Thinking about “T” teams and self lenses in Edinburgh

As the seasons begin to turn once more, many in the northern hemisphere return from their summer holidays while those in the southern hemisphere look forward to the first days of spring. For those in the systems community – wherever we may call home – it is a good opportunity to reflect once again on the insights and shared experiences of IS 2016, the year’s premiere systems engineering event.

In the imposing shadow of Edinburgh’s famed castle, a group of systems thinkers gathered over four days in July to consider “achieving excellence through systems engineering”—the theme of the annual conference of the International Council of Systems Engineers, or INCOSE.

David Long, CEO of Vitech Corporation and immediate past president of INCOSE, traveled to Scotland’s capital city with a team of Vitech employees to share their insights and approaches, learn from other leaders and practitioners in the field, and continue to build the worldwide systems community.

One of the first things Long noticed was simply the number of attendees. Drawing 850 delegates, the 2016 INCOSE International Symposium was the largest annual symposium ever held outside the United States. Remarkably, almost 70 percent of attendees were first-timers, reflecting continued growth and passion across the systems community.

“There is a tremendous energy behind systems engineering in Europe,” Long said. “Europe has been the fastest-growing sector of INCOSE for the past several years.” The United Kingdom, he noted, is now the largest INCOSE chapter.

Whatever the reason for the elevated interest in systems engineering in Europe, the array of delegates from all over the world and from many different industries contributed to lively discussions and a richness of perspectives.

In particular, Long was struck by two keynotes: the opening by Larry Leifer, on “ambiguity, creativity, and the role of teams,” and the closing by Emma Langman, on self-limiting beliefs.

Leifer, professor of mechanical engineering design at Stanford University, spoke on Dancing with Ambiguity: Embracing the Tension between Divergent and Convergent thinking in Systems Engineering.

“In systems engineering, we talk about ‘T-shaped individuals,’” Long said. These are people who have deep knowledge in one area (the “I” part of the T) and breadth across many areas (the top bar of the T). “Leifer noted that T-shaped individuals are important, but T-shaped teams are even more important.”

“T-shaped teams represent depth of knowledge in multiple areas and breadth of behavior across the members of the team,” Long explained. “While individuals with this mix of width and depth of knowledge are certainly valuable, when you can develop a team to bring these resources to bear, you’ll have a more robust, more adaptable enterprise – a tremendous advantage in today’s changing environment.”

Langman is a civil engineer by training and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in the United Kingdom. Her talk was titled Who Are Yous? Systems Thinking for Growth and Transformation.

“Langman asked us to reflect on the self lenses that we form,” Long said. “‘I am an intelligent person’ is a limiting belief because it inhibits the experimental mindset. If you have this belief, you think you cannot risk failure.”

And that simply would not be in keeping with Scottish culture, which has the saying, “Failin means yer playin!” It means, “When you fail at something, at least you’re trying.” It’s something that engineers understand.

While Leifer’s opening keynote and Langman’s closing keynote were highlights bookending the symposium, there were tremendous insights throughout. All keynotes (along with keynotes from the past three symposia) are available to everyone on the INCOSE YouTube channel. The papers from the 2016 INCOSE International Symposium are expected to be available to all INCOSE members via the INCOSE website in October.

Long blogs regularly here. His keynote address as president of INCOSE in 2015, Building for Tomorrow: Towards 21st Century Systems Engineering, is viewable here.

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