Richard West has earned bachelors and masters of science degrees in engineering and a masters in business administration, all from highly regarded colleges. He has kept up with his technical field, including the latest computer applications, and accumulated more than 20 years of solid engineering and engineering management experience. Yet his career path has not been smooth, and, in fact, he is currently unemployed!
Work history. After receiving his degrees and completing his military service commitment, Richard went to work for a large firm, but resigned after a few years. As a 34-year-old engineer, he wanted more challenging work assignments and better pay.
He went to work for a small firm that specialized in his technical area, became a project manager, and also enrolled in an MBA program. A few years later, Richard and a coworker started their own engineering business. By 1990, the firm had three engineering subsidiaries and plans to start a fourth. Richard also completed his MBA. In 1994, the partners had some major disagreements, so Richard sold his share of the business.
Richard then joined a large firm with a division in his specialty, but, unfortunately, Richard and the division were eliminated in late 1997. Now at the age of 52, he was facing an employment and financial crisis with two of his three children yet to complete college.
As he contemplated his future, he thought about his father's career. His father had worked for only one firm after leaving the Air Force in 1946. As long as he followed the rules, did not make waves, and concerned himself with job security rather than job satisfaction, Richard's father survived and retired at the age of 65. He was never wealthy, but the family never went hungry, either. They owned a modest home, and Richard's mother never took a job outside the home. Richard attended a highly regarded college through a combination of loans, grants, and financial aid.
During those years, Richard often wondered why his father did not seek out employment that would enable the family to have a nicer house or send the children to better schools.
Perhaps his father's life-style was desirable because the business and social environments were much less competitive. The half-life of an engineering education lasted nearly a lifetime; communications were basically limited to telephones, mail and the radio; organizations were reasonably stable; and a person's worth was not measured by what they owned.
Richard realized that he had to survive in a new, and totally different, working world. His working environment can be characterized by global competition, pervasive communications networks, rapidly changing technology, and unpredictable career paths.
The future. How should Richard and his wife, Joan, spend the rest of their lives? Joan, age 52 and a trained professional, recently started working with private clients in addition to her full-time hospital work. Her income, plus Richard's part-time college teaching and consulting earnings, together support the family. However, this takes a toll on his wife's health and their family life.
Richard and Joan and the children have agreed that Richard should enroll full time in a doctoral program, where he will teach part time and earn his doctorate as soon as possible, so he may continue to teach and research. They will also try to reduce their expenses so that Joan may reduce her working hours.
Ask the Manager
Q: Do research and development groups tend to have performance curves analogous to the human life cycle--tentative youth, productive maturity, and declining old age? If so, how should managers deal with this tendency?
A: Your analogy is somewhat valid, however, age (per se) need not mean stagnation in either an individual or a group.
It is natural for both individuals and groups to structure their work activities to increase the level of certainty and reduce stress. Over time this can lead to a standard way of doing things, at the cost of reduced communication. This reduction can affect three areas of communication: intraproject, interproject/organizational, and professional.
Research projects usually perform better when project members maintain high levels of technical communication with outside professionals. Whereas, performance in development projects is related to more contact within the organization, especially marketing and manufacturing.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a strong relationship between project longevity and decreased levels of communication activity and project performance. Perhaps a type of "group think" begins to occur within project groups who have been together for some time. They often behave as if they believe that outsiders aren't likely to provide important new ideas or relevant information.
When they do communicate, they selectively accept outside information that supports and maintains the group's current decisions, policies, and strategies. Some solutions:
1. Periodically rotate a new member in and a long-time member out of the group.
2. Challenge the project group to assess its
performance. Ask if it is a victim of group think.