The Importance of Situational Intelligence in Engineering

Situational intelligence is a key tool in developing superstar engineers. I’m going to go over the importance of situational intelligence in engineering.

Before we go any further, let’s define situational intelligence.

It’s the ability to perceive and understand everything that’s going on around you. Then, applying the information you’ve gathered to solve problems and avoid bad outcomes.

To point out, many engineers already have situational intelligence. Some people just call it common sense or street smarts.

“Situational intelligence” just sounds like a much cooler buzzword.

Regardless of the words you use, you can level up your situational intelligence. I’ll show you why and how.

Why engineers with situational intelligence are so impactful

A lot of the time in engineering projects, design elements will be opaque. You won’t know what to do, especially if you’re working on the bleeding edge of tech.

The same goes if you’re doing any type of complex design work. Because you’ll need to consider many real-world challenging and hidden variables.

So you can’t just put your head down and do what you’ve done successfully in the past. All without assessing the situation at hand.

If you do, you may end up with a failed design. Plus, how will you even know your end product is what your customer wants? You won’t!

Let’s now take a quick pause. I want to talk a little about emotional intelligence. Yes, another buzzword.

This will allow us to better understand the duties of engineers.

The role of emotional intelligence with engineers

Emotional intelligence is the skill of dissecting your emotions and those of others. Then properly managing all the emotions.

So, you’re doing your best to create the ideal emotional atmosphere. In other words, the goal is to keep everyone happy.

This undertaking isn’t a huge concern for engineers though. Because engineers don’t need to dissect people’s emotions to do their work effectively.

For the most part, engineers just need a predefined project scope to get their work done.

And it’s clear why. The general parameters of engineering work are the laws of nature.

This is why engineers work best when they work like machines. Because you have your project inputs, and you know what you need to output. You then just do your work.

For this reason, it’s actually a compliment in many instances to say an engineer works like a machine. As machines are the epitome of productivity when they receive their inputs. I’ve even written 10 Easy Tips on How to Work Like a Machine.

But I digress.

Social intelligence would only add a layer of complexity to an engineer’s work. But engineers do need situational intelligence to do good work.

So let’s segue into showcasing the power of situational intelligence in engineering.

Important Note: the higher you move up as an engineer, the more social intelligence you’ll need. Because you’ll need to deal with other engineers, managers, and business people. 

From a purely technical stance of getting work done, social intelligence isn’t required. 

Hydroelectric facility design using situational intelligence

hydroelectric plant
Hydroelectric plant

Let’s now see how situational intelligence pairs with engineering design work. I’m going to paint a real-world hydroelectric design example to make my point.

For starters, in the absence of situational intelligence, you can disrupt a project. The following is a short-list of the problems you can cause with a hydroelectric facility:

  • Tens of millions of dollars in damages from failed facilities
  • Endless years of project delays
  • Acres of destroyed wildlife habitats
  • Displacement and death of thousands of people

Clearly, these are problems you want to avoid at all costs.

With that out of the way, let’s now get started with our example.

Imagine as an engineering firm, you’re gunning for a large potential hydroelectric project. This project is for the design of a new hydroelectric plant.

So, you put in your project bid to hopefully win the proposal. The customer then chooses three possible engineering firm candidates for the design project.

You’re one of the three!

To start the project, the customer wants to see the preliminary work of all three firms. This is a fairly common practice.

The customer requests each firm to submit their designs up to the 25% design level. They then review each firm’s 25% level designs.

The customer will then choose the best firm to complete the entire design. The customer will evaluate the following metrics with each firm’s 25% design submittal:

  • Competency
  • Experience with hydroelectric design work
  • Degree of thinking outside of the box
  • Amount of consideration made to all real-world design variables

Thus, it’s critical you deliver the best 25% design package you possibly can. Because if you’re selected by the customer, you’ll win a $100,000,000 plus contract. Plus, you get to work on a beyond amazing cool project.

Gathering of project data

Before you can start the meat of the design work, you need to know the project parameters. For a hydroelectric facility, the following are some of the evaluated design parameters:

  • Max and min reservoir water capacity
  • Max and min water elevation
  • Number of hydro units
  • Number of penstocks
  • Max and min power capacity
  • Max and min water flow

Every engineering firm will consider the above points in their assessment. I would hope so anyway.

But, someone with high situational intelligence will go deeper into the design parameters. They understand you can’t just design a hydroelectric facility where ever you please.

In this day and age, it doesn’t work like that. If you don’t make this consideration as an engineer, it’ll expose your naivety.

In short, an engineer with high situational intelligence will consider the following too:

  • Project location versus hydrology (rain)
  • Preservation of natural habitats and the habitat of wildlife
  • Blockage of fish travel passages
  • Change in water quality
  • Displacement of local populations
  • Easement considerations
  • Economic feasibility of facility on a 50-year life cycle
  • Short term financing options (e.g. bond payments)

Thus, your 25% design submittal will cover each of these design variables too. You’ll gather all the necessary information for each of them.

What’s more, you’ll investigate and analyze several proposed hydroelectric site locations. This gives the customer options to evaluate and consider. This is good engineering.

