What Mountain Biking Taught Me About Engineering Management

What Mountain Biking Taught Me About Engineering Management

Merrell Trail, Rockford, MI "Phaser"​
 What Mountain Biking Taught Me About Engineering Management

Behind the sunglasses and helmet came a familiar exclamation: "Dr. Mallak?" And, it would come from a WMU Engineering Management alum. And it would happen again and again: from Grand Rapids to Battle Creek, from Rockford to Kalamazoo. Why? What's happening?

This is no coincidence. Why do so many Engineering Management types enjoy mountain biking? Why do I keep running into them on the trails?  Well, many of the skills that make you a good mountain biker translate to making you a good engineering manager and leader.
Exploring new horizons--the attraction mountain bikers have to exploring new trails, trails with snow, and trails in reverse is the same perspective that a visionary, hands-on engineering manager has. Taking a few risks to explore a new product, new features, or play around in the lab to make a prototype or two--along with reading in your field and outside your field--help us to explore new horizons and think different, as Steve Jobs liked to say.
Pushing your limits--doing the same thing over and over again the same way is not the reason you went to college and advanced to a technical managerial track. I did repetitive jobs in some factory work in high school and got even more motivated to go to college. As engineering management professionals, we can opt to push our limits. Mountain bikers do it all the time--trying a new line, seeing if those new Maxxis tires really will grip the berm, doing a jump, or tackling a new section of trail that you used to avoid.

How do you push your limits as an engineering management professional? Try new ways of meeting, new methods of ideation, don't always meet in a sterile conference room--find some outdoor options (when the weather is supportive), take on projects where you really don't know if you'll be successful. You'll be surprised at how this will force you to push your limits, just like you don't want to have your latest attempt at a Strava segment be 2 sec longer than last year--you'll find the energy to succeed.
Making good decisions fast--When an obstacle arises, you need to act quickly or you'll end up where you don't want to be. This applies to mountain biking and to engineering management. We can't always make the optimal decision or we may suffer harm. The ability to make good decisions, but to make them quickly, helps keep your project or bike moving in the desired direction. In a related lesson from crisis management: “In a crisis the worst decision is no decision and the second worst decision is a late one.” It's not always life and death, but sometimes--it is.
Adapting to and dominating conditions--A successful mountain bike ride occurs when you are able to adapt to the trail and dominate the conditions presented to you. Similar to skiing, you must "commit to the mountain." Once you have reached elevation, there is only one logical way down. In engineering management, when we enter a situation or start a project, we must be able to adapt to the many changes and uncertainties that will present themselves along the way. Knowing that these will occur is a superior mindset than complaining each time an obstacle appears. Mountain bikers train using specific techniques for clearing obstacles. Similarly, as engineering managers, we need to obtain knowledge and training for not only dealing with obstacles, but for how we can best dominate our situation.
Being properly prepared, but bringing support with you--Pasteur is credited with saying "Chance favors the prepared mind." If you Google this, you'll find attributions to other people besides Pasteur, but the point remains--be prepared and bring support with you. On the trail, if you don't carry a flat kit, you'll be walking your bike a loonnnggg way if you get a flat. Even if you ride tubeless, if you don't carry a spare tube, we hope you like "hike-a-bike" back to the parking lot. As engineering managers, we need to be prepared for the situations we face: meetings, conflict, design changes, restructurings, you name it. But, we'll be even better off if we bring support with us. What is "support" to an engineering manager? Support can come in the form of contingency plans, slack resources, access to project personnel in an emergency, contracts with agencies to provide personnel or equipment in times of need, whatever. As Irving Ackoff once said, "Plan or be planned for."
Picking a good line--The path to success does not typically occur randomly. We pick our path. In mountain biking, choosing your line can make a big difference in being successful or crashing. Engineering managers must plan ahead and figure out the best path to the desired end. This means identifying resources needed, when they are needed, training or skills required, environmental assessment (of the operating environment and competitive landscape, not the "green" environment, necessarily) and whom you will be working with.
Venturing out when many will call you crazy--The mountain biker doesn't stop in winter anymore; he or she merely uses different equipment (namely, a fat bike). So what if the trail is hard to see after dark--mount some LED lights and get shredding. Engineering managers have the same mindset--we need to venture out into new products, new innovations, new markets when people say we're crazy. That's typically where the good opportunities are and there are fewer people in that space. An analogous saying comes from Warren Buffett: "Be fearful when others are greedy and be greedy when others are fearful." Taking contrarian moves--when you have a good idea of what you're doing and you're prepared--can pay off nicely.

Knowing which tool to use and when--The essence of good engineering management is knowing when to use which tool. We have many tools at our disposal, but we often don't take time to think about what is needed (requirements) and then either "make or buy." "Buy" is over-used--this is using something that is convenient, Googling an answer, or other shortcuts. "Make" is thinking through what problem needs to be solved and then searching for or designing/modifying a tool that closely matches the need. In mountain biking or in any situation requiring mechanical expertise, the use of the wrong tool can damage the system you intended to fix. Have you ever used a crescent wrench instead of the correct English or metric-sized wrench? Have you ever tightened a critical component without benefit of a torque wrench? Have you ever used a screwdriver as a tire lever?
Being a part of something bigger--A professional who cares about what he or she does is usually part of a larger network of people who advocate for their interests, share ideas across organizational and geographic boundaries, and provide for continuing skill development. For engineering managers, this group is the American Society for Engineering Management (ASEM) and IISE's Society for Engineering Management Systems (SEMS). For mountain bikers, it's the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) and its local chapters--around here it's SWMMBA and WMMBA

Time to venture out onto the trail once again. Now we know what drives us--the quest for new challenges, the balance of mental and physical competence, making good decisions fast. See you on the trail!
                                                          Larry Mallak, Ph.D., CPEM
As a founding principal of WMU’s Engineering Management Research Laboratory, Dr. Mallak works with hospitals, Fortune 500 firms, healthcare organizations, and government organizations to measure and manage organizational culture and resilience. He has developed applied ethnographic techniques for use in organizations to surface deeper understanding and unarticulated needs. Dr. Mallak is Professor in WMU’s Department of Industrial and Entrepreneurial Engineering & Engineering Management. He has worked with various healthcare systems, the U.S. 
Department of Energy, Westinghouse, the U.S. Army, and Stryker Corp., among other organizations. A former management engineering consultant for a national healthcare network, Mallak studies and consults in the areas of organizational analysis, corporate ethnography, empathic design, culture management and change, workplace resilience, and healthcare systems. His Workplace Resilience Instrument (WRI) has been adopted by healthcare and government organizations worldwide.   Specialties: Culture measurement and change, corporate ethnography, healthcare systems improvement, leadership training, Empathic Design training for new product development, workplace resilience

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