The 7 Deadly Communication Sins in Engineering Teams

The 7 Deadly Communication Sins in Engineering Teams 250 250 Lynn Roulo

“The way we communicate with others and with ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives.” ~Tony Robbins

It is no surprise that communication errors are the root of the most costly mistakes in the engineering world. From slipped schedules, undisclosed technical failures, to team-wide frustration and confusion, the lack of effective communication bleeds into all elements of a project.  This post is about how to identify the most common issues and how to bridge communication gaps.

What are the seven deadly sins of engineering teams? Based on the book “Overcoming the 7 Deadliest Communication Sins” by Skip Weisman, these sins are:

  1. Lack of specificity – communication that is not specific enough.
  2. Lack of desirable behaviors – focusing on what “not to do” rather than what needs to be done. This leads to a focus on negative behavior.
  3. Lack of immediacy – procrastination of bad news, difficult conversations.
  4. Lack of focused attention – multitasking when someone is talking to you.
  5. Lack of appropriate tone and body language – in the form of raised voices, yelling, pointing and so forth.
  6. Lack of directness and candor – not talking about the “elephants in the room” or talking in general context hoping others will infer the actual meaning.
  7. Lack of respectful rebuttals – using the word “BUT” instead of “AND.” This inadvertently fosters disrespect.

When addressing the seven deadly communication sins, it is important to identify your own communication style. Which of the following are you?

The 9 Communication Types

Attention Style* Communication Style Illustrative Quote
Perfectionist/Type 1 Uses precise, direct, exacting, structured and detailed speech, shares task-related thoughts, can get mired in details, becomes defensive if criticized or if they are told their information is “wrong.” “I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”
Helper/Type 2 Asks lots of questions, focuses on the content of the other person, more “other” than “self” referencing, gives compliments, values social connection. “The ultimate source of happiness is not money and power, but warm-heartedness”
Achiever/Type 3 Uses clear, efficient, logical speech, may become impatient with lengthy conversations, focuses on steps to success, avoids topics that might reflect negatively on them or their image. “People are not lazy-they simply have goals that do not inspire them.”
Individualist/Type 4 Uses deliberate, conscious word choice, sensitive to emotional undercurrents and the personal situations of others, comfortable unearthing and addressing negative or messy work situations. “Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.”
Investigator/Type 5 Speaks tersely with highly selective word choice, offers little extra information, focuses on analytical data, limited sharing of extra or personal information, answers only exactly what is asked. “Reward worthy failure–experimentation.”
Skeptic/Type 6 Starts with analytical comments, discusses worries, concerns, “what ifs” and potential negative outcomes,  may alternate between hesitant, cautious speech with bold confident speech. “You need to plan the way a fire department plans: it cannot anticipate where the next fire will be, so it has to shape an energetic and efficient team that is capable of responding to the unanticipated as well as to any ordinary event.”
Enthusiast/Type 7 Uses upbeat, positive, quick, spontaneous speech, tells engaging stories, avoids the negative, reframes negative information into positive information. “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!”
Leader/Type 8 Uses bold and authoritative speech, big picture and strategic, may raise the intensity of their language until they get a response, may display anger directly and overwhelm others with their “aggressive” communication style. “You can do a lot more with weapons and politeness than just politeness.”
Peacemaker/Type 9 Uses agreeing words, gives highly detailed information in a sequential style, makes effort to be fair and balanced, may say yes when they mean no. “Silence is sometimes the best answer.”

Wondering who said those quotes?

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, the Dalai Lama, Tony Robbins, Andy Grove, Vladimir Putin and Ben Cohen. We’ll tell you who said what in an upcoming post.

Get started now:

Here’s our top tip of how you can start to improve your communication now. Pick Deadly Sin #1, the sin of lack specificity.  Focus on this topic for the next 30 days. Your goal is to be as accurate and specific as possible. Pay attention to your communication both written and verbal. Are you clear? Are you accurate? Could you be more specific?  Ranging from email subject heading to voicemail greetings, check your communication to see if you can take it up a notch. And notice how it feels to be more accurate, precise and complete in your communication.

Want to learn more?

Learn more about how to improve your business communication in our Effective Communication for Engineers Boot Camp.


*The nine types are based on the Enneagram System of Personality. Learn more.

