move your own cheese

My August column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

The overplayed stereotype always had something to do with a socially inept engineer sporting a short-sleeve white shirt and slim black tie, big horn-rimmed glasses, and a pocket protector overstuffed with BIC pens. He always seemed to be working alone in some lab trying to figure out a way to calculate a new formula.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but that guy is gone and with him the stereotype of who engineers are. If you think I’m kidding, you haven’t been paying attention. Hopefully, most of you are part of the transformation. If you’re not, look around you and see the young woman sitting a few feet away; she’s the new project manager. To her left, the guy with the tattoo is just home to Seattle from Bolivia and wants to go back to help build a new plant for a burgeoning organic coffee producer. These new engineers may or may not look like you, but they’re the ones who are driving the profession.

Feeling increasingly out of place, whether you are 61, 31, or 21 years old is not uncommon these days. But being out of place is not—and none of it has to do with how old you are. The notion of being too old to matter is as out of date as the old notions of engineers.

What matters is not your age but the wisdom to understand that the way business used to be is not the way business is today. It’s what  Fast Company magazine editor Robert Safian calls Generation Flux. Or a mindset that tolerates, if not completely embraces, instability, changing business models, and assumptions about how things work.

Few traditional career tactics, Safian says, train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills. Yet the effort and the open-mindedness can lead to great opportunity.

When I chatted with him about this a few weeks ago, Safian reiterated his belief that those who have the skills, along with the adaptability and aptitude to thrive in today’s often chaotic work environment, will be the ones who lead change and the ones who have the most satisfying careers.

Safian likes to say that Charles Darwin foreshadowed today’s era in his description of natural selection: It is not the strongest of the species that survives; nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

So the takeaway is to learn from past experiences and past cultures—almost like the design anthropologists Alan Brown writes about in this month’s cover story, who can reframe the understanding of past behaviors to help shape new products.

Design anthropologists, Brown says, use the kind of lens that enables designers to see things in a new light. Much the same lens that we need to use to embrace the changing landscapes of the workplace.

If you’re a designer wearing a white short-sleeve shirt with a skinny tie and horn-rimmed glasses today, hopefully you’re making a fashion statement and you’re not still wondering who moved your cheese. Open your eyes, adapt to the chaos, embrace the ambiguous future, recalibrate your career—use your skills to help lead the technology revolution that is improving the world.


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17 Responses to “move your own cheese”

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    Reblogged this on A Professor in Waterloo Engineering and commented:
    Here’s a nice post about engineering stereotypes, and the importance of adapting to change. In Engineering Education, we might refer to this as “lifelong learning”, but similar idea. When we talk with prospective students, it’s important to dispel these old stereotypes, so thanks to the author!

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

August 2012
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