Monthly Archives

September 2018

Outcomes vs output: Why engineers should ask ‘why’ more often

If you feel like you’re reinventing the wheel, maybe you need to take a step back, take a deep breath and make sure you’re solving the right problem.

To ensure your company is fit for the future, you must focus on outcomes, not output. This is the advice of Maureen Thurston, Global Director, Design to Innovate, at engineering and infrastructure consultancy Aurecon, and Chair of Good Design Australia.

“You can’t change any organisation and prepare it for the future if you only focus in on the process,” she said.

“I spend a lot of my time encouraging people to ask the question ‘why’. If you don’t ask ‘why’ upfront, you’re probably going to get what you always got.”

An industrial designer and adjunct professor, design, at University of Technology Sydney, Thurston has spent the past three decades working at what she describes as the intersection between business, creativity and culture.

In short, she helps companies use design as a catalyst for change. She will be speaking about change and transformation at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference (AEC) in September when she joins the panel discussion ‘Progressing from Project Leadership to Business Leader’.

Designing change

Prior to joining Aurecon in 2015, Thurston worked at Deloitte, where she implemented design methods to help transform the organisation from a traditional professional services company into what she describes as a “bold innovator”.  

“I looked at the way they interacted and delivered their services of accounting and auditing,” she said.

“How do you make that a good experience? How do you deliver a better service? Everything can be designed.”

While ‘design thinking’ is a popular expression among business circles, Thurston believes it is commonly misused to merely describe a method.

“If you’re trying to actually create transformation or change in a product or an organisation, you can’t dull design thinking down to a process,” she said.

“It’s about paying attention to who your audience is and working backwards from them. It’s about going in with an open mind and ensuring that you’re focusing in on changing people’s mindsets, at the same time as looking at the methodologies.”

More ‘why’, less ‘what’

In her role at Aurecon, Thurston is charged with embedding design as an element of the company’s Future Ready strategy, which focuses on innovation, digital technologies and ‘technical mastery’.

“This is about becoming world-class in your chosen field,” she said.

How is Thurston changing mindsets at Aurecon, an organisation with origins dating back more than 80 years?

“I start the conversation by not talking about design at all but by moving the focus to the question ‘why?’,” she said.

“Most organisations that are being disrupted have spent much of their time focusing in on the ‘what’. I remember doing work for Eastman Kodak about the importance of digital technologies and how creative industries were using it. They looked at me, they took the report and they still couldn’t get past the fact that the people would not want a perfect film image.”

Thurston said design thinkers strive to understand problems from multiple angles and stakeholder perspectives.

“Where a designer’s mindset comes into play is we’re constantly pushing back against the status quo,” Thurston said.

“Just because someone asks for something, how robust was the thinking in the first place? Are we actually solving the right problem? Or, worse yet, is the problem even worth solving? We have to position ourselves as the thinking partners, not just trusted advisers or consultants.”

The challenge, says Thurston, is that time dedicated to thinking is too often viewed as a luxury. “We need time to think about things but we’re all too busy doing the doing,” she said.

“It is a struggle in every organisation. We still have clients who are hell-bent on getting their projects done on time and on budget — and I can certainly understand why. But those clients who can see that they get a better outcome at the back end when they don’t purely focus on that ‘what’ word, or the output — they are the ones who see the value in spending the time and the thinking upfront.”

Transforming the engineer

Thurston believes education is crucial for engineers transforming their careers from leading projects to leading organisations.

“Engineers are not necessarily taught about business acumen inside their schooling,” she said.

“Yes, you have to teach them the engineering, but what if they decide to change midway in their career and get into management?

“Universities are not really preparing students to have more choices as they evolve,” adds Thurston, who will be sharing her thoughts on this at the AEC 2018. “It’s a completely different knowledge set that they’re going to need, and you’re going to be pretty much behind the eight ball if you haven’t learnt those management skills and good old-fashioned entrepreneurship.”  

Maureen Thurston will be part of a panel discussion about how engineers can progress from project leadership to business leadership at the Australian Engineering Conference. To register, click here.

Is there too much focus on high-speed rail at the expense of better urban networks?

rail networks

“When thinking about building another rail line, or another road, or another piece of the electricity grid, you need to consider what it means for the networks. Individual pieces of the network must work for one another,” says Sir Rod Eddington, a keynote speaker at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference.   

