Overcoming the Engineering Mindset


As an engineer myself and now an engineer who sells Combined Heat and Power products and services to other engineers, I have become disappointed in my own kind. 

Some of you may know of Carol Dweck, a Stanford University Psychologist, who coined the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset.” Well I’d like to address what I would call the “engineering mindset,” which is probably just a subset of the fixed mindset. It’s the “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” mentality or my personally favorite “this is how it’s always been done” mentality. 

I know this doesn’t just apply to engineers. Ms. Dweck addressed this mindset for any industry or any situation. But I’d like to focus on this mindset when it comes to our engineering processes, standards, machines, equipment, and construction. If we continue to have this mindset in the world of design and engineering, we will never achieve those incremental efficiency gains that eventually add up to a big change. 

Deploying Combined Heat and Power has many challenges, especially around convincing the holder of the purse strings to agree to do CHP, but it can also be stalled by this same engineering mindset. CHP has been around for decades, over a century really, but yet it is still not well known in the engineering community. Ask your local HVAC or commercial MEP engineer how many CHP projects they have done, and it’s likely not more than one, if any at all. Why? 

Well I’d like to suggest that for years and years the engineering community has been built on replication and standardization to minimize risk and costs. Those are universally accepted as good things. 30 years ago, no one cared how something was made, where it was made, or how much CO2 is released by making it, but they do now. This risk minimization approach has developed a generation of engineers who fear innovation. 

Innovation is perceived risk. No matter if the innovation has already been implemented elsewhere, if your engineers aren’t familiar, you’ll hear all the ways the idea won’t work. I believe they may just fear they don’t know how to “engineer” it. And no engineer likes to think he or she is not capable. We secretly love when our families’ call us to fix the washing machine or configure the AppleTV, as if every engineer takes a class called Fixer Upper Engineering 101. We still relish in the idea that we can fix anything, so we secretly read the instruction manual meticulously or YouTube videos on how to fix [insert thing], something my 10-year-old nephew now does, so that we can continue to where the engineering hero’s cape. 

It’s not all doom and gloom though. With more exposure and pressure from all groups and walks of life to come up with better or more efficient ways to use energy, transport people and cargo, and make clean water, engineers will have no choice but to embrace the idea of innovation and let go of the warm and soft blanket that is replication. Let’s change out the old guard for the new. Challenge your engineers to grow and learn something new. Ask why. If you hear ways your idea won’t work, ask how it would work. Ask them to research where it has worked. What would be the benefit if it did work? We might just have to win engineers over by letting them think they came up with the idea. Whatever works so long as innovation wins the day.

-Doug Edgar

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