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.

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