5 Perceptual Positions and the Systems Engineer

A perceptual position is a perspective from which things can be viewed or considered. Perceptual positions … provide us with different information. Imagine viewing something from the north side, and then moving around to view it from the south side. Each of these two perceptual positions supplies us with distinct information. The more complex the situation we are viewing, the more value we receive from looking at it from the other side.

– Gary V. Koyen, Ph.D.

Perceptual Positions

When Richard Bandler and John Grinder introduced the concept of perceptual positions in the 1970s, they did so in the context of neuro-linguistic programming – an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy. In discussing the three major perspectives from which things can be viewed – self, other, and observer – they sought to enhance individual flexibility, wisdom, and resourcefulness within the context of individual interactions and across the lifetime journey of self-discovery and improvement.

But the concept and value of perceptual positions is not limited to neuro-linguistic programming. Certainly systems engineers are familiar with perspectives as we study both problem and solution from different viewpoints (requirements, behavior, architecture, and test) while blending subject matter expertise to see the whole picture. The five perceptual positions identified by Koyen have special meaning to the systems engineer. While those with a systems perspective and trained in the practice of systems engineering implicitly apply the concepts of perceptual positions, a more explicit consideration of the concepts can improve their application – both to the lives we lead and the systems we build.


First Position: Self

The first position – self – is typically the easiest and most natural perceptual position for most to see and use. It is simply seeing the situation through my own eyes. While this position may be the easiest to see and the most common to use for most people, it is the perceptual position most easily overlooked by systems engineers. As we help others “see the big picture” and as we seek to elicit and connect other perspectives, we can forget our own. Given that most systems engineers have deep domain knowledge and broad experience, overlooking our perspective is an error we cannot afford. We cannot put self ahead of the other perceptual positions. Nor can we overlook it as we blend our perspective with others to study both problem and solution from diverse angles.

Second Position: Other

The second position – other – seeks to truly see, perceive, and understand from another individual’s viewpoint. As Koyen points out, it is not “how would I feel if I were him.”. It is how he feels and what he sees. This is analogous to listening to respond versus listening to understand. Systems engineers should be well-versed in the second position as we thoughtfully elicit needs, approaches, and perspectives of the greater team, enabling the team to better see, perceive, and understand through multiple eyes. In serving as the technical connective tissue that binds the team together, the systems engineer often finds the second position to be the most natural. It is one with which we can never be casual or cavalier. If so, we will fail as we serve as the translator – of language, of concept, and of perspective – in our journey from problem to solution.

Third Position: Objective Observer

In the third position – objective observer – we watch ourselves in interaction with others. We are neutral observers, avoiding introducing bias through either the “self” lens or the “other” lens in order to view what is happening dispassionately. As systems engineers, this is where we begin to bring the individual perspectives together to see a more complete picture, but it goes beyond that. It goes to the critical skill of making tradeoffs to honor and balance diverse systems concerns. It includes facilitating team discussions, not only between the needs and perspectives of others but also with the insights of self. To truly serve the team and help bring together the diverse perspectives, systems engineers must be skilled in moving teams from positional dialog which often leads to entrenched stalemates to interest-based dialog which increases collective understanding and expands the trade space.

Fourth Position: Contextual Observer

When Koyen introduced the fourth position – contextual observer – he differentiated it from the third position by introducing context. The fourth position elevates the perspective to a higher plane. While the second position is often the most natural for a systems engineering, the fourth position is where the systems engineer must live, “seeing the big picture.”. This brings together the insights and interactions of the users, customers, and project team members within the greater context – of problem, solution, technology, environment, culture, and business needs. Embracing the fourth position is what we speak of when we seek the systems perspective to see the whole picture, truly seeing all concerns, all possibilities, and all impacts as we deliver the desired business value and avoid unintended, unforeseen consequences.

Fifth Position: Personal Observer

The fifth position is difficult to perceive and, in the words of Koyen, is even paradoxical in nature. From a neuro-linguistic programming sense, the fifth position is “watching me being involved in the content of my life,”, watching myself as if watching a movie. It is about being deeply self-aware, informed by our principles, in the moment and from a distance. In one systems engineering sense, this is recognizing the lifecycle perspective of a system, considering all phases from operation to maintenance to evolution and ultimately retirement and disposal. In another sense, this is where we must embrace our systems engineering ethos. As Jack Ring reminds us, like physicians we must first do no harm – to our users, to our stakeholders, and to our environment. Leveraging the other positions, particularly the second position, gives us insights into these concerns. Applying the fifth position requires us to be true to the principles of our profession and our commitments to society.

Leveraging multiple perspectives and positions is nothing new for systems engineers. The fundamental concept of viewpoints and perspectives helps us understand and assess both problem and solution in a more holistic manner. As we seek to continuously expand and diversify our viewpoints to gain ever-greater insight, we can also advance by embracing the deeper concepts of the five perceptual positions. We can learn by seeing how they are instantiated within our systems engineering practice. And we can grow by seeking to understand their neuro-linguistic programming foundations and application. After all, soft skills are critical to the systems engineer. As we well know, mastering the soft skills is hard, but mastering the five perceptual positions is certainly worth the investment for any systems engineer.


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