Systems Engineering Leadership – Decision Making (Part 1)

One of the fundamental concepts of systems engineering is that in any systems design process there are always three systems to be considered. The first is the obvious system that systems engineers call the system of interest. This is the system under design or transformation – the subject of the design effort. The second system – called the context system – is the environment in which the system of interest will operate. It is sometimes forgotten and the price for such an omission is paid in the form of unintended consequences growing out of the interaction of the system design with the unexplored context system.

It is, however, the third system which is the most often forgotten. That is the system through which the design process is carried out. Very often this system arises organically without much thought or intentionality as to its structure. It typically evolves from the business as usual flow of experience. A major component of this system is the decision-making process by which design choices are made. The significance of this decision-making process to leaders is that decisions skills are critical to effective design process leadership.

Leaders need to begin by recognizing that design team members bring their own processes to the decision table. Not all of these are visible. We all use heuristics and rules of thumb that save us from laboriously plowing the same ground, decision after decision. These heuristics and rules of thumb are not inherently bad and can actually serve good purposes by integrating experience and skills into the decision process. However, they do present some risk insofar as they operate below the surface in ways that are not visible to the group. They may also generate even larger risks by operating in ways that are not visible to the individual who is using them.

Much the same may be said of a group of decision pathways known as cognitive biases. These include such propensities as a confirmation bias, which can cause us to collect evidence that confirms our existing hypothesis while ignoring evidence that contradicts it. As with the thinking shortcuts discussed above, the greatest danger from these biases comes from their operation “in the background” beneath the awareness of the decision maker. They can shape our hypotheses and arguments without our knowledge.

Much of our thought about decision making presumes that we are totally rational in our approach. But this is not so. A good deal of research shows us that we are guided by more than the surfaced rational decision processes. Our neurophysiology can integrate our experience and natural tendencies in ways that add to and subtract from our process of evaluating our decisions – often without our knowledge. Awareness of the possibilities and actual presence of these decision shortcuts and cognitive biases is an important tool for any leader.

The leader needs to consider these factors in constructing an intentional decision process which promotes good communication and enhances the quality of the information available about the decisions to be made. Such a process should surface and examine all underlying processes and assumptions. Once constructed this decision process becomes an integral part of the design system. A good thorough job in constructing this system contributes immeasurably to a high quality design solution.

In the wake of the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle, President Kennedy sought the advice of his predecessor, Dwight D Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s main line of inquiry was into the nature of the decision process which led to the Bay of Pigs decisions. Eisenhower knew from experience that a high quality decision-making process was critical to high-quality decisions. He knew that the failures around the unsuccessful invasion of Cuba likely stemmed from a flawed decision process. His advice to President Kennedy focused on improving that process. President Eisenhower’s approach to his role in advising his successor provides an example of the importance of the intentionality with which we should approach our decision-making processes. High quality decisions and design choices rest on a well-thought out decision process.

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