The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Applied Minds

Engineers (I'm one) have generally been undervalued in our culture. We're perceived as introverts (often true), geeks with pocket protectors (less true), the antithesis of salespeople (usually true). Hollywood has little interest in our work or our lives—there's just not enough drama or humanity in their view. Writers of fiction tend to focus on doctors, lawyers, detectives, other writers, politicians, artists, and the like, but not engineers—boring.

Yet, through all of this, we're the people who make the world work.

In a fascinating new book, Applied Minds: How Engineers Think, Guru Madhavan discusses the historical achievements of engineers, but far more important, he delves into how we think. This paragraph, from a review by Jon Gertner, summarizes Madhavan's analysis:
... Mr. Madhavan observes a unifying, cognitive approach to all these job specialties. Good engineers create structure so they can understand—pre-emptively—the context and value of any given problem and solution; after that, they acknowledge constraints, whether of money or politics or available materials, that they must work within or somehow supersede. Finally, they deftly evaluate trade-offs so that they can formulate the most effective application for a given situation.
This is the essence of critical thinking, a skill that is sorely lacking among members of the general public, politicians of both parties, and the majority of thought-leaders who shape culture. In a nutshell, this is critical thinking:
  1. Understand the problem. Study the context, the known facts and the data supporting those facts.
  2. Clearly ennuciate the problem. Do not focus on what you believe, focus on what you know to be true. Do not listen to appeals to authority ("It can't be done" or "The debate is over" or "The science is settled")) Instead focus on the problem until you fully understand it.
  3. Define the context. What issues, facts and environment have a direct impact on the problem.
  4. Specify the constraints. Define the things that will limit you on the way to a solution. What elements of the problem may be intractable, forcing you to manage rather than solve them?
  5. Understand the tradeoffs. What alternatives solutions exist? How do you weigh one approach against another?
  6. Look beyond the immediate solution. What are the consequences of a particular solution? What possible unintended consequences might arise?
Good engineers are taught to think this way. It's really unfortunate that more of our leaders don't.