An engineering approach to human interaction

IT folks need to keep in mind the importance of human interaction to IT success. Most projects fail not for technical reasons, but for reasons related to human beings (people, process) – and conversely, most succeed for the same reasons.

Two recent examples brought the idea home. While researching an upcoming report on Web services, I spoke with an IT director who was overseeing the rollout of a US$55 million project with the opportunity to dramatically transform his organization’s $2 billion business. When I asked him what his biggest challenge had been, he answered promptly: “Initially failing to get enough customer buy-in.”

In other words, he’d underestimated the human aspect. Fortunately, he and his team caught and fixed the problem early – and the project is well on its way to success. But without prompt attention, the issue could have been a career-killer.

On the negative side, I spoke with a man who’d been promoted recently to head up IT at his company. When I asked him how he liked the job, he hesitated – then admitted he hated it. “I have to deal with people all day,” he said.

Here’s the scary part: I knew exactly what he meant. Engineering is clean, crisp, straightforward. It lets you focus on the essentials, not that messy, human stuff. Computer code doesn’t sulk because you’re spending more time with another program. And a telephone company circuit might behave like it’s possessed, but you can be sure it’s not politicking to get promoted to department head.

Many folks assume that because I’m a woman, I’m “naturally” better at human interaction, thanks to the benign influence of that X chromosome. (Stereotypes are funny things.) Actually, to the extent that I’m good at it, it’s because of hard work. A few years ago I got frustrated because, well, I kept having to deal with people all day. And they kept behaving irrationally (as humans tend to). After the 5,000th time that I’d impatiently explained the facts – and been rebuffed by an emotional response – I finally wised up and hired an executive coach to explain what was happening.

It was the best thing I could have done. Slowly, patiently, she brought me to what I call a “systems engineering” understanding of human interaction. People might behave in irrational ways, but they’re also predictable once you understand what makes them tick. And as with any other engineering project, once you understand the properties of your components, you can build effective systems from them.

So here’s the point: Mastering human interactions and issues is an essential component for success (of your project, your organization and, ultimately, yourself). And as an engineer, you have a natural advantage – you can take a systems-engineering approach to understanding your fellow humans.

If you’d like some help along the way, check out the International Coaching Federation at www.

Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, a technology research firm. She can be reached at