April 1, 2011 | Engineering + Technology, Leadership

Owen Clay speaking with his engineering team

How to build acceptance for something new

As a director of engineering for a manufacturing and technology firm, I find myself performing a balancing act. On the one hand, my job is to create an environment for creativity to thrive – where bold ideas can come from anywhere in the organization and become products. On the other hand, I must foster a disciplined, structured approach to problem solving that enables us to commercialize solutions that are proven reliable.

Finding that middle ground is a classic engineering challenge, and success often hinges on a core objective: to build acceptance for something new. In this listless wind energy market, as the wind measurement needs are changing under our feet, nothing is more important.

Five steps to increase the odds of success

Through trial and error (and inspired guidance from mentors) I’ve learned that I can increase the odds of success using these five steps:

  1. Lay out the vision appropriately for different internal audiences. This means knowing your audience and knowing what’s important to them. For example, when I speak with my own team of engineers, I must support the vision with data, facts and logical steps. Intuition, confidence, and passion are not enough.

  2. Share information and increase exposure to new ideas. Resistance to change is a natural human phenomenon. It’s what drives peoples to preserve the status quo and say “no” more quickly than “yes.” To fight against that, leaders must show people what’s possible. We must continually put data, stories, case studies, new tools – whatever the source – in front of people to soften their objections, pique their interest, and then grow their enthusiasm.

  3. Convert the influencers. Every group has its sales people who can translate complex ideas into a compelling story and get people on board.  Over the years I’ve learned to engage 1-2 of these people right away and share ownership with them. This sometimes means stepping back and surrendering control (perhaps the subject of a future post.)

  4. Aggregate small wins. In an organization change often happens incrementally. It’s the small innovations or process improvements that build trust overtime, and build the team’s capacity to embrace change on a large scale.

  5. Create a culture of open-mindedness. This task surely rests with senior company leaders and is reflected in their actions every day. If we go to “no” too quickly, so will members of the team. I try to keep the big picture of where we want to go front and center. With the big picture in mind, people see how they fit into the team, and we can support each other to take the necessary risks with a lessened fear of failing.

I continue to struggle with the balance, and am trying to learn. How does it work in your company? What wisdom do you have to share?