Transportation is one of the big-ticket items in Australia’s $100 billion public infrastructure pipeline. Data from industry research and forecasting consultancy Macromonitor predicts the annual spend on road and rail projects alone will reach $16 billion by 2020, and the Federal Government’s latest budget included a $75 billion allocation for significant transport infrastructure projects over the next decade.

This is all welcome news for Sir Rod Eddington, former chairman of government body Infrastructure Australia, who believes the liveability of our cities rests upon smart transport infrastructure. Eddington will share his views on the future of our cities at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference, where he will be interviewed by WA Scientist of the Year Peter Newman, whom he worked with at Infrastructure Australia.

“Cities are seen as more attractive places to live for a whole series of reasons, despite the challenges that living in them brings: the cost of housing, congestion, availability of services, commutability,” Eddington said.

“The bottom line is, we didn’t invest in our rail networks for a long time. As the cities get bigger and more congested, the best way to move large numbers of people down narrow corridors is rail.”

Eddington is considered a leading expert in infrastructure. A non-executive chairman at J.P. Morgan, he studied engineering at the University of Western Australia and completed a Rhodes Scholarship before beginning a career in transport and aviation in 1979. He went on to become CEO of Cathay Pacific, Ansett Airlines and British Airways.

When it comes to transport infrastructure, Eddington stresses a need to be “modally agnostic”. In 2006, he completed a study for the British Government on the links between transport and the economy. He wrote a similar independent report for the Victorian Government in 2008, which identified a need for a major city road tunnel, an underground rail link and a new western suburbs rail line for Melbourne.

“I’m not suggesting road is a better solution than rail, but in terms of relieving congestion in big cities, investment in the right rail networks is fundamental,” he said.

“As the motor car arrived, rail patronage either stalled or fell a bit and, as a result, we took our eye off the rail ball particularly. Roads are an important part of the jigsaw too, but inner cities only work if you have the right rail network as well as the right road network. When cities get to about the size of where Melbourne is now, you need an urban rail network to compliment the suburban rail network. The state of Victoria is beginning to build the first of what it calls its metro lines.”

A reason for high-speed rail?

While rail infrastructure was a significant feature of the latest Federal Budget, including $1.1 billion for Perth’s Metronet, $475 million for Melbourne’s Monash rail connection and $220 million for Adelaide’s Gawler rail line electrification, Australia is yet to get on track with the high-speed variety. Indeed, Eddington questions the role of high-speed rail between centres such as Sydney and Melbourne.

“What would that do to help people to get into work in Melbourne or Sydney from the suburbs any quicker?,” he asked.

“How much would it cost and what else could you do with rail networks for the money? If the major challenges are around city congestion and getting people to move freely and easily around the city, then that’s where the spend should go.

“There might be different rail projects that have merit [and] you have to look at all of them and then decide where you’re going to allocate capital. Are you going to invest in all the rail networks in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane? What about improved rural and regional rail?

“What about better rail networks to our ports and our airports? You just can’t jump on a solution [such as] a high-speed rail between Sydney and Melbourne and think that’s a good idea, because you need to look at the alternative spends and the alternative needs. Nobody says they can’t get from Sydney to Melbourne, but what they do say is ‘I can’t get on a train from the suburbs of Melbourne into work in the morning’.”

This topic is sure to make for interesting conversation at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference, when Eddington takes to the stage with Newman, a proponent of high-speed rail. Eddington is certainly up for the debate.

“You need to think about infrastructure in the context of networks, not in the context of single pieces of the jigsaw,” he said.

“When thinking about building another rail line, or another road, or another piece of the electricity grid, you need to consider what it means for the networks. Individual pieces of the network must work for one another.”  

Sir Rod Eddington will be speaking about advancing Australia’s urban liveability, workability and sustainability at the Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To register, click here

“Go out and solve somebody’s problem”: Leadership lessons from the world of engineering

leadership lessons from engineering

Leadership isn’t always easy, but if you understand the business and the people working within it, you’re on the right path.

Rob Sindel was not born a leader. The Chief Executive Officer of building products group CSR believes that, like all leaders, his skills were developed through vital career lessons, most of which were learned through missteps rather than successes.

“Once you put your hand in the fire, you go, ‘Oh, that wasn’t very sensible; I’m not going to do that again’,” he said.

