Sarah Sheard's Thoughts and Theories

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sarah's Theory on Writing Things Off

I believe that we all prosper by simplifying the world around us. A mental model is just a simplified picture of reality. We base our own actions on the thoughts that make sense, and predict good results, after running them through our "prediction" routines in our brains (in the frontal lobes, actually).

What this means is, essentially: we all learn to write things off as unimportant, and focus on other things. Most new things are written off as aberrations, not actually thought through as possibly being worth changing everything you think so that you can account for the new idea. (This is why sometimes it takes the old folks dying off to allow science as a whole to make progress on some front. -J. DeFoe)

For example, If you wear plaid slacks with a floral shirt (You know who you are, Pat): they don't exactly see your fashion statement as setting a new trend; they see the situation as you being weird, and they write you off.

Therefore when you are trying to announce or teach anything new, you cannot count on people welcoming your ideas with open arms. In fact many people, engineers and business managers included, consider anyone promoting anything they don't already know about as a charlatan until proven otherwise.

I taught a tutorial on Tuesday. The tutorial highlights the research currently being done in areas called Complex Systems, an interdisciplinary set of sciences. The class shows how some of this research could have direct impact on some aspects of systems engineering if we could only spend some time doing the necessary "development" to make the research results practical. The tutorial went extremely well, with many students essentially speaking a different language about complex systems by the end of the day, being able to identify chaotic, fractal, and complex aspects of the systems they know and deriving a couple of new principles.

After the tutorial, however, some students told me that the principles discussed in the course are "nothing new". I countered that they are; that we never had the computing power before to study situations where multiple objects must be tracked simultaneously through multiple changes and adaptations. Still, these students insisted that nothing of interest is going to come of this research. They have already made up their minds that the work they would have to put into investigating this will not pay off, so they are not going to do it.

Fortunately, complex systems does have an answer to this.

The most "fit" systems engineers and the most "fit" systems engineering organizations will survive the competition. Engineers who do not learn about multi-agent systems with emergent behavior and different kinds of math and analyses will simply be weeded out in competition with those who do.

A course description brochure is located in the second paragraph here.

After the tutorial I considered changing the focus of future tutorials to outline a set of specific methods and techniques that the systems engineer can apply at clearly designated points in the development of a complex system. However, my experience with specific techniques tells me that doing so will make it even easier for people to apply the wisdom of these fields automatically and unthinkingly. That will be like jumping into Phase 8, Proceduralization, of the life cycle in the "Silver Bullets" paper, the phase where the improvement effort you expend has no value at all, even negative value.

Perhaps I shall proceed to evolve the current course instead.



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