No One Would Do That! or Why Engineers Should Attend Budget Meetings

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.08 November 2006

Engineers and technical people should attend budget and other business meetings. Five years ago I wouldn't have entertained that thought. Now I believe it strongly. Without the technical knowledge, I have seen people make decisions that no one would think possible.

Five years ago, my engineering manager was frequently absent from his office. He explained that he was busy attending budget meetings. I guess I shook my head and made a face because he started to explain why he was going. I didn't have the patience to listen to another excuse for sitting in a meeting instead of staying in the office and working. We needed to make decisions every day, and he was absent too much.

What really upset me about his attending budget meetings was that we had already completed the budget. We had planned the programs, set the amount of funds needed for each of the next three years, and ranked the programs by importance. The budget meetings were merely an exercise in drawing a threshold line: programs above the line were executed while those below the line were not. I didn't understand why he would go to those meetings.

I moved on to another job, where in the lull of first arriving I was brought to a budget meeting. I was surprised and disappointed to see engineers at the meeting. I supposed they liked meetings as much as my previous engineering manager had. The budget meeting started as dull as I had imagined. Shortly, however, I was shocked and dumbfounded. I would not have believed it if I had not seen it. Engineers were required at the meeting.

The budget people were making inexplicably bad decisions, and the engineers were preventing one blunder after another. I will use an example that, while fictitious, is no more complicated than what was discussed in the meeting. Consider that for Progam A, in year 1, we purchase automobiles that we will run for 50,000 miles each year. In Program A, year 2, we will purchase tires for those automobiles.

The budget people were deciding things that would lead me to exclaim, "No one would do that." The budget people would juggle the program rankings to obtain the most for the funds available. They would decide to zero the funds for year 1 of Program A but restore the year 2 funds for Program A. That would mean that we wouldn't purchase automobiles in year 1, but in year 2 we would purchase tires. We would buy tires with no automobiles.

That example is preposterous, but that was what the budget people were doing. They did not understand the "obvious" dependencies among the programs and the different years of the programs. The budget people were not stupid and the engineers were not geniuses. The budget people simply didn't have the information that made the dependencies among the programs obvious. The engineers' presence was necessary to ensure that these dependences were known and considered.

I believe this example holds for most organizations. You may be telling yourself that this type of nonsense never happens where you work. If that is true, good for you. I consider you fortunate. Most organizations, however, are not so fortunate. I notice this kind of unbelievable decisionmaking happening more and more. Perhaps I am more attuned to its occurrence. I hope it is not a growing practice.

Send your engineers and other technical people to budget and business meetings. Often these meetings will be mind-numbing for the engineers, but send them anyway.

At times it may seem that the engineers' knowledge can go to the meeting without them. They could explain everything to the budget people and let the budget people have their meetings. Don't surrender to that wish. In my experience, there is always one more question that the engineers did not explain beforehand.

I now go to every budget meeting that I can. Funding seems readily available (why money is just lying about is another story about things that no one would ever do). When I am present, I can provide the information that people need to apply the available funds to my programs. Life as a program manager and system engineer is much easier, all because I believe that yes, some people would buy tires without cars.