Good engineering designs are those that work in the real world; bad designs are those that don’t. If we agree to set our egos aside and let the real world be our guide, we can resolve nearly any disagreement.

Dave Palmer

January 28, 2015

5 Min Read
How to Handle Design Disagreements

Many people would prefer to avoid disagreements. In the engineering world, however, disagreements are almost inevitable. It’s natural that different people will have different ideas about the best way to solve a given engineering problem. In fact, most of the time, it’s a good thing. If everyone were to agree right off the bat, this could be a sign of groupthink , a problem I wrote about in a previous Design News article. Diversity of viewpoints is almost always healthy and constructive. If a design decision everyone agrees with turns out to be wrong, a lot of time could be wasted that might have been saved if someone had suggested a different approach.

Good engineers tend to be passionate about their work, so it’s possible for disagreements to get heated at times. Furthermore, engineers are often under a lot of pressure to resolve problems quickly. The stakes can be high: the success or failure of a project, large sums of money, jobs (including one’s own), or even the safety and wellbeing of the public. In such situations, an engineer who fails to advocate strongly for what, in his or her professional judgment, is the correct solution, is shirking an ethical responsibility.

Given these facts, how can we keep disagreements from getting out of hand? Most importantly, how can we resolve disagreements and arrive at the correct solution?

One of the most important things I’ve learned in my engineering career is that a lot of things that sound reasonable aren’t actually true. An idea may seem extremely clear and logical in your mind, but that’s not a guarantee that it’s correct. Intelligent people may have different opinions from one another, but the universe has its own opinion -- and in the end, it’s the only one that counts.

How can we determine what the universe’s opinion is? By designing and carrying out experiments. Every time we perform a test, we’re asking the universe a question.

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Of course, the universe has a tendency to answer exactly the question we’ve asked, so if we ask the question in the wrong way, we might wind up with an unhelpful or misleading answer. That’s why it’s so important to design tests carefully. It’s essential to understand the limitations of the test method (including uncertainty, bias, and any potential sources of error), and to choose a sample size that’s large enough to provide meaningful results. The testing conditions may or may not mimic real-world conditions; if they don’t, it’s important to recognize how they differ, and how this might affect the test’s outcome. As Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

It’s also essential to be aware of your own biases. The experiment must be set up in such a way that it’s possible to disprove what you think is true. After all, experiments that are simply designed to prove what we already “know” tend to achieve their desired result, whether correct or not. This means you need to seriously consider the possibility that you could be wrong. This is uncomfortable for many people, since it requires humility. It means that you cannot adopt the attitude of 100% certainty that some people think is necessary of an “expert.” However, it is the only way to reach a meaningful answer.

First and foremost, you need to have a very clear statement of the question. Without this, you can collect massive amounts of data, and still get nowhere. On the other hand, if you can state a question clearly enough, then you’re already part of the way toward an answer.

How can we use this to resolve disagreements? Every technical disagreement can be reduced to a question, or series of questions, that can be answered by means of data. If we can all agree on a clear statement of the question, then we should be able to agree on a way to collect and interpret the data that will answer it. Then we can let the facts speak for themselves.

It shouldn’t matter how many years of experience you have; experience can be helpful, but sometimes it can trick us into believing that the problems of the present are the same as the problems of the past. It shouldn’t matter what academic qualifications you have; education is a wonderful thing, but sometimes a non-degreed technician can see things more clearly than someone with a doctorate. Still less should it matter where you went to school, or what your position in the company is. It shouldn’t matter, either, how many people agree with you; democracy may be a good way to decide questions of public policy, but it’s a lousy way to decide questions of truth or falsehood. The only thing that should matter is what the data says.

Good engineering designs are those that work in the real world; bad designs are those that don’t. If we agree to set our egos aside and let the real world be our guide, we can resolve nearly any disagreement.

Design engineers and professionals, the West Coast’s most important design, innovation, and manufacturing event, Pacific Design & Manufacturing, is taking place in Anaheim, Feb. 10-12, 2015. A Design News event, Pacific Design & Manufacturing is your chance to meet qualified suppliers, get hands-on access to the latest technologies, be informed from a world-class conference program, and expand your network. (You might even meet a Design News editor.) Learn more about Pacific Design & Manufacturing here.

Dave Palmer, P.E., is a licensed professional metallurgical engineer specializing in failure analysis and prevention. He earned his B.S. degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and his M.S. degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

About the Author(s)

Dave Palmer

Dave Palmer is a licensed professional metallurgical engineer, specializing in failure analysis and materials selection. He lives in Waukegan, Illinois, and works as a metallurgist for a major marine engine manufacturer. He holds a BS in Materials Science and Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and is completing his MS thesis at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. When not working or spending time with his wife and two teenage daughters, he teaches a U.S. citizenship class for legal permanent residents. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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