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ReEngineering the Engineer: It’s All in the Delivery

Douglas Fitzpatrick on September 28, 2020 - in Articles, Column

My engineering firm works on a large variety of project sizes, even within the same building type. We work on significant expansions for hospitals, but we also do individual medical equipment replacements. We have worked on large retail centers and provided engineering for adding a small roof-top unit on an existing building.

Sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of the billing for these projects, and it’s not uncommon for a project to get lost in billing purgatory. When no one has heard anything on it, we skip it and “wait until next month.” Eventually enough months pass that someone makes a phone call only to discover the project was completed some time ago.

Clicking Send
It’s been a busy summer for us. It  seems like I could simply respond to emails all day long and still have a full day, let alone manage to get some actual engineering in. So right or wrong, on some of these small projects, I’ve resorted to sending an invoice if it has been several months since we sent out construction documents.

Sometimes we get an email or phone call saying the project is on hold for whatever reason. We usually get the option to void the invoice or let it sit there until the project catches up. Every now and then, however, I’ll get an email from accounts-payable that reads like a scathing putdown. It usually contains words like “rejected,” “cannot be processed,” “overbilled,” etc., and there’s usually underlining or CAPS involved.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting I’m totally correct here. How hard is it to pick up the phone and call the project manager (PM)? But is an email putdown really necessary? In this case, the PM was copied on the first notification and was kind enough to politely explain that the hospital had been waiting for flu season to finish, then COVID hit – totally understandable. Unfortunately, that email was then followed by a similar email from the accounts-payable person, saying the same thing, but with that familiar sting to it.

I was fine after the first explanation: the client put the project on hold, and  no one told us. But the emails from the  accounts-payable person put me on the defensive. It felt like I was the dummy for not knowing the inner workings of all the architect’s projects. Perhaps I was being a little too sensitive that day; I don’t like making mistakes.

Switching to Analog

Similarly, we had some issues arise on one of our projects. Bad design? Thermal issues? Poor construction? Based on jobsite construction photos, however, we were able to determine the workmanship of the masonry subcontractor was really poor.

In the heat of all of this, however, the architect sent us an email asking several difficult questions. My first response was to answer the email with an email; that’s what we do these days. I spent an hour or two trying to compose a response that answered the questions fairly. I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote sentences believing they could be interpreted incorrectly. In the end, I deleted the email and called the architect directly. I concluded there was no way I could write something without it being misinterpreted.

The point is that everything we say has “feeling.” The intonation of our voice, a chuckle, a thoughtful pause, a feeling of sympathy, a feeling of anger, our body language when we’re in front of someone, etc., all set the stage for how the listener interprets our message. We have total control over those emotions when we speak to deliver the intended message.

It’s a lot more difficult—and I’ll  argue impossible—to get that emotion  correct when writing on a sensitive subject, because the reader doesn’t have the advantage of hearing the tone of our voice. They make up their own mind on how it should be read. That interpretation is always influenced by the good or bad day the reader is having. And when things get interpreted the wrong way, you have to work extra hard to overcome the bad start.

Talk First, Write Later
So how are we supposed to deal with  this? Today’s world is driving us more and more to written responses: emails, texts, chats, posts, etc.; and there are timeswhen we have to provide an answer in writing for legal reasons, CYA, etc.

Through the years, I’ve learned (and decided) that calling is the best first line of action, even if it’s uncomfortable. Then follow up with an email. The initial benefit is you get to make the first pitch verbally, with all the advantages speaking brings with it. Second, and just as important, you get to hear how your listener interprets what you’re trying to say, and you get to react accordingly, still with all your verbal toolkit.

All that feedback then gives you fodder for how to compose your email correctly, if one still is necessary. Hopefully, you’ve learned enough in the conversation to diffuse the misunderstandings lurking in the written word, and you can carefully address them.

Our word as engineers carries a lot of weight, with good reason. But as the saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.” We need to be very careful about our written responses. We need to be absolutely sure we’re sending the proper message. Our written delivery can have unintended influence on our reader’s interpretation, thereby affecting  our message. And it applies to all of us, young or old.


About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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