Finally, if any critical design data is unattainable by you, you need to sub-contract out. For example, bring an environmental engineer onto your team to help you with your design work.

Design and data presentation

The easy way out is to write a long 30-page preliminary design report. A generic report with one design case outlined.

Your written format is paragraph after paragraph of text. This is far from the ideal report format though.

The customer will have difficulties following your report. Thus, you may not clearly get your point across. In return, you may lose out on the project for a frivolous reason.

Instead, a person with high situational intelligence will make the content scannable. In other words, they make the content easy to digest. This means you include the following in the content of your report:

  • Headers and sub-headers
  • Bullets and lists
  • Tables and charts
  • Maps
  • Pictures and diagrams

All the while, you address all the critical design variables we discussed earlier. To pull this off, you need to include the following sections in your report:

  • Proposed project locations with pros and cons listed
  • History and present land usage of the proposed project locations
  • Flood hazard assessments (e.g. dam failures, diversion dams, stability reviews, and so on)
  • Generation and hydraulic systems’ equipment overviews
  • Powerhouse overviews
  • Structural foundation overviews
  • Structural and geotechnical assessments of the proposed project locations
  • Construction methods

Next, with your charts and tables, you want to supply site-specific data. This includes the following for each site location:

  • River profile
  • Annual river flow duration
  • Peak discharge frequency
  • Power generation capacity versus flow rates
  • Structural stability and stress analysis
  • Hydrologic studies

Finally, provide the following preliminary engineering drawings for each site location:

  • 3D topographical survey
  • Dam and powerhouse plans
  • Dam cross-section views
  • Electrical one-line diagram

Design assessment conclusion

incoming line into hydroelectric facility
Incoming line into a hydroelectric facility

This is the part where you tie together all your gathered data. You provide your recommendation on the best design option for the customer.

Someone with high situational intelligence will assess all the gathered data together. Then, using past experience and common sense, they’ll formulate their conclusion.

In our example, the following are the general site locations you’ve analyzed:

Location #1: will possibly have the greatest generation capacity. But it has a questionable yet great environmental impact.

Location #2: less generation capacity than Location #1. But minimal environmental impact.

Location #3: generation capacity is equal to Location #2. But the environmental impact is unknown. Incomplete data gathered because of weather conditions.

The most obvious site location choice is Location #1. It’ll provide maximum power generation.

Isn’t that what we all want? More power!

BUT, the environmental impact poses a huge risk at Location #1. These risks could then drastically increase the project cost.

So instead, you choose Location #2 as the ideal site location.

You selected Location #2 because of your high situational intelligence. You dug deep into your assessment of each site location. Also, you looked beyond the numbers on the paper to see how the project would unfold.

The assessment over the hydroelectric plant site locations

The following would be a sample of your assessment:

  • The environment will be greatly impacted at Location #1. Thus, the project may indefinitely become delayed because of endless environmental regulations. As a result, the project cost would skyrocket. The return on investment of the added generation capacity would not be offset.
  • Possible landslide due to rock instability at Location #1 and Location #3. This requires a greater structural engineering effort, which increases project costs significantly.
  • Location #3 has no room to design a spillway for flood preventions.
  • The environmental impact at Location #2 is minimal compared to Location #1 and #3.
  • Location #2 has the least unknowns.

Then so on and so forth.

You then outline your assessment in your report with supporting data as we discussed. In other words, you clearly show why Location #2 is the best option, so the customer has no doubts whatsoever.

Level up your situational intelligence

This is a skill you need to fine-tune and constantly improve as an engineer.

Remember, when I said situational intelligence is like street smarts? Well, how do you get street smarts?

You get it from being in situation after situation and first hand learning how the real world works. This includes getting burned several times and then learning what not to do.

If you sit inside your room playing video games all day, you probably won’t have an ounce of street smarts in you.

On the same token, some engineers are like the person who plays video games all day. They live in a bubble without any exposure to the real world.

Now, to improve your situational intelligence in engineering, do the following:

  • Work on challenging projects
  • Review all parts of a project, not just your discipline of the work
  • Lead projects from start to finish
  • Directly work with all people on projects (yes, this means leaving your office)
  • Look for hidden questions and problems, and find answers
  • Learn the reason behind every design element decision

In short, you need to step outside of your comfort zone to grow as an engineer. Take direct ownership of your work, instead of quickly looking for hand-holding.


Situational intelligence is an important part of engineering. In fact, I’d say it’s a skill you need to have if you want to ever become a superstar engineer.

Without situational intelligence, you’ll never level up to working on huge challenging projects. Because frankly, you wouldn’t have the skills to do large-scale projects.

So aim to gather all obvious and not so obvious data for any engineering work you do. Then dissect and analyze the impact of each piece of information. All the while, learn to understand why great engineers do certain things a certain way.

This is how engineers developed all the modern marvels of today. I’d even say the ancient Egyptians had impeccable situational intelligence.

The Great Pyramids in Giza still stand tall today. Their chambers are still intact even after thousands of years. In other words, the ancients Egyptians knew exactly what they were doing.

What benefits do you see in having exceptional situational intelligence? How do you suggest engineers improve their situational intelligence?


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