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.

“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