Drive transformative thinking in engineering via

Social Engineering

Over the past four decades I have split my time either as an individual contributor (IC) or an engineering manager (EM). During those years I have attempted to bring foward the best technical decision at the time for the business. This has oftentimes been difficult and there have been frequent failures. When I was “in charge” these decisions were easily mandated but came with a high price. When I did not hold the delusion of being in charge, the initial decisions would fail. The results generally yielded either a watered down sub-par outcome or a complex over-engineered solution. Multiple cans of frustration were opened.

Does this sound familiar?

First, what do I mean by “best technical decision at the time for the business”? Well, businesses go through different phases:

  1. Finding product market fit;
  2. Keeping up with the initial growth;
  3. Applying long term durable solutions;
  4. Massive scale.

The technical decisions which need to be made vary greatly at each stage, including process and who/how you hire. It is critical to identify the phase and bring forward the appropriate solution.

Next, the outcome of mandating a decision can be costly. Mainly because you are dictating what/how something should be done. Engineers crave autonomy and trust. Mandating decisions leads to a dip in productivity and morale to people, teams, and organizations.

When mandating a solution you get exactly what you mandated but this solution would either be complex and over-engineered or a watered down sub-par outcome because you took away the developer’s soul and desire to innovate.

An engineer without autonomy and trust because their manager took their soul.

As I grew, I realized I was not a good Social Engineer.

Year after year while either leading, contributing, or directly influencing outcomes at over a dozen start-ups; I have come up with my own definition of Social Engineering:

Social Engineering is the ability to achieve the vision for transformative change with minimum friction and maximum enthusiasm.

Successful Social Engineering generates outcomes which are:

  • Well understood;
  • Straightforward;
  • Simple and clear;
  • Maintainable; and
  • Complete.

With time and experience I slowly became more adept at achieving the vision for transformative change with full enthusiasm and engagement. We had alignment and ownership from the engineers which lead to autonomy and trust by articulating a clear vision — with a singular owner — and concise path forward.

But I didn’t know how I achieved this, I was just doing it. It was extremely difficult for me to articulate and communicate.

Last year I was introduced to The PRIMES by Chris McGroff which helped me synthesize what I was achieving. The PRIMES are defined as:

When you take on the biggest challenges facing your organization you’re in for tough times. Instead of collegial support, you run into fear of the unknown, mistrust, skepticism — and sometimes outright contempt.

The PRIMES are universal patterns of group behavior that outfit you to work
with any group to solve any problem — especially the big ones.

What I started doing was referencing specific PRIMES in meetings and finding coachable moments with team members to ensure everyone was aligned. Then, one night, I realized that I was consistently stringing together many of the PRIMES to achieve transformative thinking in engineering.

My definition of Social Engineering adheres to the following:

  1. Communicate the strategic initiative to set into motion — The Core Prime
  2. Set the context — The Levels of Perspective Prime
  3. Think outside the box — The Perimeter Prime
  4. Elicit help — The Laggards Prime
  5. Culturally indoctrinate change — The Consensus Prime

To do this, I utilize the five PRIMES above

Please take a few minutes to click through and watch each video (they are approximately three to five minutes in length)

1. Communicate the strategic initiative to set into motion — the Core Prime.

The Core Prime takes a strategy from “as it is” to “where it needs to be.”

What must be communicated is the key strategic initiative for the business at this time.

2. Setting the context — the Levels of Perspective Prime.

Utilizing the Levels of Perspective Prime allows one to set the context and ensures we are all aligned. Different stake holders view details very differently. This is where initiatives can fail to get off the ground as people are getting in the weeds or launching into big sky territory and misunderstanding happen.

3. Thinking outside the box — the Perimeter Prime.

The Perimeter Prime is the most fun as it allows us to remove the the fences and think outside the box. Too many of us remain in the “usual” and possibly the “available” spaces. What is exciting is when we turn the can NOTs into the can DOs.

4. Eliciting help — the Laggards Prime.

The Laggards Prime is the trickiest to master because differentiating between the early adopters and the laggards is difficult. They are look-a-likes with the only real distinction being that once an early adopter’s questions are answered they are all in. The laggards are just naysayers and will never join the party. You need the early adopters.

5. Culturally indoctrinate change — the Consensus Prime.

IMHO, this is where things can go sideways — or worse — backwards really fast. A lot of us are still using the old definition of consensus which yields a watered down outcome and, therefore, a non-transformative change. The new definition of consensus ensures the following three things happen:

  1. The process was transparent, explicit, rational, and fair;
  2. Everyone was treated with respect and their questions, comments, and concerns were heard; and
  3. They can live with and commit to the outcomes.

I have received feedback asking for a real world stories or in-depth case studies on how this formula for Social Engineering is applied, however I want to save that for a later date as this is meant as an introduction to the concept of Social Engineering, The PRIMES, and to share my framework.




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Ben Kruger

Ben Kruger

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