automotive, Commercial Trucking, Off-Highway, Industrial, Non-profits, Telecom, Digital Printing and Manufacturing industry in North America, Europe and Asia. He works with, as well as coaches engineering professionals from C level executives to managers.

Prior to SN Group, Atul worked as the Director of Engineering for a Manufacturing firm. In this role his focus was new product development, engineering and program management. He led Global teams that successfully launched over 20 complex and innovative programs.

Education, Certifications, Memberships, Publications

  • MS Mechanical Engineering, University of Maryland, College Park
  • MBA University of Michigan, Ross School of Business
  • Lead Coach SAE Engineering Management Academy
  • Adjunct Professor, College of Management, Lawrence Tech University

Click logo below to visit ASEM's proud sponsors:

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software