The Complexity Barrier

Be forewarned, I’m going to speak bluntly in this post.  I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings; I just want to make a point.

There’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve encountered the last few times I’ve taught a certain course.  I’ve given the students a poorly-defined problem with minimal guidance on what I’m looking for and then have asked them to build an organization and a process to solve the problem and then bring me a solution.

Do you know what I get?

I get a project management structure – because, I believe, that’s the only way they know how to organize themselves.

I get requests for more information, even though I’m the one asking them for more information.

And I get unhappy students.

Do you know what I wanted to get?

I wanted to see them self-organize into, essentially, an R&D structure.  I wanted to see discipline, confidence, critical thinking, logical analysis, exploration of the unknown, trial and error, testing, discovery.

What happened?  I think there’s a barrier, what I’ll call a complexity barrier, at which our students falter.  They expect to be given sufficient information to solve the problem and they assume that what they need to do is work together as a team to apply the information to solve that problem.  I also think they perceive the purpose of a team to be an opportunity to learn to work in teams.  But I want explorers… teams of explorers.  Not explorers who are learning to work in teams.

Results count.  Teamwork does not count unless the teamwork produces results.  Teamwork is not a goal, it’s a method.

But, back to the complexity barrier, I think many of them don’t know what to do when confronted with a problem that appears too complex because of the quantity of unknowns.  They balk at that.  They fear failure (i.e., not getting an “A”).  They give up.  They shouldn’t, but they do, because we’re not teaching the right mindset.  We teach them to do simple things and we teach them to do complicated things, but when we push them to do truly complex things – things with many unknowns and not easily discernible rules and no clear definition of success – they don’t see a way forward, they begin to contemplate failure, and they either stop or they just go through the motions.

So how can we fix this?

My Teaching Journey

I’ve recently been reflecting on my teaching career.  I started teaching in the engineering school about fourteen years ago.  The first course I taught was an undergraduate engineering course on engineering computation.  The focus was on using Microsoft Visual Basic and Microsoft Excel to solve basic engineering problems.  It was a great opportunity to do something different professionally.

My next course was a graduate course in operations management.  That was a nice fit, given my background in operations research, mathematical modeling, and simulation.  I taught that course for several years.

I added a couple more courses shortly after that.  One was on computer networking and the other was on computer security.

There came a point where we began to steer our master’s degree program more toward technology management and entrepreneurship.  I reworked the operations management course to become a course in the management of technology.  That quickly became my favorite course to teach.

From there, I spun off a course specifically on technology and innovation, with the emphasis on innovation.  I also developed a special topics course on professional communication for engineers.  That’s a long story; it was built around my own personal experiences of being a person who was always uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience, while being someone who has to do that all the time.  That’s when I wrote my book, Effective Speaking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Presentations.

In the last few years, my courses have been centered around systems engineering and engineering management.  I’ve been a professional systems engineer for over forty years, so that’s my niche.  But I’ll tell you, that’s been a tough subject to teach.  I’ll save that story for another time.  On the engineering management side, I’ve been teaching what is essentially “finance for non-financial managers” and strategic planning (with a deliberate focus on teaching IT-industry technical professionals how to better understand the problems of alignment between business and technology workers).

It’s been an interesting journey:

  1. Engineering Computation
  2. Operations Management
  3. Computer Networking
  4. Computer Security
  5. Management of Technology
  6. Technology and Innovation
  7. Professional Communications for Engineers
  8. Systems Engineering
  9. Financial Concepts
  10. Strategic Planning

What will I be teaching going forward?  Anything new?  I’m not sure.  One thing I’d like to do is develop a course on consulting skills and methods.  Another idea is a course on technology sales and technical sales support.  I’d also like to revise and update my course on professional communications, which could easily be part of the consulting skills course.

I’ve also considered starting a “professional development” consulting business to bring some of these important topics to a broader audience.  I ran my own consulting business for a number of years and it was a satisfying experience.   It’s also a great way to serve if you can help others develop their professional abilities and do it for a nominal charge.  There’s more to this story as well.

Graduate-Level Leadership Development

The December 15th, 2017 issue of Fortune magazine has an interesting article in its Special Advertising Section.  The title is “Educating the Next Generation of Business Leaders” and it explains how business schools are “offering innovative advanced degree programs aimed at developing the leaders of tomorrow.”  It’s worth reading.  I recommend it.

