Don't panic. Work the problem.

Bill Baker (partner at SOM and lead structural engineer for the Burj Khalifa) in a commencement address at the University of Illinois:

I assume some of you here have read the “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” If you have not read it, your parents probably have. The novel features a book of the same name and written on the cover in bold letters are the words: “Don’t Panic.” This is extremely good advice. In your future professional and personal lives, there will be times when things will go very wrong. Do not panic; it will not help. Instead, turn to your engineering skills and “work the problem.” I cannot assure you that the problem will go away, but at least you will be in control of yourself, and you will do the best you can.

I have needed to take this approach several times in my career, once during the design of the Burj Khalifa. My firm, SOM, had gotten the commission to design the world’s tallest building. To be sure we were on target, we immediately tested our competition scheme in the wind tunnel. At that time, the scheme was only 10 meters taller than the existing world tallest building, but the results were very bad. This was a disaster. The building did not work. I could feel myself starting to panic; I took a deep breath and started to “work the problem”, as an engineer does. In the end we were not only able to get the building under control, we were able to reshape the building and change the harmonics of the tower, so that the forces and movements went way down. We were then able to “grow” the building by over 1,000 feet, so that it not only became the tallest building in the world, but the tallest structure ever built by man.

I find that an interesting insight both into Bill Baker the man (easily the most famous living structural engineer) as well as how the Burj became the achievement that it is.

My take? “Don’t Panic” is rule #1 for research. I’ve written some related thoughts before about dealing with unexpected results and treating setbacks as problems to be solved.

More: Bill Baker’s profile on som.com