Nature or Nurture? Expanding the Systems Engineering Population

Wherever I find myself – regardless of geographic location or application domain – if the community understands the practice and value of systems engineering, leading voices consistently warn of a shortage of systems engineers. Virtually every community complains of a bimodal distribution (a “bathtub curve”) with a heavy concentration of very senior systems engineers at or near retirement. The other concentration is very young systems engineers who have completed the base formal education but lack experience. Inevitably, the conversation turns to expanding the systems engineering population and the question of whether systems engineering is an inherent capability practitioners are born with or a capability which can be taught.

In the systems engineering workforce study “Helix – Developing Effective Systems Engineers” conducted by the Systems Engineering Research Center, Pyster, Hutchison, and Henry identify five important characteristics of effective systems engineers: [more]

1.Paradoxical mindset (simultaneously managing big picture thinking and attention to detail; thinking analytically and synthetically; being methodical and creative)

2.Effective communication (communicating and listening to understand needs, negotiate and broker, handle technical arbitration, and drive consensus)

3.Flexible comfort zone (being open minded and comfortable dealing with uncertainty in challenging situations)

4.Smart leadership (combining quick learning, abstraction, and the ability to connect the dots while keeping a team focused on the vision for the system)

5.Self-starter (being curious, passionate, motivated, and eager to learn)

Of these characteristics, the paradoxical mindset is the aspect most unique to systems engineers. Yes, others have these characteristics – often senior leadership who frame this in terms of being both strategic and tactical. However, most people cannot simultaneously see the big picture while focusing in on the details. That doesn’t make them any more or less. It’s simply a reflection of the way their minds work.

If we dig deeper into the paradoxical mindset, we encounter the tension between the systems perspective and specialization. When I look at young children before they enter the education system, I see minds that seek to make connections between phenomena. When looking at the specific, this often becomes analytical and specialization. When looking at the large, this becomes synthetic and holistic (to the degree this word applies to a child).

Certainly, we are all born with certain innate abilities. All five of the characteristics identified with effective systems engineers have their roots in innate strengths which have then been developed over years and wrapped with corresponding knowledge and skills. However, in its quest to develop ever-deeper specialists in ever-narrower fields, western education trains most people to ignore their innate systems perspective. There is a great deal of value in specialization. It’s responsible for many great advances. However, it comes at a cost as we fail to understand the interconnectedness of our systems and the world we live in. It results in focusing on components thereby reducing the overall system effectiveness, and it certainly results in unintended consequences such from imported invasive species to nuclear meltdowns.

Is this systems perspective, key to the paradoxical mindset, somehow stronger in systems engineers than it is in others? I don’t believe so. Instead, for some it is combined with other personal strengths which protect it as a complementary skill resulting in the paradoxical mindset. For others, it is protected through nurturing as individuals find themselves with a mentor or in an environment that emphasizes and values holistic viewpoint.

While the systems perspective may be innate (nature), the development of the perspective and underlying mindset requires education and training (nurture). This is true of all of the characteristics identified by Pyster, Hutchison, and Henry. More than that, the label systems engineering is composed of two words: systems and engineering. Whereas many related fields– systems thinking, systems science, systems dynamics – often focus on understanding systems, systems engineering is inherently focused on intervention in order to create or modify characteristics of the system and its performance. While we may laugh about Dilbert, “The Knack”, and other innate aspects that underpin the skills of an engineer, there is a strong educational and continuing professional development dimension to engineering. You may be born with the innate abilities, but unless you are the rare prodigy, those abilities are not transformed into a high performing engineer without formal development and nurturing.

So where does this leave us? How do we expand the systems engineering population? In reality, it’s not an either-or question. It’s not nature vs. nurture. It is nature and nurture.

To grow the systems engineering population in your organization, look for those five key characteristics – most importantly that paradoxical mindset. When you identify an individual with those characteristics and the corresponding knowledge for your domain, talk with him or her – first about the systems perspective, then systems thinking, and ultimately systems engineering. Where you find individuals who are interested, nurture those innate skills and help them begin their systems journeys.

To grow the greater systems population, we must demonstrate the value of holistic thinking alongside the value of specialization. Again, it’s not an either-or; both bring value. We as individual practitioners and we as INCOSE need to highlight the high value of the systems perspective, systems engineering, and systems practitioners. We must also embrace all those applying systems principles, whatever the label and terminology they use, thereby connected the greater systems population. Finally, we need to expose all engineers to the systems perspective and systems thinking – not to make them systems engineers, but to help them leverage their specialization in the delivery of system solutions.

Nature and nurture, systems perspective and detail, systems practitioner and specialist. Ultimately, it is an “and” question. They must all come together to help us deliver the systems we need. 

Leave a Reply