Communicating Technical Information to Non-Technical Management


There is an feeling in the engineering world that, I’m sure, dates back to the beginning of the profession: “My non-technical management doesn’t understand what I do”.  It’s a source of non-stop frustration to engineers and other technical types.  Whether we call them “bean counters”, or “the suits”, or other names not suitable for this post, we’ve all been there.  But, here’s a dirty little secret – it isn’t the managers fault!

In any organization, everyone has their role.  Your role, as the engineer, is to propose the most technically optimized solution available.  It’s the managers role to protect the financial stability and health of the company.  These don’t have to be competing interests, but too often that is how we see them.  It is also the engineers job to be able to effectively communicate to non-technical managers WHY your chosen solution is required.  I’ve seen a lot of engineers present proposals to managers, use indecipherable technical language, and, when questioned for the reasons behind their decisions, get defensive and angry, without ever  giving a full explanation.   As long as you have a good, reasonable manager, they will be willing to hear you out on your proposals, as long as they understand where you”re coming from.  If they don’t understand, or worse, think that you’re not taking into account the financial health of the company, they will almost certainly reject what you’re proposing.

So, how should an engineer make proposals to management to maximize their chances of getting approval:

Use Simple Language

We work in a different world than most people.  We are harnessing the natural processes and components of the world and using their natural proprieties to get an outcome we want.  That’s a little poetic, I know, but what I’m trying to say is that we need technical, complex language to describe these technical complex systems. That’s ordinarily no problem when we’re speaking with or presenting to someone who also has the background to understand.  But, your non-technical manager will not have this background.  This is often the disconnect between technical and non-technical types.  So, the easiest way to deal with this is for us to eliminate the technical jargon from our discussions.  If you’re presenting a design summary, include simple pictures, not technical drawings with superfluous information, keep slides simple and don’t get too deep in the weeds of technical, decisions.

Stay at a High Level

Engineers often get deep into the details of a proposal.  Deetails that are of no interest to thge manager, who often gets lost and can never find their way back to the heart of he proposal.  I’ve seen a lot of proposals get rejected because managers didn’t understand a minute detail, that was of no importance, but on which the engineer placed a lot of emphasis.  I like to make design proposals using the following, top level categories:

  1. Problem you are trying to solve
  2. Design Criteria/Requirements
  3. Design Constraints
  4. Potential Solutions
  5. Design Decision Matrix
  6. Selected Design

I stay at a very high level when discussing these.  Also, the higher up in management I am presenting, the less detail I go into.  To the highest level, all I would present are the problem and the selected design.  I would have back-up data ready in case I was asked…but I’ve never been asked by high level management.

Understand Where the Manager Is Coming From

I’ve mentioned that the manager is almost certainly looking out for the financial health of the company.  That is their main concern.  So, keep this in mind and use it to your advantage.  If you want your chosen proposal approved, investigate what the financial impact will be.  Is it a cost savings to a large product run? Perfect! Does it have a high initial, non-recurring cost?  Do a quick napkin calculation to develop a simple business case.  Will it result in a high recurring cost?  Present what the cost of not doing the change are.

This doesn’t have to be at the heart of your proposal, but a little effort up front will give management the impression that you understand the business, and will improve the chances of your proposal getting approved.

Hope you find these tips useful.

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