Evolution or Revolution

The world of systems engineering is facing a revolution. Complexity and scarcity are converging to create a set of problems not susceptible to solution in the “normal” state of systems engineering. Problems are becoming more complex and are demanding more complex solutions. At the same time, resources to be applied to developing and fielding those solutions are becoming increasingly scarce. Business as usual cannot address the problems. A revolution is needed.

At a surface level, today’s rapidly changing environment is widely acknowledged. We hear terms like “transformation” and “paradigm shift” to describe the change we see around us. But are those terms being taken seriously in their application?

The nature of paradigm shifts
The term paradigm shift was identified with scientific revolutions by the physicist and historian/philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In Kuhn’s view, a paradigm involves more than the body of concepts and practices on which the science operates. It also includes the world view which interprets the operational context for the science. A change or shift in such a paradigm, therefore, must reach not only the practice of the science but the view of its context as well.

Transformation also reaches beyond actions to our contextual view. John Palinkas of CIO Insight puts the difference this way: “Change uses external influences to modify actions, but transformation modifies beliefs so actions become natural and thereby achieve the desired result.”

Both of these definitions imply major change. When applied to the way we operate or perform our work, a transformation or paradigm shift requires a significant turn in both the way we do our business and the way we see its context. Anything less does not rise to the levels suggested in the names.

Revolution involves a paradigm shift or transformation. To claim either is to claim revolution. Kuhn speaks of the practice of science within a paradigm as “normal” science. Over time, situations and problems arise that cannot be adequately addressed inside the paradigm. As these begin to consume the attention of practitioners and demand a solution, the science enters a phase that Kuhn labels “revolutionary.” Finally, a new operating paradigm is developed and the shift is completed.

The necessity of a revolution and a shift to true integration
Kuhn’s work discusses the problems and difficulties inherent in such a shift. The point here is the necessity for the revolution despite the difficulty of the journey. Regardless of the effort and cost incurred in the journey, the change is critical. The revolution must be had. (A more accessible treatment of the subject is laid out in the book It Started with Copernicus: Vital Questions about Science, by Keith Parsons.)

But that is easier said than done. Consider the current state of systems engineering. We have solutions proposed that have the right labels. Concepts like “digital transformation” and “MBSE transformation” come with the name and promise of approaches that can bring revolution. But it is difficult to bring them to life in ways that live up to their promise. History demonstrates that the talk of “revolution” regularly becomes the walk of “evolution.” The test of the effectiveness of such transformations is their ability to live up to their promise.

The fulfillment of the promise of transformation in the world of systems engineering lies in integration. The needed shift is to true integration. There is far too great a tendency to see the solutions in segmented tools and approaches.

Complex problems and their solutions cannot be understood in separate buckets. The notion that there can be a number of “models” of a complex solution to a complex problem runs counter to the fundamental view of a systems world. Integration demands more than adding together a requirements model, a set of performance models, a picture of the physical structure and a variety of other “models.” A true understanding of complexity and its emerging properties requires true integration embodied in a robust system model rich enough to communicate the structure and nuance of the underlying reality depicted in the model. Anything less will fail to achieve its purpose.

Is gradual improvement enough?
But, throughout most of our experience, processes have changed incrementally. Modifications and course adjustments have brought improvements to our practices and processes. While many of these have been born of sound reflection on experience and lessons learned and captured, they are not the stuff of transformations or paradigm shifts. They simply don’t reach deeply enough to get at the foundations of the world view they purport to improve.

In fact, the very word “improve” implies leaving the subject largely intact while making an incremental adjustment. Mere process improvement, then, belies the idea of transformation. The difference is that of evolutionary change versus revolutionary transformation.

Too often we talk revolution and walk evolution. Change is daunting. The danger lies in articulating change on the level of transformations and paradigm shifts and then delivering incremental evolutionary changes.

We must demand true integration
That is happening in the midst of the current convergence of scarce resources and hyper-complex problems. We are being urged to buy into tools that will do a part of the job—to use approaches that emphasize a piece of the puzzle. We are shown languages that purport to standardize an infinitely diverse environment or simplify the description of an exquisitely complex context. We are being sold tools that do a piece of the job and require us to cobble together solutions that fall short of grasping the complexity of the problems. We simply must demand true integration—integrated tools, an integrated approach—the foundation of an integrated understanding of complex problems and their equally complex solutions.

Revolution is appropriate and necessary. Systems engineering must address the application of scarce resources to complex problems even as the level of resources declines and complexity increases. Insofar as they offer an integrated view of complex problems and solutions, emerging transformations hold the promise of the needed paradigm shift. The key is to be sure that they provide the appropriate shift supporting the revolutionary level of the promised transformation. We can little afford to fall prey to change thinly disguised as transformation.

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