Machine Design

Orr on Engineering: Staying Connected

When you spend holiday time with loved ones, don’t you say — despite some of the difficulties — “I want more?”

Of course, whether you actually get more usually depends on you. My wife and I decided we wanted more of the family closeness we’d experienced occasionally as children. So we visited distant relatives and invited them to visit us. This evolved into hosting twice-yearly family-and-friends reunions every Thanksgiving and Passover.

Sure it’s demanding but, frankly, there’s no substitute for physical presence. Speaking as one who maintains most of his relationships electronically, that’s quite an admission. But I am also a highly kinesthetic person, in terms of communication modalities. Touch is much more important to me than sight or hearing. While this is not as true for everyone as it is for me, propinquity always brings with it things that cannot be replaced by electronics.

Now, I am the first to thank God for e-mail and telephones! With my travel schedule, it would be impossible for me to maintain the great relationships I have with my wife, family, friends, and colleagues.

But there is something about people’s physical presence that delivers extra information and satisfaction which can’t be electronically simulated — subtle tones in voice and breath, aromas, posture and movement, auras, and body-language changes.

Our minds are wondrous things. When we are out of contact with people and situations, we run mental simulations — imagining what they’d say or do if they were here. This may give us a false sense of “keeping up” with things. But our mind moves invariably and quickly gets out of synch with reality.

Consider the story of the salesman who got a flat tire while driving in the country. As he opened the trunk, he thought, “Well, if I have to have a flat, this is the time. I have no appointments today, the weather’s beautiful, and I was able to pull over in a safe place.” He got the spare out, and the jack, but couldn’t locate the jack handle. After searching for a few minutes, he remembered a farmhouse about a mile back. “I’ll just borrow a jack handle there,” he thought. As he walked, he thought, “Farms always have all kinds of gear. I’m sure the farmer will be able to help me. He might even offer me a ride back.”

Then he remembered a movie in which rural folk were suspicious of city dwellers. “He might wonder what I’m doing here. But I’ll explain that I was just driving through, and had a flat, and found I had no jack handle.” Feeling a bit uncomfortable, the man went on in his mind. “But why should he suspect me? I just want to borrow a jack handle. I’ll even offer to pay for it!”

Feeling more and more agitated, he thought, “People should trust each other more. What right does he have to suspect me? He doesn’t even know me!” By the time he got to the farmhouse, he was fuming. He banged loudly on the door and when the farmer opens it, yelled, “You can KEEP your lousy jack handle!” and stormed off.

The world is full of people who need a “jack handle.” Imagine what your response to their need would be should they get mad at you for what resided solely in their imagination.

What does this have to do with engineering, you say? Plenty! Do we think our project team is any better at reading our mind than our spouse? Do we write mind movies that put words in people’s mouths? We must make our expectations explicit — with everyone, all the time. We should first find out what people are actually thinking. And we need to provide feedback, both specific (“That suggestion was excellent”) as well as general (“I appreciate your creativity”).

— Joel Orr

Joel Orr is Chief Visionary at Cyon Research Corp. in Bethesda, Md. Got a question or a comment? Reach Joel at [email protected].

Edited by Leslie Gordon

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.

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