Communication Skills for Engineers – The Seven Deadly Sins and How to Overcome Them


A new book for technical training managers

A new book for technical training managers 331 499 Eric Roulo

To kick off the new year, I’d like to share a great resource designed for the technical project manager – ‘Practical Project Management for Engineers’ by RCI trainer Nehal Patel.

This book guides readers through a step-by-step process on how to deliver quality, robust products and services while strengthening teams and customer relationships. It introduces the core processes identified for management:

  • Communication management: Over communicate, listen first.
  • Scope management: What does the customer expect?
  • Schedule management: Who does what by when?
  • Requirements management: The product or service to deliver.
  • Risk management: What could go wrong and what is the impact?
  • Vendor management: Visit the vendor in person (rule number 1 for NASA project managers).
  • Resource management: What do you need to do on Monday?
  • Cost management: Get paid.
  • Configuration management: Everyone working from the same sheet of music.

Here’s an excerpt of a review from Janet Grondin, Director of Emerging Space Capabilities, Stellar Solutions, Inc –

“Whether you are new to project management or a veteran PM, you absolutely need to have your own copy of Practical Project Management for Engineers! You will learn up-to-date, actionable information to up your game on any project!” 

You can purchase a copy of Practical Project Management for Engineers here on Amazon.


Elements of Engineering Excellence

Elements of Engineering Excellence 1024 700 Eric Roulo

NASA looked back on its illustrious history and condensed the traits that were responsible for its mission successes. They got it down to 9 principles and 27 lessons learned. This list represents over 1 trillion dollars of hardware development. It is foolish to ignore it.

The 9 Principles and 27 Lessons Learned from NASA 1958-2012

  1. System success depends on the creativity, judgment, and decision-making skills of the people
    1. People Are the Prime Resource for Project Success
    2. People Skills are Mandatory for Achieving Successful Products
  2. Space systems are challenging, high-performance systems
    1. Demand for High-Performance Lead to High Power Densities and High Sensitivities
  3. Everything acts as a system (whole)
    1. Systems and Technical Integration
    2. Risk Management
    3. All Design is a Paradox, a Balancing Act
  4. The system is governed by the laws of physics
    1. Physics of the Problems Reigns Supreme
    2. Engineering is a Logical Thought Process
    3. Mathematics is the The Same!
    4. Fundamentals of Launch Vehicle Design
  5. Robust Design is based on our understanding of sensitivities, uncertainties, and margins
    1. Robustness
    2. Understanding Sensitivities and Uncertainties is Mandatory
    3. Margins Must Be Adequate
  6. Project success is determined by life cycle considerations
    1. Design Space Constrained by Where you Are in the Life Cycle
    2. Concept Selection and Design Process
    3. Requirements Drive the Design
    4. Designing for the -ilities and Cost
  7. Testing and verification have an essential role in development
    1. Hardware and Data Have the Answers
    2. Can Test Now or Will Test Later
    3. Independent Analysis, Test, and Design are Keys to Success
    4. All Analyses and Tests are Limited
    5. Scale is a Major Issue
  8. Anticipating and surfacing problems must be encouraged
    1. Must Hear and Understand All Technical and Programmatic Opinions
    2. There are No Small Changes!
    3. Expect the Unexpected
  9. Leadership is the foundation
    1. Integrity
    2. Focus Beyond Yourself

Elements of Engineering Excellence (start here)

Additionally referenced reports


Lists of Leadership Guidance

Lists of Leadership Guidance 258 272 Eric Roulo

Top Ten lists are fun! There are lots of lists out there relating to management, personal development, professional development, and good old-fashioned engineering. I read a lot so when I come across a list, I enjoy reviewing it later because it reminds me of some of the ideas of the original work. These are not substitutes for reading the source documents. They are reminders of great ideas. But perhaps if you haven’t read the source, they will encourage you to do so.

  1. Success by Richard St. John
  2. Excellence by Tom Peters
  3. Skunk Work Rules by Kelly Johnson
  4. 100 Rules for Project Managers by NASA
  5. Augustine’s Law’s by Norman Augustine
  6. Spacecraft Design Laws by David Akin (i.e. Akin’s Laws)
  7. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey
  8. Secrets of Success by Nicholas Bate
  9. Life Tips 101 by Nicholas Bate





Learning from the Best – Kelly Johnson, Lockheed

Learning from the Best – Kelly Johnson, Lockheed 480 368 Eric Roulo

As part of my series on Successful Lists, Kelly Johnson ranks among the best. Primarily due to his tremendous record in aviation and the fact that he was perhaps the first to create an entirely new corporate structure that is now referred to as “Skunk Works.”

