Anybody who creates hits a plateau.  The plateau is similar to writers block, the sinister force that stops writers from writing. 

This dark force, however, visits those of us in the engineering profession from time-to-time as well, especially when we’re in the midst of developing a new skill or working in a position for a long period of time.  Whether you’re leading and managing people, managing a project, or designing you are prone to hitting a plateau.  How you get to the plateau is just as important as engineering inspiration when you plateau, so let’s start at the beginning

How’d I End Up on My Plateau?

You just don’t end up on a plateau.  The plateau is a destination you reach as part of the four-phases of development that shows up in life, work, and every other undertaking in which you’re involved.  The four-phases of development include:

Practice.  Every task you undertake, every skill you develop, and every leadership opportunity becomes easier as you do it more often.  Eventually you do the task, perform as a leader, or develop your skill to the point you don’t think about it any more.  At that point you’ve become proficient.  It’s when proficiency hits that we lose the conscious connection with what we’re doing, simply because the task or series of actions we undertake area second nature.

Progress.  As you practice you progress, simple.  Each time you undertake a specific task or are put into a leadership or management situation you progress in your development, with each subsequent visit to that task becoming less time intensive to accomplish.  Even with complex designs or personnel issues, you’re ability to assess, decide and act becomes easier to do.  You’ve been there and you have the t-shirt.

Peak.  Your progress continues forward to a peak of performance.  Professional athletes work towards this peak, always aiming to hit it on game day.  Organizations do it as well.  When I was an Air Force squadron commander my unit spent a year preparing for a large inspection.  One of my key concerns was not leading the organization to a peak, or letting myself peak, before the inspection week.  Why do professional athletes, or I, not want to peak until the right point in time?  Because typically following a peak comes:

Plateau.  The plateau is an interesting and annoying fact that comes with development of any kind.  No one can continually progress at the same rate forever.  At some point you enter a consolidation period, a time when your development normalizes while you internalize what’s taken place on your way to the peak.  While you may not feel like your progressing, you are simply by the fact that you’re strengthening what you’ve learned.  This builds the foundation on which your next practice, progress, and peak can be built.

Engineering Inspiration:  Getting Off The Plateau

Although you are building skill while you’re on the plateau, it’s still a frustrating place to be.  Getting off the plateau will only come through:

1.  Sticking With It.  The #1 reason people don’t get to where they want to be in their career, a design skill, or their leadership abilities is because they quit when they hit a plateau.  The #1 reason people do get to where they want to be is because they stuck with it.

2.  Knowing You Can Do It.  This isn’t Pollyanna.  If you’ve done something before, why can’t you do it again?  You were working on a specific skill before you hit the plateau and can continue to do so again once you internalize what you’ve learned and you move into the next phase.

3.  R&R Time.  The military knows that soldiers can’t be engaged constantly, that’s why they get R&R, rest and relaxation, time.  When the plateau hits, give yourself some R&R time to allow the mind to focus on something else.  Doing this serves as a natural re-set, allowing you to return to the topic refreshed and ready to stick with it.

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