“It won’t work!”​ — How to respond when engineers say it can’t be done

You are in a meeting and you present to the engineers the upcoming timeline and target. “We need to make X 30% faster by 5 December,” you say.

The first responses are:

· “Impossible!”

· “It’s not going to work.”

· “30% faster? Where would it get the power from? It won’t work on current power capabilities.”

· “We’d have to re-design the whole thing. In three months, that’s impossible! Try more like three years!”

For the next twenty minutes, everyone brings more and more reasons or evidence as to why 30% in three months is impossible. No one seems to think about what CAN happen to work towards making X faster.

You say: “I have heard lots of evidence as to what won’t work or what can’t be done. My questions to you are: What CAN be done? What CAN work?”

All you get is a wave of shrugs across the room. Everyone needs to take time away to think about it.

Everyone seems to have been so fixated in the last twenty minutes on presenting more and more evidence why 30% can’t be done in three months; no one seems to have thought about what CAN be done.

This is a classic situation I have seen countless times — the brain focuses on defending the initial conclusion and looks for more evidence for this (this is the default mode network of the brain in action), rather than on looking for a solution and working out what can be done. It gets stuck in a loop of “No, it can’t be done”, so the brain only finds reasons and evidence to support this. Our brains are always on our side, trying to prove us right.

What just happened?

Why are the engineers focusing so much on what can’t be done, and why, when you asked about what CAN be done, did no one seem to have even thought about this? In my humble opinion, there are two key reasons:

1. As humans we have been conditioned in school always to have the right answer; otherwise we would lose status (potentially being ridiculed in front of a group and getting lower grades) in front of peers and teachers. If we have decided the “right” answer is: “It’s impossible”, we have to focus all our knowledge and research into backing this up to win the debate. (I explained this in more depth in the article “Why does everyone have a response, but no one is giving me a useful answer?”)

2. The second reason (which is more prevalent for engineers and scientists because of the nature of their work) is that engineers are very precise; their entire work is about precision and solving this exact problem and not changing the parameters of the problem (if you are, you are probably “cheating”).

Considering the problem you asked them to solve, yes, they are probably right: 30% in three months is impossible and they can bring you all the evidence needed to prove this (it’s what they trained for).

But maybe 20% or 15% can be done in three months. However, they won’t think about this, because this is not what you asked. You asked for 30% in three months, and them changing the parameters of the problem from 30% to 15% or 20% is not what most people are used to doing: it is not what you asked them to do.

What can you do about it instead?

The simplest change I can suggest to help the engineers frame the questions in their mind in a way that is helpful is this:

Instead of asking: “How can we make X 30% faster by 5 December?”

Ask: “How much faster can we make X by 5 December? We have to show the customer a faster version so it fits with Y product, ideally 30%.”

Now this is a different problem from the engineers’ perspective. Now they can tell you how much faster they can make it considering the timeline. They will still tell you 30% is not feasible, but they are more likely to tell you if 15% or 20% is.

Tell the engineers the real problem you are trying to solve and they will do their best to help. In this case, the real problem was that the current chip spec was not fast enough and needed to be faster by December. It was estimated 30% would be the ideal speed, but any meaningful speed increase would have been helpful.

What tips do you have to put the conversation on timelines on the right track from the beginning?



Adelina Chalmers a.k.a The Geek Whisperer

Helps Engineers who are Leaders (CEO/ CTO/ VP) get buy-in from their peers/teams/investors by transforming Communication techniques into Algorithms