Kelly Johnson and the Lockheed Skunk Works was responsible for some of the highest-flying and fastest aircraft in the world. They were built on relative shoestring budgets and in record times by a small team of people. Johnson’s team of engineers, mechanics, and craftsmen developed the P-80, F-104, U-2, and SR-71 under the direction of Johnson and his unique style of management that was distilled into 14 rules

  1. The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.
  2. Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and industry.
  3. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).
  4. A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided
  5. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.
  6. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program. Don’t have the books 90 days late, and don’t surprise the customer with sudden overruns.
  7. The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are very often better than military ones.
  8. The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to subcontractors and vendors. Don’t duplicate so much inspection.
  9. The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn’t, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles.
  10. The specifications applying to the hardware must be agreed to well in advance of contracting. The Skunk Works practice of having a specification section stating clearly which important military specification items will not knowingly be complied with and reasons therefore is highly recommended.
  11. Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn’t have to keep running to the bank to support government projects.
  12. There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor with very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum.
  13. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.
  14. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised.

Note that Kelly had a 15th rule that he passed on by word of mouth. According to the book “Skunk Works” the 15th rule is: “Starve before doing business with the damned Navy. They don’t know what the hell they want and will drive you up a wall before they break either your heart or a more exposed part of your anatomy.”

Other companies have groups that attempt to mimic the working environment that Lockheed pioneered. These include:

Lockheed – Skunk Works -> Now Advanced Development Programs

Boeing – Phantom Works

NASA – Eagleworks Laboratories

Google – Advanced Technologies and Projects (ATAP)



Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed


Scheduling – Who does What by When?

Scheduling – Who does What by When? 300 184 Eric Roulo

Schedule management is easy to implement when it’s done right, otherwise get ready to do multiple re-baselines. The process is similar wherever you look, including NASA schedule management guidelines, DoD Program life cycle guidelines, or Project Management Institute.  Figure 1 illustrates the six steps: define activities, sequence activities, estimate activity duration and resources, develop schedule, and control schedule.

“The purpose of schedule management is to provide the framework for time-phasing, resource planning, coordination, and communicating the necessary tasks within a work effort.” NASA Schedule Management Handbook

In practice schedule is usually developed using Microsoft Project; however, it can be done in Excel depending on the size of the project. Understanding the concepts of scheduling is critical and can be done successfully in Excel if it is implemented correctly. (I would recommend Microsoft Project to take advantage of built in capabilities to easily develop and control schedules.)

Step 1: Define activities means identifying tasks. Of all the six steps this is the most critical step and worth spending time to understand what the customer really wants and when the product or services are required. Usually as a project manager when contract is given to you, you have better understanding of what needs to be delivered and you are working with your team to tailor out the detail activities. However, I would recommend to start with contract/statement of work then break down the deliverables using Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) process and identify detail activities through work packages. Work breakdown structure divides project Statement of Work to manageable activities, making it easier to supervise and estimate see Figure 2


Key project milestone can also help with identifying activities and timeframe. Depending on current phase of your project, you can detail out next 6 to 12 months of schedule activities in Rolling Wave Plan and rest in planning package. Rolling Wave Plan is where near term work is planned in detail and distant work is kept at a higher level. Planning package includes scope to be completed but no activities. Keep in mind near-term typically implies 6 to 12 months from the current date.

Once the activities are identified consider time frame for each activity to track earned value. You don’t want to identify one activity that will take 6 months or more, it will be hard to measure progress of that particular task. Level of details is needed to analyze if you are behind, ahead, or on schedule. If activity is one week or less, then consider 0/100% method. See Figure 3 for other possible methods track status. Also, estimating duration of activity explained in details in step3. Earned Value Management Systems article.

Summary of step 1. Identify activity through work breakdown structure and define timeframe using earned value method to track status.

Step2: sequence activities – identify task relationship. I cannot explain any simpler then in the figure below.