What Does Exceptional Engineering Management Look Like?

By Gary Hinkle

Managing engineering and other technical functions is mind-bogglingly difficult for many people in these roles. It’s more difficult than managing non-technical work because of the complexity involved and what’s at stake. The challenges related to managing technical work require special skills and suitable people who embrace the challenges.

There is a severe shortage of managers who are both suitable and highly skilled.

The good news is that the skills can be developed with desire to learn, a positive attitude, commitment, and perseverance! These characteristics are needed for a manager or management candidate to be “suitable.”

A typical engineering environment has many projects with challenging requirements and lots of chaos. The management of those complex projects is critical to the business, so these projects need excellent project management.

Our vision of exceptional management is forming with this first requirement – project management. Accountable people are needed with project management expertise relevant to their projects. With excellent project management, you have a good chance of project success.

There’s more than just one project happening in most engineering groups, so managing the entire portfolio of projects must be done well. Not only that, all of the projects in the portfolio need resources, so each individual project plan must have an excellent resource plan in order to know the resource needs across the whole organization. Resource allocation across multiple projects, known as pipeline management must be executed effectively in order to achieve the portfolio management plan.

Excellent communication, teamwork and leadership in the organization are needed for all of this to work. Ideally, all of your projects are successful and flow smoothly without much chaos. That’s what excellent portfolio management, pipeline management and project management looks like.

I’m using these unexciting buzzwords like “excellent” and “exceptional” for good reason. These words describe the levels of ability and effort that are really needed to perform engineering management really well.

A strong management team is needed to perform all of these functions, typically with this distribution of responsibilities:

Portfolio Management – Executive team is responsible and accountable, consulting with technical management experts, they prioritize all projects based on their business value. There should be a distinct point (a “cut line”) in the priorities where it is known that all of the projects higher than that point have all resources needed to be successful, and the projects below that point do not fully have the resources needed. Pipeline management is needed to determine the cut line. Projects can be worked on below the cut line, but management must not have expectations of success on those projects.

Pipeline Management – Engineering management team is responsible and accountable, working closely with project managers to ensure that all projects have the necessary resources allocated so that the resources are available when needed. All resources: people, money, equipment, supplies, facilities…

Project Management – Project managers are responsible and accountable for specific projects, with full support from management and team members to ensure project requirements are met, on time and within budget.

Visualize all of this, and you are looking at what exceptional engineering management looks like. Think about the weak points in your organization and how you can help strengthen the team.

Are all of your projects prioritized with a clear, sole priority for each project (“N” number of projects are prioritized one thru “N”), and is the portfolio plan realistic, with an accurate cut line? If not, better portfolio management is needed.

Do all of your projects have the resources they need, when they are needed? If not, better pipeline management is necessary.

Are all of your projects managed in a structured, professional project management manner, with an accountable, competent project manager? Do the projects that are adequately supported by management consistently meet all of the requirements, on time and on budget? If not, better project management is needed.

If your business needs to improve is all areas, where should you start? Begin with project management. With excellent project management your teams will be enabled to develop realistic plans and execute on time and within budget. No matter what is happening outside the projects, your teams can at least manage their projects well, which is needed before pipeline management can be improved.

About the Author

Gary Hinkle is principal consultant at Auxilium, Inc. (http://www.auxilium-inc.com), a company that helps engineering-oriented businesses increase productivity, manage special projects, and develop talent.

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