Unwritten Rules of Management Started out in Engineering and Didn’t End up Well for the CEO

Unwritten Rules of Management

It could have been worse for all involved. In early 2006, the Interwebs were abuzz with talk of a little booklet William H. Swanson, the then Chairman and CEO of American defense contractor Raytheon, had authored. The spiral-bound booklet's title was Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management.

Raytheon financed the publishing of thousands of copies of Mr. Swanson's booklet and gave them out free to virtually anyone who wanted one. I wrote in and received my free copy with a nice thank you note (image above.) In the introduction Swanson says:

Since I joined Raytheon in 1972, it has been my privilege to work as an engineer on the shop floor, in materials, manufacturing, fabrication, and quality, in systems integration and planning, in program and general management — and in almost all levels of leadership.

Listening has always been very important to me, and still is. Early in my career, I developed the practice of writing down advice and jotting down thoughts I might have on how to perform more effectively. I was especially interested in constantly improving how we related to our customers and with each other. I'm a strong believer in life-long learning.

I compiled these thoughts and one day found occasion to use them when I was asked to speak to a network of young engineers and scientists about management lessons I had learned. The feedback from the discussion was encouraging. Thus “Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management” began to take shape, until they were truly “unwritten” no more.

In Rule #10, I urge you to be sure to “share the credit.” I happily do so here and now. This is really the product of experiences over the better of a lifetime, of people I have learned from, and things I have heard and read. To me, this is an anthology of common sense. I would like to thank all who have helped it become so.

I always appreciate feedback. Feel free to let me know what you think. You can reach me at [his old email address]. And I do read my own e-mail.


Mr. Swanson gave numerous speeches on ethics in connection with the book. However, several months after its publication, a report by The New York Times found that Swanson had plagiarized virtually the entire book from a 1944 classic by W. J. King called Laws of Engineering.

The company took action to rectify the situation. As the Wikipedia entry says:

On April 24, 2006 in a statement released by Raytheon, CEO Swanson admitted to plagiarism in claiming authorship for his booklet. On May 2, 2006, Raytheon withdrew distribution of the book.

The following day, the company's board of directors announced that “In response to this matter, the Board has decided not to raise Mr. Swanson's salary above its 2005 level, and will reduce the amount of restricted stock for which he is eligible in the coming year by 20 percent.”

Rules, written and unwritten are a constant source of fascination and interest. Management is an important function in an organization — it's responsible for generating its forward movement by initiating new opportunities to create value. It should also avoid destroying it.

The Unwritten Laws of Engineering by W. J. King was first published in 1944 as three articles in Mechanical Engineering magazine. It has been in print as a book ever since, becoming a classic of engineering literature. Recent editions, including a trade version, The Unwritten Laws of Business, have revisions and additions by James G. Skakoon. The link above is from Mechanical Engineering magazine, which excerpted laws from the book, presenting them in three articles just as in 1944, with comments from contemporary authorities.

Managing does have a few things in common with engineering. W. J. King's intent in the original Unwritten Rules explains what they are (emphasis mine):

The originating author of The Unwritten Laws of Engineering, W. J. King, observed that the chief obstacles to the success of engineers are of a personal and administrative rather than a technical nature. King, a wartime engineer with General Electric and later a UCLA engineering professor, conceded that he and his associates were getting into much more trouble by violating the undocumented laws of professional conduct than by violating the well-documented laws of science. So he laid down some “unwritten” laws into house rules for professional conduct.

None of these laws is theoretical or imaginary, and however obvious they appear, their repeated violation is responsible for much of the frustration and embarrassment of engineers everywhere. Many laws were derived by King while directly observing four engineering departments. These have been supplemented, confirmed, and updated by King and others from numerous discussions, observations, and literature; they do not reflect the unique experience or characteristics of any one organization.

Many of these laws are generalizations to which exceptions will occur in special circumstances. There is no substitute for judgment and, in an emergency, vigorous initiative is needed to cut through formalities. But notwithstanding the infrequent striking exception, these laws cannot be violated too often with impunity.

While Swanson's version for management includes 32 Unwritten Rules in total and a conclusion with his bio, W. J. King's articles are structured to address how to behave in several circumstances and contexts, grouping a few rules — from 3-5 — under each category, and then elaborating with examples. We can identify with the points he makes about work:

[In relation to the work]

  • However menial and trivial your early assignments may appear, give them your best efforts
  • Demonstrate the ability to get things done – he encourages initiative, resourcefulness and ingenuity, persistence and tenacity
  • Develop a “Let's go See!” attitude – involve the people who approach you to solve problems for them and be hands-on practical in the real world.

He says, “This phrase comes from a singularly insightful 1992 book about visual imagery, Engineering and the Mind’s Eye. The author, Eugene Ferguson, was an engineer, university professor, and historian who wrote extensively about the history of technology. In the book, he states: “The engineer and the worker must go together to the site of the difficulty if they expect to see the problem in the same light.”

  • Don't be timid — speak up — express yourself and promote your ideas — our job is not to do as we're told, he says, even as there are times when it's prudent to do so, for example when we don't have status nor power. On the other hand, when we say nothing, people think we have nothing to say. Even small ideas can have a big impact.
  • Strive for conciseness and clarity in oral and written reports; be extremely careful of the accuracy of your statements — engineers often circle around the problem they want to communicate, inflating it with needless information.

He says, Many engineers lose the confidence of their superiors and associates by guessing when they do not know the answer to a direct question. A wrong answer is worse than no answer. If you do not know, say so, but also say, “I’ll find out right away.” If you are still not certain, indicate the degree of certainty upon which your answer is based. A reputation for conciseness, clarity, and reliability can be one of your most valuable assets.”

 W. J. King addresses what to do also in relation to your supervisor, colleagues and outsiders, individual behavior, and what to do when managing design and development projects. He talks about organizational structures, and what all managers owe their employees.

The Unwritten Rules of Engineering addresses laws of character and personality, behavior in the workplace, as well as career and personal development. It is a delightful and substantial contribution to understanding the impact of our personal behavior on others and is context-aware. Both characteristics make it an instant classic. Which is why it's been republished multiple times since 1944.

As for Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management, he concludes the booklet with a note:

Before we close the book on these “Unwritten” Rules, an additional observation on leadership…

People sometimes ask me what I believe are the essential qualities of leadership. To me the qualities of leadership boil down to: Confidence, Dedication, Integrity, and Love.

By “Confidence” I mean not only believing in yourself, which is great, but also being comfortable with yourself — with who you are. That enables you to honestly assess yourself and acknowledge your weaknesses as well as your strengths.

“Dedication” is the desire to work hard to be the best you can be at any task — small as well as large. The members of your team will feel this commitment and share it.

“Integrity” to me is having the fortitude to do what is right when no one is watching.

“Love” isn't used often in corporate position papers. I don't mean it in the “mushy” sense; anyone who's done a review with me will attest to that. What I mean by “Love” is a willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of others and the organization. It inspires the dedication of those around you.

I believe we all have some of these qualities throughout the various stages of our lives. But true leaders don't just have these traits — they apply them and instill them in others.

They are worthy qualities to reflect upon.

The paradox of our age is that though we are all connected, our culture is highlighting and encouraging individual credit over accomplishments rather than recognizing collective contribution.

We should not be afraid to recognize the contributions of many. Rather, we should learn to recognize them, be in conversation with the ideas and the people who carry them forward to take them to the proverbial next level.

Good ideas come from somewhere. We have the ability to build on them as countless writers, scientists, engineers, and managers have done to bring us to where we are. 


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