Are Engineers Creative? Why Yes, Yes They Are

Are Engineers Creative? Why Yes, Yes They Are

Wait just a second – if engineers were creative, wouldn’t they have decided to be artists, writers, or some other “Fine Arts” profession? Wrong! The key word in being creative is right there – to create! Engineers create products, services, and processes that influence people every single day. Whether your work goes into consumer applications, devices, or machines, the end product of engineering work is used by other people. As they create and utilize new ideas every day, engineers can’t help but be creative!

Engineers need to constantly find new ways to think outside the box, reframe problems, and tackle new challenges. They have the fabulous opportunity and responsibility of imagining ways in which the world could be different and then creating ways to make that happen. That is at the heart of what creativity is all about and it should be inspiring and exciting for engineers. For example, engineering innovations have been a big part of healthcare improvement over the years. From data analysis to efficient software systems, to surgery machines, to providing treatment tracking and recommendations, engineering truly saves lives daily.

As you work to embrace more creativity in your work, let me share a few ideas and actions you can take:

  • Be More Curious
  • Embrace Failure and Try Again

Be More Curious

When we suppress creativity it’s often because we feel like we already have all the right answers. Do we actually? Rarely. Different people with different perspectives can see things in completely new ways that perhaps we would. This is good!

One way to start considering creative ideas and not getting set in our ways is to be more curious. If someone disagrees with you, get curious about why and ask more questions about how they are feeling about the issue. If someone comes to you with a problem, spend a bit more time considering the issue before you rush into providing a solution. Curiosity can open our minds to new ideas while continuing to embrace the rational thinking that engineers value so much.

Curiosity Activity: Utilize the power of “Yes, and…” The next time you have a brainstorming session with a team, I want you to do everything in your power to promote ideas and open-minded thinking. Eliminate from your vocabulary responses such as “no,” “I don’t think that will work,” or “yes, but…” Rather, when someone suggests an idea, remain open to it by responding with “yes, and [expand upon the idea].” This principle comes from the world of improv comedy and is taught heavily in the world of design thinking, and has the ability to keep teams positive and supportive to promote collaboration.

Embrace Failure and Try Again

The struggle with creation is that we often “fail,” and this fear of failure can keep us from exploring different approaches or possibilities. Consider this quote from Henry Petroski:

“Failure is central to engineering. Every single calculation that an engineer makes is a failure calculation.”

Instead of being afraid of providing failing solutions and ideas, we should look at each failure as an opportunity to learn something new. It’s a new data point. It’s a new experience. And if we are good learners, we won’t make the same mistake again. Indeed, failing fast is often the best way to succeed if we stick with it and treat each failure as a learning experience.

Overcoming Fear Activity: Create something you´ve always wanted to but which is outside of your comfort zone. Just try it. If it means writing code in a different programming language, do that. It may mean that you want to create something physical using your hands, such as a drawing, painting, or a small construction project. The point here is to do something that you haven’t done before and to realize that at your core, you truly are a creator. Personally, I have recently started creating videos for my own marketing efforts. I’ve never done that before and it’s very uncomfortable, but I’ve received helpful feedback and learned a lot through the process.

If there are other ideas/thoughts you have on engineering creativity, I want to hear about them!

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