Obviously, this is an interest of mine as well.  I’m an instructor in the Master of Engineering program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).  Leadership skill development has been a point of emphasis within our Information Engineering and Management (IEM) track from its inception.  Our interest really accelerated, though, sometime around 2005 as years of feedback showed us that our graduates placed very high value on two particular outcomes: (1) Building a high-quality professional network within the business/technology community and (2) significantly developing their professional skill sets (leadership, communication, teamwork, and critical thinking).

In addition to teaching, I was also doing some consulting work at the time on strategic planning and curriculum development.  We were looking at data. And what we were seeing was that our students, all of whom were working professionals, were already pretty solid on the technical side and, to a considerable extent, on the management side.  They were gaining valuable incremental knowledge – which is good – but it was often more breadth than depth.  Even so, unexpectedly, many of them were telling us that the program had, literally, been “life changing.”  How so?

They were discovering or developing capabilities that came as a surprise to them.  The way we ran the program was more of a consulting model where our students were treated as clients.  We were not just teaching – we were also coaching and mentoring.

The result?  Nascent leadership skills were developing.  Fear of public speaking was diminishing.  Working in groups and on teams was becoming second nature – nearly every class required it – and they benefited from working with professional colleagues from other companies who brought diverse skills and insights to every project.

I’m not saying we were the only ones accomplishing this, but we did seem to be leading the way on the engineering side.  Graduate programs that are focused on working professionals should definitely include courses and course work that develops leadership and other professional skills.  It adds excellent value to the programs.  And it’s something that we, as educators and mentors, should constantly study and improve upon.

Soft Skills or Complex Skills?

I’ve written previously about that aspect of professional development that focuses on the so-called “soft” skills, like being able to effectively lead, communicate, and work in teams (to name three of the most commonly mentioned).  And when you research these things – digging through news articles, for example – you generally find two common themes:

  1. These attributes are highly valued, but in very short supply.
  2. These attributes are very hard to “teach.”

I’ve said before that I don’t know if these skills are truly in short supply.  I have no data.  But my professional sense is that it’s more likely that they are being overlooked (if not by people, then certainly by algorithms), and that, in practice, the “hard” skills win out over the “soft” skills for any number of reasons… none of them, in my view, satisfactory.

As for whether or not they are hard to teach, I think they are.  I have been trying to teach them in my courses for a very long time, so I have some personal insights on this – enough to know we can do better.  And I’ve spent over 40 years in industry, so I know the importance of these skills (and they go beyond the three mentioned above, but that’s another discussion).

We need some fresh ideas on how to make greater progress in this area.  These are not soft skills, they are complex skills.  This is not a methodological problem, it’s a paradigmatic problem.  We need a new model.

And, keep in mind, this is a multi-disciplinary challenge.  We would benefit from collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines.

A Focus on Consulting Skills

I began IEM 630 (Systems Engineering) this term with a strong initial focus on basic consulting skills.  It’s a useful way to help my students develop a mindset that they are not just “learners,” they are problem solvers and problem owners.  In a sense, it personalizes the subsequent course content.  It makes the material “about them.”  Or so I hope.

As I told them on the first day of class, the point of all this is to give them the knowledge and confidence to take ownership of any technical project at any stage of its life-cycle and manage it effectively.

It also moves our overall focus a little more toward systems engineering management – which is exactly where I want us to be.

The Secret to Services

The secret to success in service delivery is not simply the deliverable, it’s the experience.  Service is an intangible thing.  It’s an experiential thing.  It’s a human thing.  If you don’t design the service with that in mind, you create mediocrity.

We have a tendency in information technology to focus almost exclusively on the information flows, the data, the technology, ignoring the fact that everything we are designing is ultimately intended to provide something of value to another person.

Sometimes, in my systems engineering courses, I conduct classroom sessions on process design and organizational design without ever introducing technology into the discussion.  I want my students to see that the information systems we design emerge from underlying discussions and dialogues between people.

Deliverables are important, no doubt.  But the secret to good service design is to create the best possible experience for the people you are serving, respecting their time, reducing their anxiety, anticipating their needs, and looking out for their interests.