Collaborative Engineering 101: Helping Paper Lovers Embrace Digital

Meagan Campbell

May 3, 2023


min read

Whether it’s you, someone on your team, or someone you’ve worked with in the past—we all know what it’s like when an engineer insists they work best on paper. Most paper lovers don’t use paper exclusively, though. Even engineers with the strongest paper preferences do their design work in CAD today, rather than continuing to produce engineering drawings manually.

But when it comes to a task like marking up a design, or anything else that can be printed out and done by hand, there are always diehards reluctant to fully purge paper from their workflows. For some, the Covid-19 pandemic might’ve already changed their paper-use habits. Working from home might’ve meant losing access to a printer. Not being able to physically exchange paper with coworkers in the office might’ve pushed teams to adopt new methods for working together.

So if your team is still (or once again) trying to phase out paper-based work, you might be trying to figure out how to help everyone get on board with a new digital process. Or maybe you’ve gotten paper out of the picture, but you’re trying to shift the team from a digital-document-centric mindset to a model-centric way of working. Either way, facilitating a change to ingrained habits takes intention and effort.

This post offers suggestions for guiding your team through a process change, like going paperless or adopting a new digital tool, so you can get the buy-in you need to get everyone aligned on the same page.

Understand Where People Are Coming From

Change is not the only constant in life—because along with change comes fear, hesitancy, and/or resistance to that change. And while some of us are quicker to embrace change, none of us are immune to those feelings. We’ve all made changes in life, big or small, that we initially would’ve preferred to avoid. So when you’re in the position of trying to lead a change or help someone through one, it helps to remember the times you were resistant to some sort of shift yourself.

“It's usually not the change itself that challenges us; it's the psychological transition we experience that ultimately leads to success or failure,” Vered Kogan writes in this Forbes article. “Many of us like to hold on to a sense of safety and security… being asked to do something differently can trigger emotions such as anger, frustration, depression, fear and anxiety.”

It’s normal for change to feel uncomfortable or threatening at first, even if it’s something that seems small or mundane—and even if we aren’t necessarily conscious of the real reason we’re resisting it. So if your goal is to help someone get on board with a new way of working, start with empathy. It can be an easy trap to feel someone is simply being “difficult.” But when you take the time to listen and understand where they’re coming from, it makes the transition easier for both of you.

Stay Focused on the End Goal

If you’re trying to champion a change, you need to be championing the reason for it. The more you keep your focus on the end goal instead of the behaviours that need to shift, the more motivating you’ll be able to be. Rather than trying to push someone off paper, you can pull them toward the benefits of the new way so that they want to change. Staying focused on the vision you’re working toward helps others to see it, too.

Once you understand where people are coming from, you can help them find the value in overcoming their resistance. “How you communicate the change is the factor that often most affects how much resistance to change will occur,” Kogan points out. “Employees must believe that the change is needed now, and they must clearly understand what might happen if the organization doesn't change.”

As a leader, the more you focus on the end result and its benefits—the better you’ll be able to communicate with others in a way that’s convincing, reassuring, and effective. If someone believes they can do something faster and easier on paper, you’ll need to paint a picture that shows how doing things differently will actually make things better for them personally. It might take time. But keeping that vision front and center in your mind will help you act as the continual reminder of what everyone stands to gain.

Show, Don’t Tell

It’s one thing to explain to people why they should care about something. When you can show people why they should care, though, it has a totally different effect. As important as it is for you to understand where people are coming from and to stay focused on the end goal, seeing really is believing.

Whatever change you’re trying to help someone make—switching from doing something on paper to doing it digitally, adopting a new digital process, using a new app—the sooner they experience the benefits of the transition, the smoother the transition will be. Finding ways for people to get small wins, early and often, is a well-established technique to facilitate behaviour change.

Take some time to consider how you might be able to break things down and create those opportunities for small wins. Go back to the reasons for the change and for the resistance to it, and figure out where you can start to curate an experience that lets someone begin to realize the benefits of doing things a new way. As soon as you can successfully set someone up to have their “A-ha” moment, you can stop fighting an uphill battle and start simply supporting them through the shift.

September 13, 2021

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