Make New Year’s Resolutions Like A Systems Engineer

Its that time again. Once the presents are opened, the carols are sung and the turkey is eaten its time to turn our attention to the New Year. What was once a distant blip on the calendar is now here.

Once again we are resolved that this year will be a better year. This year we will actually do the things we need to do to position ourselves for success. And just as any new system needs a design our coming year needs an architecture that will get us where we want to go.

We can use our natural advantage as systems engineers to provide an architecture for the year that will really work. But to assure its success we need to be guided by basic systems engineering principles. We need to pay attention to the essential elements of our plan.

Our yearly architecture begins with stakeholders and boundaries. We are the principle stakeholders in our own year, but here are others. Our families, our co-workers, our organizations all have a stake in the success of our year. We must take all of them and their roles in our year into account as we construct our plan.

Our New Year’s plan has its boundaries. Systems engineers might adapt the famous serenity prayer to read, “God grant me the ability to interface with the world I cannot change, the vision to change the world within my scope and the wisdom to know the difference.” We know from our work that time spent trying to bend the world outside our scope is wasted and that we have to focus on the system we are designing. The wise systems engineer will draw the boundaries accurately and target her resolutions to construct the best possible year within her control without wasting time resolving that others or their external realities will change.

From guiding principles to working rules our New Year will have its requirements. These shape and describe our purpose. They must be clear and actionable. We must work high level requirements like good health and better habits into clear and measurable statements that we can trace into our resolution architecture and meet through its behaviors. We need to refine “I will improve my cardiovascular fitness” into statements more like “I will walk 15 miles a week.”

Our resolution architecture must describe behaviors that further our requirements. It is only by modifying our actual behavior that we will have the year we say we want. We must actually take that trip, read those books, lose that weight in order to experience the year we will describe in our resolutions. Our resolutions must translate into action in order to be meaningful. The behaviors are the heart and soul of our plan’s success.

We need to be realistic about our constraints. Just as we need to accurately understand what is and is not within our control, we should be realistic about our limitations. As a 60-year-old 6 footer, the resolution to dunk a basketball in 2015 is probably lost to me (unless my implementation architecture includes ladders, trampolines or lowering the basket). We know from the world of system design that the line between a solvable problem and a hard constraint can be a thin one. But we have to be clear about what we can and cannot do.

We have to design an implementation structure that will enable the behaviors that fulfill our requirements. Sound familiar? It should. Just like in the world of system design our implementation structures have to promote the behaviors we are driving. We need to think about how we will encourage ourselves to make the changes we want for ourselves in 2015. Following a realistic diet plan, making small incremental changes, setting aside time for reading or yoga class- all might be a part of an effective implementation plan. Whatever specific choices we make they must be set in an implementation structure that will make them happen.

If we are the good systems engineers that Santa thinks we are, we will respond to our stakeholders from within our boundaries. We will refine our requirements from general, over-arching principles to actionable requirements. We will be realistic about our constraints without losing the creative power of innovation and we will adopt changes in our behavior that are supported by an implementation structure that makes our resolutions real. With our systems engineering knowledge and experience as our guide we will make 2015 the best year ever. That is the New Year’s wish from our house to yours. Happy 2015!

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