The Unwritten Laws of Engineering

Jim Mortensen
October 11, 2022

One of my favourite business and engineering books is probably one you’ve never heard of – The Unwritten Laws of Engineering by W.J. King. 

Originally published in 1944 as three articles in Mechanical Engineering Magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

There is likely to be little in this book that most experienced engineering professionals and leaders don’t already know, or at least claim to know.

But in my experience as both a business and technology leader, many engineering and management screwups are rooted in a failure to adhere to the laws and principles so concisely presented in this book. 

So I thought it an opportune time to dust off the cover of my favourite old tome and provide you with highlights from 10 of the authors laws and principles;

My Top 10 Laws and Principles, from The Unwritten Laws of Engineering

  1. Develop a “Let’s Go See!” attitude. 

When approached by someone with a real-life problem ….

A wonderfully effective response, both technically and administratively, is to invite them to have a look with you – i.e. ‘Let’s go see!’”

It is seldom adequate to remain at one’s desk and speculate about causes and solutions, or to retreat to drawings, specifications, and reports and hope to sort it all out.

  1. Strive for conciseness and clarity in oral or written reports. 

There is a curious and widespread tendency among engineers to surround the answer to a simple question with so many preliminaries and commentaries that the answer itself can hardly be discerned.

The tendency is to explain the answer before answering the question.

  1. Do not be too anxious to defer to or embrace your manager’s instructions. 

An undue subservience or deference to any manager’s wishes is fairly common among young engineers which causes the engineer to:

  • surrender all initiative and depend on their supervisor to do all the thinking for a project.
  • persist with a design or a project even after new evidence has proven the original plan to be infeasible.
  1. Promises, schedules, and estimates are necessary and important instruments in a well-ordered business.

Many engineers fail to realise this, or habitually try to dodge the responsibility for making commitments

No one should be allowed to avoid the issue by the old formula, ‘I can’t give a promise because it depends upon so many uncertain factors.

  1. Cultivate the habit of “boiling matters down” to their simplest terms.

Some people seem eternally disposed to ‘muddy the water’; or they ‘can never see the forest for the trees.

Make it a practice to integrate, condense, summarise, and simplify your facts rather than expand, ramify, complicate, and disintegrate them.

  1. Do not get excited in engineering emergencies keep your feet on the ground.

Most crises aren’t half as bad as they appear at first, so make it a point not to magnify a bad situation.

The important thing is to get the facts first, as promptly and as directly as possible. Then act as soon as you have enough evidence from responsible sources to enable you to reach a sound decision.

  1. Cultivate the habit of making brisk, clean-cut decisions.

Do not allow the danger of making a mistake to inhibit your initiative to the point of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Make clear-cut, swift decisions, but only if a mistake won’t create wreckage for your organisation — and you.

  1. Do not hang on to employees too selfishly when they are offered a better opportunity elsewhere. 

It’s bad business to stand in the way of a subordinate’s promotion just because the loss will inconvenience you.

Anyway, you should not get caught in a position where the loss of an individual will embarrass you unduly. Select and train back-ups for all key personnel, including yourself.

  1. Do not be too affable.

It is a mistake, of course, to try too hard to get along with everybody merely by being agreeable or even submissive on all occasions.

Indeed, you can earn the respect of your associates by demonstrating your readiness to engage in a good (albeit non-personal) fight when your objectives are worth fighting for.

Likewise, in your relations with subordinates it is unwise to carry friendliness to the extent of impairing discipline.

  1. Regard your personal integrity as one of your most important assets.

Apart from all considerations of ethics and morals, there are perfectly sound business reasons for conscientiously guarding the integrity of your character.

The priceless and inevitable reward for uncompromising integrity is confidence: the confidence of associates, subordinates, and outsiders. All transactions are enormously simplified and facilitated when your word is as good as your bond and your motives are above question.

75 years and still relevant today ….

There you have it …. The Unwritten Laws of Engineering from 1944 and IMO, much of it still relevant here in 2021.

While many of these laws and principles may seem like common sense when you read them on screen, they are commonly violated or overlooked and should remain core to anyone aspiring to best practice.

Words of Wisdom from the Old and the New

It’s important for engineers and technical leaders to be lifelong learners, and to diligently learn and teach words of wisdom from the best books.

The Unwritten Laws of Engineering ranks as one of the best books (albeit, largely unknown) available for engineers and technical leaders.

As a technical manager and leader, I have recommended this book to entry-level engineers just out of college or university. Young, and otherwise talented engineers, often lack the soft skills to reach their full potential and Part I: What the Beginner Needs to Learn at Once helps them fill that gap.

While there is plenty of good advice and wisdom in this book for individual contributor engineers, Part II: Relating Chiefly to Engineering Managers covers laws and principles specifically for engineering managers and leaders, or those aspiring to those roles. 

I can’t think of any other business or engineering book that packs so much wisdom into just 60 pages. It holds a prominent spot in my technical leadership toolkit.

About the Author

Jim Mortensen is an experienced CTO/COO based in New Mexico, USA. He is also one of our leadership coaches and about to launch his first group coaching tribe with a cohort crossing the US and Australia.

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