Peer-Driven CAD Management Solutions

4 Jun, 2014 By: Robert Green

How to succeed as the default CAD manager.

The OptimizerDuring the past few years I've noticed that there are more and more CAD managers who toil away at making things work even though they don't have a formal title or any real authority to manage the CAD office; they're what I call peer-to-peer CAD managers. As I've studied this issue, I've come to realize that many companies are moving away from rigid authority structures toward a more loosely managed, peer-driven structure. Because of this trend, I've been researching ways to manage CAD tools within these environments.

In this edition of "CAD Manager," I'll pass along some strategies I've helped my clients implement, in hopes that you can use them as well. Here goes.

Competency and Leadership

In the old world of corporate management, the mantra was "authority rules," and everyone understood that power structure. Under today's looser management systems, employees tend to respect competency instead, and gravitate toward anyone who has the know-how to get the job done. In my experience, users look up to the alpha software user as the person with the most CAD competency, but it takes more than just software knowledge to function as a CAD manager.

A traditional manager can make employees conform to his or her desires with simple authority, but in a peer-driven management structure, people must want to follow you. How do successful CAD leaders inspire this kind of loyalty from the users in the trenches? I'd like to note a few traits that demonstrate competency and leadership. If you perform in these ways on a daily basis, you'll soon become the next peer-to-peer manager in your workplace.

  • Become the go-to resource. It is widely understood that the person who is the best at finding solutions to CAD problems is the person others look to for help — this is where software competency comes in. Users also need to feel comfortable asking you for help, which is why the next point is important.
  • Be pleasant to work with and easy to talk to. Nobody wants to work with someone who's grouchy, difficult, or sullen, regardless of how competent they are.
  • Make your case by teaching. Think of it this way — if you want people to follow your standards and best practices, they need to understand why they should do so. By teaching, I don't mean formal training sessions, but rather casual, frequent dispensing of tips and productivity-boosting advice. When users get their jobs done faster, they'll have proof of the value of standards and best practices.
  • Don't gripe or complain. Even though all of us have wanted to scream about the frustrations of CAD management at some point, the best managers never let anyone hear them gripe. It is fine to calmly state why things aren't working, but do your best to stay positive and offer solutions rather than complain. Griping makes you much less pleasant to work with (see the second point above) and therefore diminishes the chance that you'll be able to teach and influence users.
  • Talk to project managers. Open the lines of communication early, and keep them that way! The best way to avoid griping is to tell project managers how things could be going better. Project managers do have authority, and they can help you change things if they understand why they should listen to you. Do everything you can to make your project managers your biggest fans, and talk with them often.

It's all fairly straightforward, if you think about it: Know what you're doing and explain your actions to those around you in a pleasant way, and people will come to view you as a credible leader and teacher.

Turn Problems into Teachable Moments

We all know that CAD problems are going to surface. We also know that (due in large part to our demonstrated competency) we're going to be involved in fixing those problems. As this process plays out, it is important for us to put on our manager/teacher hat and make sure that the organization learns from the problem so as not to repeat it. So instead of saying, "I can't believe these idiots have messed up again!" try, "How can we keep this from happening?" as you dive into fixing the problems.

Here is how I manage the problem-solving process:

  • Ask "Why?" as often as possible. Why did this happen? Why didn't we catch this? Why are our processes allowing this to slip through the cracks? You get the idea. You may need to ask a combination of users, project managers, IT staffers, and customers these questions to find the complete answer.
  • Pay attention to departmental boundaries. Are the problems we're having due to different departments using software tools in dissimilar ways? Do our departments talk with each other? Asking these types of questions can help you understand whether your problems are simply due to communication and standards issues.
  • Teach somebody as you fix the problem. Once you know why the problem happened, you can fix it — but as you do so, make sure you teach others what you're doing. Then they'll be equipped to help you detect and fix similar problems that arise in the future.
  • Briefly write up what you find. It doesn't have to be formal, but take the time to jot down what happened and how you fixed it. Then send it to the users, departments, and project managers involved so they know what happened and learn how integral you were to getting things fixed (which goes back to demonstrating competency).

As you fix problems with your peers, you'll be demonstrating a clear leadership persona by trying to make the company run better. Senior management will be delighted that an employee is bettering the operating environment for all involved. Wouldn't it be great if everybody had this sense of ownership?


Bypass Politics with Optimization

In the January 22, 2014 edition of Cadalyst's CAD Manager's Newsletter, I introduced a CAD superhero I like to call the Optimizer. Every CAD manager should strive to be like the Optimizer, continually looking for ways to make processes better, faster, and easier for all involved. It stands to reason that pushing for optimization is a good business practice, but it also brings practical political advantages for CAD managers.

There will always be users and project managers who want to do things their own way. Unfortunately, that can sometimes cause problems for other users and departments. When this situation arises, the peer-to-peer CAD manager is in a hopeless position, caught between disagreeing parties with no authority to fix the problem. What's my solution? Don't pick a side — preach optimization instead. Here's an example:

"I don't know whether Julie's layering scheme is better than Jeff's, and I don't have a preference. I do know that using two different schemes is causing problems as we try to generate project PDF documentation. In the interest of optimizing our processes I'd like for us all to agree, right now, on which layering scheme we should use and stick to that decision."

Have this conversation in the presence of the project manager — who is in desperate need of properly generated PDF documentation — and he or she will assume the challenge of determining which layer standard is most appropriate.

Notice the key points of this strategy:

  • I demonstrated competency. I know what the issue is, and why it's a problem.
  • I was neutral. This allows me to remain on good terms with both Julie and Jeff when this is all over.
  • I was reasonable. The only things I asked for were consistency and optimization.
  • I pushed for a prompt decision. By resolving the issue now, I won't have to suffer the consequences of this problem again.

In my experience, when you take this approach both Julie and Jeff will respect you, the project manager will thank you, and you'll actually get the problem resolved.

Your Role Can Evolve

You've probably noticed that many of the peer management strategies I've outlined are interrelated. For example, when users and departments view you as competent, they ask you to help solve their problems, and when you solve those problems you'll be perceived as even more competent. Keep at it and your reputation will surely grow. This cumulative buildup of credibility among users, project managers, and company departments may evenually reach other branch offices — or even the corporate level.

As you gain more stature and credibility, you may find yourself becoming more and more central to the CAD management in your company. As a result, your senior management team may come to value you more as a CAD manager than as an architect or engineer or whichever type of CAD user you are. I know this is true, because it is exactly what happened to me!

When you reach this point, you may be able to make the career leap into a more traditional CAD manager's role if you choose to pursue it. If you do want to move in that direction, keep that career goal in mind during every user interaction or problem-solving session you participate in to help motivate yourself to communicate, teach, and optimize as much as possible.

Summing Up

I hope you've found these ideas for building credibility and leadership credentials useful for operating in a peer-driven CAD management environment. I think you'll find that if you focus on these concepts you'll spend more time being successful and less time fighting problems that you don't have the authority to fix in the first place.

I'd also like to point out that CAD managers who do have full authority can still benefit from using these peer-driven strategies to create an environment where users want to follow their well-defined technical leadership. Until next time.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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