Leaders understand that making quick and fast decisions is challenging under good circumstances. 

However, the most challenging are those unfamiliar and high-stakes decisions that arrive at a massive speed and large scale. 

Faced with uncertainties such as the pandemic, engineers encounter a potentially paralyzing volume of these unfamiliar and high-stakes decisions. 

In the old days, the most common approach was to postpone decisions to wait for more information that might make more sense. However, when an environment is uncertain, waiting to decide can be a decision in itself. 

In challenging times, the expectation from engineering leaders is not to have the ability to control or predict the future. Instead, it’s about a sense of reliability and a focus on making decisions that are in the best interests of everyone. 

Engineers Make Good Decisions in Uncertain Times

Outlined in this article are ways that engineering leaders make good decisions in the most uncertain situations. 

Engineers acknowledge the uncertainty

Being an engineering leader demands constant evaluation and estimation of the situation, including the uncertainties. 

Many engineers believe that societal and health issues are mathematical problems to be examined and solved.

The common belief is that when enough information is gathered, the formula has been understood sufficiently and past mistakes have been examined thoroughly, the right answer will be immediately clear. 

However, that is far from the truth. As a leader, you must acknowledge that every situation has a level of uncertainty no matter the amount of data you have.

If you can acknowledge the uncertainty, you can develop a model based on the worst-case scenario and ensure that all your bases are covered. 

Wanting more data is not a bad thing in itself, but the lack of decision on matters can be a decision in itself. 

While that can sound counterintuitive, waiting will minimize the number of options available to you. 

By making decisions based on the data you have, you can act quickly and bolster your chances of getting rid of the uncertainty. 

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Engineers define the problem

Now that you’ve acknowledged the uncertainty, the next step is to define the problem you are facing. 

It is not uncommon for teams and individuals to jump right into suggesting possible solutions when thinking about a problem. After all, it’s the basis of many brainstorming sessions.

Although the prospect of problem-solving sounds positive, most engineers tend to fixate on common approaches rather than taking a step back to understand the contours of the issue. 

One rule of thumb is to begin with a problem-finding mindset where you loosen the issue and let your team see it from multiple angles. 

This way, you can expose hidden assumptions and reveal new questions before you hunt for data. 

While you speak with your team, think of critical questions about the problem to understand its complexity.

How do you understand the problem? What assumptions does your team have? What are its causes? 

Write the answers to these questions and gather different perspectives from your team to see the situation in new ways. 

Once you have a comprehensive view of the problem, you can move forward with a disciplined data search. 

During your data search, make sure to hold data requests accountable to if-then statements to avoid decision making delays. 

Whenever gathering data, consider how the information will impact your decision. If the data won’t change your decision, you do not need to track down additional information. 

As mentioned above, too much data gathering can increase the likelihood of information overload and delays in the decision making process. 

In the field of engineering, delays have the potential to impact project costs and labor productivity, which is something you cannot afford in uncertain times. 

Engineers involve more people

In conjunction with the previous point, the best engineering leaders make it a point to involve others in the decision making process. 

When they do so, they can create an opportunity for their colleagues to share ideas, learn from each other and work towards a common goal. 

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to see some engineers limit the decision making process to an executive level. In most cases, there is a small team making decisions behind closed doors.

Although this can be effective, the risk of hierarchical decision making is that most engineers fail to take into account the needs of other individuals important to the operation. 

This decision making process is not only disempowering but can also result in lower productivity levels that would otherwise not occur if everyone’s opinions were considered. 

By involving everyone in the decision making process, you can create a forum for rapid debate and clarify the decisions to be made. 

A collaborative decision making process is incredibly important especially when things are unfamiliar and the decisions you are considering are somewhat risky. 

Having many points of view will ensure that you aren’t missing something. Once decisions are made, you can immediately shift and speak to those who will be executing the decisions. 

This way, you can identify the actions that need to be taken, accountabilities and timelines, as well as answer questions that your team has about what comes next. 

Engineers have a vision

Unlike everyone, engineers have a vision of what they wish to achieve from decisions. They identify the problem they want to solve, define the criteria of success and assess the possibilities.

Through this process, engineers can avoid the trap of comparing options for which information is lacking and calculate a course of action that will contribute to the realization of their vision. 

Now you might be wondering, how do you go about this then? Although there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this, the first step you can take is to clearly define your goals and objectives. 

Goal setting is the backbone of effective problem solving. By setting goals and objectives, you can establish a direction for what needs to occur for your problems to be resolved. 

