Collaborative Engineering 101: How to Get High-Quality Input from All Your Stakeholders
July 1, 2021
Getting input on a design from multiple collaborators and stakeholders can be challenging on its own. Just to get it done, it takes a lot of admin work, organization, email tag, meeting requests, and all that other fun stuff. But “just getting it done” is only half the battle—the quality of the input matters, too.
One of the cool things about working on an engineering design project is having the chance to collaborate with a ton of very smart, knowledgeable people. When you need feedback from someone, and they can easily review exactly what they need to review, you get high-quality input that makes a huge difference. It can make your design better. It can make your project run smoother. It can even save you from making a big, annoying, and/or expensive mistake.
When that design review process gets clunky, messy, tedious, time-consuming… it’s a different story. The quality of the feedback can go down. Not because the person giving it doesn’t have useful insight and not because they don’t care, but because the process makes it hard to avoid. If you’ve got an overflowing inbox, an endless to-do list, and deadlines coming at you from all angles, you do the best you can. And if you’re being sent a 46-slide PowerPoint with various screenshots of a 3D model that try to capture all the angles and views you need to see, it’s tough to give your highest-quality input.
This post gives you three suggestions as a starting point for facilitating a process that gets you the best possible feedback on an engineering design, no matter who’s reviewing it.
Have the Right Foundation in Place
It might seem obvious, but getting quality feedback from someone starts with establishing trust and building a strong relationship. How you go about this will vary between different stakeholders and under different circumstances, yet it’s helpful to stay conscious of why it matters. Creating a solid foundation with the people you’ll need to solicit feedback from doesn’t need to take a lot of extra effort—it’s just about taking the right approach.
“The best design feedback I receive comes from people who I trust, and I know they have equal respect for me,” writes Benek Lisefski in this article. “Trust is a two-way street.” Although Lisefski is a UX/UI designer, the same principle applies in mechanical design. You’re going to get better design input from people where there’s a mutual sense of trust and respect, and those are things that need to be intentionally cultivated.
So how do you do it? Like many important skills, there’s no magic formula. It’ll need to fit with your own personal way of operating and it’ll change depending on the stakeholder, situation, and context. But it comes down to the basics of strong people skills and good communication: use empathy, genuinely listen to the other person, and strive to be personable. When you use a relationship lens instead of a transactional one, the little things can go a long way.
Communicate with Context
Brains have a limit on the cognitive load they can handle at any given time, yet we’re all bombarded with information and notifications throughout our workday. Task switching also has a cognitive cost, as it takes time for the brain to shift attention from one task to another and achieve focus. Basically, the more cognitive barriers you can remove for a reviewer, the better they’ll be able to give their input.
“It’s impossible to give high quality design feedback on something when you don’t know what it is, or what it aims to be,” Alexa Harrison writes in this article. The more context you can provide, the more likely you are to receive high-quality input. As Harrison says, “High quality feedback provides designers with an alternative point of view, which will ultimately help them improve both their current and future design projects.” What you’re trying to do when you ask for feedback is to get as many perspectives as possible on a design, as early and as often as you can, to make the best product via the best process.
Communicating with context is about trying to give the right person exactly what they need to see (and only what they need to see) at the right time. It’s about not overloading information, but ensuring that all the right information is provided with meaningful context. Some of the ways you might do this include:
- Always including a clear, concise summary of the project and goals
- Using a tool that allows for simple sharing of the actual 3D model, rather than communicating design intent via 2D methods (screenshots, drawings/PDFs, PowerPoints, etc)
- Asking specific questions that allow the reviewer to know exactly what feedback you need
Make Back-and-Forth Feasible
Even if you can’t be in the same room, working on the same project, at the same time—finding ways to digitally facilitate more back-and-forth discussion on an engineering design will lead to higher-quality input and ultimately a higher-quality product. Because input is great, but iteration is better. It’s often through those back-and-forth conversations that collaborators are able to really make the most of the different perspectives and expertise everyone brings to the design process.
It’s not always easy, though. As a complex design progresses, not all stakeholders can be directly involved in every single step, and it becomes a challenge to keep everyone up-to-date on every detail. Many design review processes across the industry today are still using methods that make back-and-forth conversations a slow, difficult process or one that requires getting people together in a meeting (whether virtual or in person).
But in a previous post, we talked about the ways the cost-benefit equation has changed when it comes to facilitating greater stakeholder collaboration on engineering design. New tech solutions and modernized processes are changing what’s possible. Things that weren’t previously feasible are now things that industry leaders are already putting into action. Teams that create design review processes that allow for that back-and-forth conversation to happen—even when it’s virtual and asynchronous—are going to get higher-quality input from all stakeholders, leading to bigger and better innovations.