18 May 2023


Collaborative Engineering

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RHEA’s experts have been using concurrent design for nearly two decades to accelerate the early phases of complex engineering projects such as space programmes, defence systems, factory design and luxury yachts.

In this blog series, they share their insights into how you can ensure concurrent design sessions are rigorous and the outcomes are high quality.

By Gwendolyn Kolfschoten, Concurrent Design Expert

Catch up with last month’s post: How to deal with blaming and shaming

8. Create shared understanding without looking stupid

When talking about complex systems in concurrent design sessions, people will inevitably present things that others do not understand. Part of your role as the team lead is to ask the ‘dumb’ questions – that is, to ask things that others dare not ask because they feel they should already understand. However, the challenge is that asking too many questions will slow the process down. It may also impair your own credibility if most people in the group do know the answers.

Be vulnerable in a smart way

Being vulnerable by admitting you do not know or do not understand can be a powerful instrument. There is a fine line between using the power of vulnerability and harming the trust in your competence as a team lead and engineer. However, more often than not, team members will be relieved if you ask questions that they also do not know the answers to.

People naturally want to help and explain things, and asking questions in the style “Can you help me/us/the team understand x?” is more likely to lead to a useful answer than “What is x?” or “What does x mean?” This is because the former style of questions makes people feel they are being called to offer help, instead of being asked to clarify something, which may be perceived as an accusation (that they did not explain something well).

Finding a suitable question style

The questions we typically ask are ‘clarifying’ questions, which are intended to prevent or resolve misunderstandings, ambiguity and/or confusion. Clarifying questions can be open or closed:

  • Open questions ask the expert to (again) explain something.
  • Closed questions summarize a conclusion based on the presentation and ask the expert to confirm if that conclusion is correct. These questions typically have the style “Do you mean that…?” or “Do I understand correctly that…?”

Open questions invite the presenter to elaborate and explain more. When a detail or specific aspect is unclear, this is a good strategy. However, if the presenter is unclear, vague or has already been speaking for a long time, the closed question style will help you to close off the discussion and ensure there are key conclusions from the presentation.

In addition to clarifying questions, we can also ask ‘expanding’ questions. In these questions, an expert is invited to elaborate on rationale, analysis or research, or supporting arguments. The aim is to understand the ‘why’, not the ‘what’. Examples of such questions are “Can you explain us why you advise choosing x?” and “Can you explain the differences between x and y?”.

Knowing when to ask questions – and why

When the domain you work in is highly innovative or new to you, it may be more difficult for you as team lead to understand things than for the team members. You may even feel you are the only one who does not understand. In general, the rule of thumb should be ‘When in doubt, ask!’ If you build a good rapport with the group, it should not harm your position if you follow that advice.

Facilitation means putting your own ego aside. It is not important for you to look smart; instead, it is important that the team identifies and resolves misunderstandings.

Here are some tips you can use when you feel you are on that edge of asking ‘really dumb’ questions:

  • Smiling woman standing at table leading a meetingStudy by reading presentations and materials beforehand.
  • Be modest to start with; do not claim you know everything about the project.
  • Explain that your role is to guide the process, not to contribute to the content.
  • Use humour – a “Just checking” or “You all already knew that, right?” will make the group laugh, which reduces any frustration.
  • Cheat by asking a follow-up question: “I understand, but what is the risk associated with it?”
  • Ask the group if they all understand what is meant by x; then ask the presenter to explain, just in case.
  • Remember, it is your role to ask the questions no-one else dares to ask.

Find out more

In this series of blog posts on concurrent design, we present techniques to improve rigour and quality. These offer a toolbox for concurrent design team leads to support their teams effectively in improving and testing the design. We cover aspects such as how to handle validation when working with rough estimates, how to capture the wisdom of the whole team of experts, and how to keep the team on track and motivated.

Follow RHEA Group on LinkedIn to be alerted to new posts in this series.

Catch up with our previous blog series on 10 Success Factors for Collaborative Design.