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Thoughts from the staff of the UCL Centre for Systems Engineering


Finding the similarities, not the differences

By Ian Raper, on 21 December 2016

I recently read an article on the Nesta blog “Fall in love with the solution, not the problem” which is a phrase to immediately get a system engineer’s interest.

I’ll immediately say that I’ve not worked in the development sector and so I’m not going to comment on the efficacy of the proposed approach in that context, but it did get me thinking (particularly the diagram ‘3 possible strategies for problem solving‘) about lifecycle models in general.

The first strategy, a problem focused approach, is what some might say Systems Engineering espouses. The traditional lifecycle model of choice in the SE world is the Vee model.  If you simply assume that the left hand side of the Vee is a linear process then it would indeed look like you spend a lot of time fully exploring the problem and then move on to creating a solution to solve the defined problem.

But the Vee model is just a model, and like all models it is an abstraction of reality. It is useful in providing some scaffolding around which systems engineers can communicate, but competent engineers will recognise that there are many subtle nuances that come to play in the real world. They will also recognise that this is not the only lifecycle model and will be able to blend lifecycle thinking and mix elements of different approaches as appropriate (e.g. based on development risk).

These models can also be useful education tools in that you have to get people on the first rung of the ladder of understanding before showing them the possible complexity in application. (If you want to read another author’s views on the Vee model then try The Design of Design by Frederick P. Brooks Jr. It should certainly get you thinking even if you don’t agree with all he says.)

If we consider the process of architecting within this stage of the lifecycle then authors such as Maier & Rechtin (The art of systems architecting.  CRC Press 2009) show a process model that includes parallel activities of problem structuring and solution structuring. And if we consider an approach such as the Seven Samurai of Systems Engineering (Proceedings of the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) International Symposium, 2004) then we recognise that not only do we have to consider the ‘solution’ (system of interest) but how that solution is created, how it is supported and maintained, and how the solution will change the context into which it is deployed (which might create new problems to be solved).

This implies fully immersing yourself in the context where the problem/solution exists, and engaging with the wide range of stakeholders that are, or will be, concerned with the solution once deployed. A design on the bench is not the same as a design in the environment where it is meant to operate. It also means understanding what already exists and the benefits and challenges of those existing solutions.

When I think about it in these terms, then what I understand as good systems engineering starts to look more like the co-evolution approach (at least in the pictorial form) from the Nesta article.

As always, these thoughts are my own and thoughts can change with time and additional input. So please feel free to comment and add your own perspective.

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