Engineering Sandbagging and Culture

Sandbagging is a method of managing the expectations of peers and managers by giving estimates well below the “doable”. When better results are achieved, the individual shines.

One reason that explains some of the sandbagging in the engineering world is universal: management makes hallucinatory aggressive commitments to demanding customers;  engineers respond with gloom to protect themselves from working 6 months with no weekends as well as a means of procuring engineering resources from overly zealous management.

There are additional cultural factors impacting how and why people sandbag. I shall illustrate 4 examples and provide the recommended choice of managerial action for each case.

1) An Israeli engineer will sandbag because everything is a negotiation, all the time. The planning process itself is seen as a negotiation in which middle ground is reached. The recommended choice of managerial action is to negotiate, long and hard, and then sign the Israeli off on his commitment.

2) An Indian engineer will sandbag via negotiation, but  differently than his Israeli counterpart. The Indian will initially agree to what he has been tasked with, yet as the project progresses, he will surface obstacles and barriers to meeting the deadline. Like the Israeli, the Indian negotiates but in instalments. The recommended choice of managerial action is to work closely with the engineer, not allowing too much time to pass before he “updates you” the commitment he made is passé.

3) A Thai engineer will sandbag is a unique fashion. If he knows you very well, you will get an accurate answer. However, if you are remote and not close to the Thai, he will tell you something that he thinks you want to hear. Then, via gossip or via telling other people, he will sandbag to save his own face in the case of delays. It may come to you from a 3rd party in the form of :“Boss, Khun Sumchai told me that his commitments are very optimistic”. The recommended choice of managerial action is to try to build up a personal and trusting relationship with the Thai to get real (not klenjai –outwardly pleasing) answers.

3) An American engineer will sandbag expediently (in order not to damage his career)  by questioning the planning assumptions again and again, or wearing out the manager by overdoing on ritualistic planning. This will be followed by an apparent, half baked commitment basked in nice language like “we’ll do our best”. The recommended choice of managerial action is to ask “what is realistic”, without delving into planning overdose.

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