Sindel has learned a lot through his 30-year career in the construction industry and will be sharing his leadership journey at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference (AEC) in September. His first leadership lesson came shortly after graduating from the University of Queensland with a degree in mechanical engineering in the 1980s, and he said even the most experienced leaders must be open to learning from those around them.

Building a career

Before commencing his university degree, Sindel wasn’t sure what an engineer actually did, but he’d enjoyed maths and physics at school and thought that engineering would allow him to create something of value.

“I liked the tangibility of engineering,” he said.


Rob Sindel, CEO of CSR, said his leadership skills were honed by his background in engineering.

Sindel’s career in the construction industry began when he joined Pioneer’s graduate program in 1989. He described it as a wonderful opportunity for “hands-on training”.

“You’d do concrete work with a customer for a week and you’d go out on trucks and then learn how to dispatch the trucks,” Sindel said.

“They also gave you a concrete plant to run, and I loved that. All the team worked for you, so you were suddenly in a leadership role. It was not a huge team, but there were seven owner-drivers, and if you didn’t find sales of concrete to keep the plant busy, then those guys didn’t eat. There was a great motivator for me: both wanting the business to run well and not wanting to disappoint those seven individuals.”

While running the plant, Sindel would calculate how much concrete he had sold each fortnight. He’d also look at his transport costs and work out his profit and loss.

“It was my real introduction into business and I loved it,” he said.

Sindel said this early experience made him feel like an entrepreneur.

“The plant that I was given was losing money, and I thought, ‘How am I going to turn this around?’,” he said.

“I have absolute respect for entrepreneurs who start with a clean sheet of paper and say, ‘Right, how do I generate my first dollar of revenue? And what does that cost me to do it? And how do I go from there?’.”

Watch and listen

Sindel joined CSR in April 2008 and has been Chief Executive Officer, Managing Director and Executive Director since 2011. For the year ending 31 March 2018, CSR had a trading revenue of $2.6 billion — up 6 per cent from the previous year — and employed more than 4200 people.

Prior to CSR, Sindel was Managing Director of Hanson’s slag cement business in the United Kingdom, a subsidiary of the global building materials company Heidelberg Cement Group.

He said he has learned a lot by watching how others operate, and that one of his greatest lessons occurred early in his career while running a Pioneer joint venture with self-contractors in Cannes.

“One was a front-end loader driver and the other was a dozer driver, but they understood what leadership looked like,” he said.

“They had about 400 [people] working for them and they knew every one of their names. It was a much more ‘family’ and holistic approach to leadership.”

Another important lesson he has learned is to adapt his approach to different situations.

“There’s nothing wrong with being directive and assertive and controlling when the people working in your team want that sort of guidance,” he said.

“But by the time you get to a development level where the individual is competent and really wants to excel, you have to give them responsibility and accountability and let them run with it. You have to be able to change your leadership style depending on the development of the individual.”

Learning on the job

Sindel believes leaders must set a clear vision for an organisation.

“You must look at how you develop a culture and how you continually reinforce it,” he said, adding that many organisations get it wrong.

“Look what the banking royal commission has come out with,” he said.

“People get too focused on incentives. You have to reinforce good behaviours so that the reputation of the organisation is first and foremost.”

Sindel also has words of advice for other engineers looking to move into leadership roles and will share these during his session at the AEC.

“Have a try at all the different functional roles,” he said.

“Even though you’re in engineering, spend some time with the marketing people, the finance people and spend some time on the road selling. A lot of engineers say they don’t know how to sell but selling is actually easy. It’s just going out and solving somebody’s problem.”  

Rob Sindel will be speaking about the leadership journey and how to successfully change careers at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference. To learn more and to register, click here

The promises and perils of AI that’s ‘smarter’ than us

the promises and perils of artificial intelligence (AI)

Working with artificial intelligence (AI) has positives and negatives, but how we approach it will determine which side is felt more, says inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil.

Ray Kurzweil is arguably one of the great inventors of his time. During his teen years in the 1960s, he developed pattern recognition software that could write music in the vein of famous composers.

In 1976, it was the Kurzweil Reading Machine, which used optical character recognition for any font, charge coupled device flatbed scanner, and a text-to-voice synthesiser (all three new inventions) to allow the blind to enjoy printed material.