When setting your vision, you need to make sure that your goals are grounded in reality and can be utilized as key performance indicators for future strategies and plans. 

Like it or not, engineers are inventive and imaginative. It’s part of the profession. Being imaginative allows you to uncover innovative discoveries that would otherwise be unavailable if you stuck to old patterns. 

But, in circumstances like these, you need to make sure that your vision is attainable, measurable and relevant. 

When you can evaluate your vision, you can quickly identify whether your vision for solving the problem aligns with the overall goals of your organization. 

How do engineers become good decision makers?

Now that we’ve established how engineers make good decisions amidst uncertainty, you might be asking how they become qualified to be good decision makers. 

Often, it’s about field experience, because the decision making process is usually iterative. You could also attribute it to innovation, corporate learning, idea management and culture. 

Perhaps the simple solution is studying engineering management. When students have access to better teaching methods, more information and new tools, they improve their creative ability to make effective and educated decisions in times of uncertainty. 

Engineers are problem solvers by nature and training. They are extremely skilled in creating solutions to make people’s lives better or enhance products and processes through innovation. 

Although engineers assume a critical role in business success and products, the language of engineering does not always translate well in the decision making process. 

This can be a challenge because engineering decisions often need business functions and management principles. 

When engineers graduate from an engineering management program, they have a deep disciplined knowledge. They know how to adhere to step-by-step procedures in any sort of problem solving and design scenario. 

The advantage of an engineering management program is that it helps engineers understand what it’s like to manage other engineers and non-technical professionals as well as how to speak effectively across the entire organization. 

With the rise of the digital revolution, you can now earn an online master’s in engineering management at academic institutions such as the University of Ottawa without leaving your home. 

Unlike the traditional classroom setting, an online engineering management degree does not require you to join classes on a particular time or day. 

When you sign up for an online engineering management course, you get to fit your learning around your busy schedule and not the other way around.

You can watch lectures and take classes at a time that is most convenient to you. Rather than leaving the office early and traveling to campus, you can log in at a time that does not interfere with your prior commitments. 

Online education also allows for more focused learning. When studying online, you can go back to past material or stop the lecture to digest the information effectively. Numbers show that students retain 25% to 60% more information when studying online.

With this added flexibility, you can maximize your engineering management degree program while meeting curriculum requirements.

Speaking of requirements, admission requirements for an engineering management degree program often differ depending on your chosen academic institution. 

However, among the things you might need are a resume, two letters of recommendations and a Bachelor’s degree with a specialization or major in physical science, computer science or engineering. 

You may also need a minimum of two years of engineering work experience and a minimum admission average of 70%. 

More importantly, you must consider the accreditation and certifications of your chosen academic institution. 

Is the university meeting the minimum education requirements set by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)? An ABET accreditation can spell the difference for any engineering management program.

When an online master’s engineering management program is ABET-accredited, you can be assured that the curriculum was evaluated by engineering leaders to ensure it provides quality education.

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What does an online engineering management curriculum look like?

By now, you are ready to take a plunge but have no idea what an online engineering curriculum looks like. 

While the course curriculum will differ depending on your chosen academic institution, it will usually combine principles of accounting and finance, engineering management and leadership, and the foundations of project management. 

Among the courses you will most likely take while earning your master’s degree in engineering management are the following: 

  • Introduction to engineering management

This course will tackle the structure of engineering organizations. In this course, you will learn about the importance of accounting and finance, decision making and interpersonal skills under conditions of uncertainty.

The legal, global, technological and ethical context of management decision making will also be discussed. 

  • Principles of accounting and finance for engineers

This course will provide a comprehensive view of managerial accounting, cost behavior patterns, cost structures, variances and budgeting systems.

It implements the use of accounting for the assessment of divisional, managerial and product performance to understand what accounting can do for decision makers.

You will also learn about the importance of aligning accounting technologies with firm goals and technologies in this course. 

  • Principles of management and leadership for engineers

In this course, you will learn the difference between leadership and management. It will also hone the skills and understanding of participant preferences for the management of team-based and interpersonal issues as well as processes in the work environment. 

A particular focus on ethics and diversity in a team environment is emphasized in this course, including the skills for effective business communication and the delivery of high-quality business presentations. 

  • Project management

This course covers essential project management methods that are based on a set of standards.

Topics that will be discussed include quality management, communication management, portfolio management, risk management, project planning and project lifecycle identification and design.

There are several elective concentrations you can choose from to further improve your knowledge of engineering management. These include advanced project management, data analytics, operations management and product innovation management. 


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