How time, competence and focused concentration come together to support the predictable delivery of capital projects
Highly productive engineers are the holy grail in predictable capital project delivery. The disciplined, organized release of drawings, estimates, reports and work packages is a powerful engine on well-run capital projects, and a productivity multiplier of the highest order. If you’re struggling with cost overruns and delays, engineering productivity is a big part of the predictability solution.
How do you make engineers more productive? The best answer we’ve found can be summed up in just two words: Deep Work. This groundbreaking concept, pioneered by professor and author Cal Newport, posits that high quality work is a function not just of time spent, but also level of focus. For capital projects, I’d add competency as well. Here’s the formula:
You will no doubt find this is true in your own life, as I did. I am an engineer by training, and I can attest to the fact that I produced more high-calibre work product when I focused my energy and attention over significant stretches of time. This remains true in my work as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley today.
Unfortunately, many capital project engineers today work in environments that conspire against focused attention. Distractions are ubiquitous in most modern offices. Email alone is an enormous problem, soaking up an estimated 28% of every working day. Add in Slack, Sharepoint, phone calls, meetings, interruptions and social media, and you can quickly see why engineers struggle with productivity.
Regardless of skill or competence, if you can’t stay focused on engineering work for more than a few minutes before getting interrupted, you’re not going to get very much done. This is why, despite myriad productivity tools, apps and “hacks,” engineers often feel like they’re less productive than ever. Distraction kills productivity.
Context switching is another big problem. In his book, Deep Work, Newport explains that when you switch your attention from one task to another -- even for a second or two -- you generate what’s known as attention residue. Attention residue is a kind of mental hangover that you carry from one task to another, and it impacts your ability to fully apply yourself to the task at hand. For instance, imagine you’re working on a critical drawing, and you decided to quickly check your email to make sure you’re not missing anything. Switching contexts like this gives you a cognitive handicap for the next few minutes, because when you return to working on the drawing, your brain is still processing what you saw in your inbox.
Organizations that value engineering productivity create conditions in which engineers can accomplish deep work, spending extended periods of time focused on tasks that move the project forward in a meaningful way. They have offices with doors that close, and cultural mores that encourage and support focused attention, like respect for “Do Not Disturb” signs and the option to forward calls to a receptionist. A culture that supports deep work does not demand immediate responses to emails, Slack messages or phone calls.
Here at Concord we work with organizations to help establish KPIs that support deep work. Many engineering offices still operate without clear performance measures, and managers unwittingly reward the wrong things. For example, managers often preach teamwork and praise those who engage frequently with colleagues, respond quickly to emails and maintain an open-door policy. Unfortunately, all of these practices mitigate against deep work, and so undermine productivity.
As a capital project leader, you must decide what you value most from your engineers, and then establish performance measures that reinforce those values. Ask yourself: What distinguishes a high performer?
On most capital projects, the most valuable engineer is the one who consistently delivers high-quality work product -- the drawings, estimates, reports and work packages that move a project forward. If you institute performance measures that reward those who consistently deliver high-quality work, your culture will adjust and your engineers -- who are smart, educated and driven -- will find ways to meet those new standards.
You can support that cultural adjustment by modeling deep work for your team: Shut the door, forward calls to the receptionist, and get something important done. Give them permission to log out of email, turn off Slack and focus on critical work; tell them you value high-quality work product over always-on availability. Reinforce these values often.
Achieving predictability is a complex process, and establishing the conditions for deep work is a critical part of Concord’s Productivity Thinking™ matrix. While this article is about engineers, we have also worked with change management professionals and others to establish deep work as a keystone habit at capital project organizations.
Any project can leverage this powerful tool, regardless of size or scope. If you need support on your journey, we are one click away.