This was followed by the first synthesiser able to emulate orchestral instruments, all of which earned Kurzweil entry into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002. His current role is Director of Engineering at Google.

At age 70, he has earned a reputation as a formidable futurist as well as an inventor (and author of multiple best-sellers).

“In order to create technology, you have to be able to anticipate the future; you have to know where technology is going,” he told an Academy of Achievement audience in 2000.

“There’s no point solving problems that wouldn’t be problems and wouldn’t have applications by the time the project got finished.”

At the Australian Engineering Conference, Kurzweil will deliver the keynote ‘Thinking Machines – the Promise and the Peril’, discussing the vast implications of progress in artificial intelligence.  

Ray Kurzweil at South by Southwest in 2017.

The possibility of AI ‘smarter’ than us offers both promise and peril. The promise involves better tools to combat issues such as disease, poverty and global warming. The peril is something that might escape our control, whatever that looks like. We’ll be okay though, believes Kurzweil, if we can approach the issue the way we did biotechnology.

“A meeting called the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA was organised in 1975 to assess its potential dangers and devise a strategy to keep the field safe,” he wrote in 2014, adding that the resulting guidelines had been adopted and no significant problems had emerged since.

“We have the opportunity in the decades ahead to make major strides in addressing the grand challenges of humanity. AI will be the pivotal technology in achieving this progress. We have a moral imperative to realise this promise while controlling the peril.”   

Ray Kurzweil will deliver a keynote address at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To learn more and to register, click here.

How can engineers help make innovation more than just a buzzword?

Where are the real opportunities to make a difference? What are the things that we can do that have never been done before? These are the questions engineers should be asking themselves.

If you’re planning to talk about innovation with Admiral Chris Barrie, you’d better know what it actually means. The former Australian Defence Force Chief says the term has been added to an ever-growing pile of business and political buzzwords. Innovation, he believes, has become heavy on talk and light on action.

Barrie will go beyond buzzwords at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference in Sydney when he joins a panel of speakers to discuss some of the big ideas that could pave the way for our prosperous nation.

“Most people I speak to who use the word ‘innovation’ have no real understanding of what that means,” he said.

Chris Barrie Australian Defence Force

Admiral Chris Barrie AC, RAM.

“I’ve quizzed bureaucrats and I’ve quizzed ministers and others, and nearly everybody has said that, in this country, it’s about a building with ‘innovation’ over the front door. When you go to Silicon Valley, though, or to other places in the United States, it’s about what people are doing in the garage. They’re building things; they’re trying new things because they had a bright idea and they got a little bit of money together, so they’re giving it a go. That’s what innovation really means.”

Australia is not short of big ideas, said Barrie. However, he believes our innovative thinkers can be stymied by restrictive laws that prevent them from putting ideas into action.

“I think Australia needs to change its bankruptcy law,” said Barrie, citing US bankruptcy legislation as a better alternative for encouraging entrepreneurship.

“I think one of the consequences of our bankruptcy law is the government has to fund everything,” he said.

“I do think a fundamental building block of our society would change if bankruptcy law changed and there would be more encouragement for venture capital to seed new ideas. Industry and even governments would be more accepting of risk and trying new things. We’re so risk-averse that we won’t try anything that hasn’t been done somewhere else before.

“There’s much less likelihood we would ever have a Silicon Valley in this country, because we don’t have the capital to take the risk of experimentation,” adds Barrie. “I think there’s a real case for us to change because, frankly, at the moment, brain drain means all our best and most talented people go to the United States. I’d love to keep them here.”

Barrie also said more big ideas should be directed to the north of the country.

“We need to look at the possibilities in Northern Australia, as I think there is a lot on offer in terms of new agriculture and new research,” he said.

Barrie believes engineers play a vital role in the future of an “innovation nation”.

“When I think about innovation and about kids in their garages building all sorts of things, I think of engineers,” he said.

“I think of people that can look at technology, look at materials and solve some of the rather persistent causes of problems. I would like to think that their imaginations would be lit up by questions such as, ‘Where are the real opportunities to make a difference here? What are the things that we can do that have never been done before?’. That’s the kind of society I think we should be trying to aim for in the 21st century.” 

Admiral Chris barrie AC, RAN, former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, will be speaking about Australia’s grand plan for the future and how engineers fit in at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To register, click here