Leaders needed to fight the extraterrestrial threat!

June 23, 2016

I haven’t been writing blogs lately because I’ve been busy saving the world from alien invasion. Now that humanity’s future has been secured, but forever altered, I’d like to explore the leadership qualities of my crack team of alien assassins.

XCOM: Enemy Within is the game. I played the original as a kid and was thrilled to learn about a recent update. The game’s main action takes place through turned based combat against the alien invaders. Honestly, it’s just a a really fancy version of chess. The hook is that your pawns, called ‘rookies’ to start, gradually gain experience, skills, better weaponry and a personality. You will quickly become attached and begin describing their heroic acts to unimpressed strangers.

Each soldier must be given the opportunity to advance. Merely being present for the battle is insufficient to gain experience worthy of promotion. They must kill aliens and use their nascent skills. The same is true of engineering teams. Actual project experience is essential for developing engineering skills. The practice must be varied and challenging, and there should be a real sense of responsibility for the outcomes.

Over the past year several of my team members were pressed to take on new responsibilities because more senior staff transferred to another office. They did great, taking initiative and solving complex problems. Without the task by task guidance of a superior, they were forced to develop new engineering skills (and by that I mean all the real engineering that happens after you can know how to do the basic analysis and code calculations).

On the flip side, our office has long struggled to raise the performance of our drafters (now called modelers). Sure they are capable technicians of Revit, but, really, do I have to hand draw every line on that connection detail before handing it over to be drawn again on the computer? I think we do a poor job of embedding (physically and socially) drafters within the project teams. They blip in and out of the project for crunch time drafting, and therefore don’t see any of the history behind the structure they’re modeling. There’s also little ownership in the quality of the work product. The client communicates their pleasure (or displeasure) with the work to a manager many rungs up the ladder. The main motivation modeler’s receive is to work quickly, and quality is only appreciated if it also comes fast. The modelers are on the mission and firing in the right direction, but not apparently reaping the experience that come with hitting the target or the savvy that comes with evading incoming fire.

An experienced rookie will soon receive a promotion and a skill that befits their personality. In XCOM, soldiers can be tagged as snipers, heavies toting rocket launchers, assault specialists who like to rush in for close ranged combat or support experts toting medical kits and smoke grenades. A successful team must contain a combination of skill types. Snipers are accurate from long range but are slow to advance. Meanwhile assault specialists are speedy and deadly from short range, but become overexposed without covering fire from distance. The complimentary skills go on.

The same can be said for a successful engineering practice. You need technical experts, people managers, and client whisperers. More diversity is a major advantage. There will be certain clients that one personality type cannot deal with, while another will hit it off. Some problem solving requires input from diverse perspectives or an outsider’s fresh look. Even more generally, better efficiency is achieved by tracking people toward roles that suit their strengths. To the extent that it’s possible, given availability, I try to staff my teams with people with different talents.

Finally, I’ve learned through my XCOM exploits the need to sometimes sidetrack otherwise successful careers to develop in my leaders a new line of talents. In the later stages of the game, my best sniper was the only soldier to show aptitude for psionic skills (you know, like, to make aliens panic or to mind control enemies). His initial training took several weeks and thereafter he had to practice these nascent abilities in combat situations. In fact the game cannot be won without a soldier with the highest level of psionic experience.

In much the same way, team leaders may be called upon to take on new challenges. My boss likes to retell his personal story: after working for many years as a design engineer, job opportunities forced him to take a job for a masonry repair contractor (these jobs are not remotely similar in day-to-day activities). After some time, he rejoined a design firm, but thereafter was tasked to grow a division devoted to repair, renovation, and forensic investigation. That initial side step set the table for a successful practice that has thrived for over a decade. And I now enjoy the opportunities presented by a practice that can equally perform cutting-edge design and existing building restoration.

If you enjoy strategy video games, I highly recommend XCOM. If you are thinking about how to make your teams operate more effectively, I recommend that you give young engineers “in the trenches” experience, use individual’s talents, and offer experienced staff opportunities to develop parallel skills.

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