Leadership for Systems Engineers – Communication

Having considered the role of the systems engineer as a leader, we will turn our attention in this post to one of the critical skills area for any leader: communications. The idea of the design process is to capture the content of the contributions offered by each member of the design team. The sum of these contributions becomes what is often referred to in the literature as the “pool of shared meaning.” Obviously, the larger this pool is the greater value of the communication. It is the responsibility of the leader – in our case the systems engineer – to capture and collect the content of the pool.

The most important communication skill is listening. Most often, if any skill is forgotten, it is listening. And yet, that skill is the sine qua non of effective communication. It is through listening that the systems engineer can discover the thought content which each discipline and each individual brings to the design.

But listening becomes important even before the design team members begin to contribute. Stakeholder requirements that drive the design effort must be understood and then norm the design discussion. Often this requires especially effective listening as the system owners and stakeholders may not share a common experience or technical language with design engineers. Process owners, for example, will most often speak and think about their system in terms that grow out of their mission and the discipline(s) that form the content of their processes. Listening needs to be carefully tuned to capture the meaning being communicated in order to understand what is wanted from the system design.

Stakeholders are not the only group who present the team leaders with a communication challenge. The systems engineer leads a team that is, by definition, interdisciplinary. The special leadership task of the systems engineer is drawing together and coordinating engineers, architects, and other technical personnel – all of whom must contribute their discrete knowledge and skills to the design effort. Because of the differences in their training, experiences, and disciplines, these team members may well not share common language, assumptions, or mental models. As with dealing with stakeholders, communicating across these professional and disciplinary boundaries requires careful listening.

Listening consists first in paying attention. In order to capture the meaning being offered by the sender, the listener must truly hear what is being said as it is intended by the sender. This means listening not only to the words as written or spoken but listening with due consideration of the point of view of the source. It means acquiring an understanding of the language and usage of the speakers discipline as well as understanding their personal experiences and viewpoint.

One of the most powerful tools in the service of effective listening is that of thoughtful questioning. Questions improve understanding and communication in several ways. The obvious purpose behind them is the acquisition of information content. The more we can probe the information being offered, the more we learn about what is being communicated. This broadens and deepens the pool of meaning that is being captured.

Questions also send a message to the speaker that the listener is paying attention and genuinely trying to learn about their content contribution. This helps the speaker to open up to share and elaborate. That richens the communication and again adds to the content being captured.

Another powerful tool, especially in the company of effective questioning, is reframing. In this technique the listener carefully considers what is said, asks thoughtful questions, and then reassembles the received content in the listener’s own words. This restatement or “reframing” of the speaker’s content is then offered back to the speaker for comment. Generally, the speaker can detect where the content is or is not being understood and make relevant corrections. Typically, one or two iterations is all that is needed to align the speaker and the listener on the content.

By listening carefully, asking intelligent questions, and reframing the content that is received, the leader can promote the collection of the contributions to the “pool of meaning” which is the purpose of team communications. This, in turn, promotes a clear understanding of the design across the many perspectives which the systems engineering team is required to consider. This kind of communication is absolutely critical to effective systems engineering leadership. It also becomes the backbone of the techniques which bear on our next topic- conflict management.

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