Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 98,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about we what do, start here.

The Three Essential Properties of the Engineering Mind-Set

Applied Minds: How Engineers Think

In his book Applied Minds: How Engineers Think, Guru Madhavan explores the mental tools of engineers that allow engineering feats. His framework is built around a flexible intellectual tool kit called modular systems thinking.

The core of the engineering mind-set is what I call modular systems thinking. It’s not a singular talent, but a melange of techniques and principles. Systems-level thinking is more than just being systematic; rather, it’s about the understanding that in the ebb and flow of life, nothing is stationary and everything is linked. The relationships among the modules of a system give rise to a whole that cannot be understood by analyzing its constituent parts.

***
Thinking in Systems

Thinking in systems means that you can deconstruct (breaking down a larger system into its modules) and reconstruct (putting it back together).

The focus is on identifying the strong and weak links—how the modules work, don’t work, or could potentially work—and applying this knowledge to engineer useful outcomes.

There is no engineering method, so modular systems thinking varies with contexts.

Engineering Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is different from coding the Microsoft Office Suite. Whether used to conduct wind tunnel tests on World Cup soccer balls or to create a missile capable of hitting another missile midflight, engineering works in various ways. Even within a specific industry, techniques can differ. Engineering an artifact like a turbofan engine is different from assembling a megasystem like an aircraft, and by extension, a system of systems, such as the air traffic network.

***
The Three Essential Properties of the Engineering Mind-Set

1. The ability to see structure where there’s nothing apparent.

From haikus to high-rise buildings, our world relies on structures. Just as a talented composer “hears” a sound before it’s put down on a score, a good engineer is able to visualize—and produce—structures through a combination of rules, models, and instincts. The engineering mind gravitates to the piece of the iceberg underneath the water rather than its surface. It’s not only about what one sees; it’s also about the unseen.

A structured systems-level thinking process would consider how the elements of the system are linked in logic, in time, in sequence, and in function—and under what conditions they work and don’t work. A historian might apply this sort of structural logic decades after something has occurred, but an engineer needs to do this preemptively, whether with the finest details or top-level abstractions. This is one of the main reasons why engineers build models: so that they can have structured conversations based in reality. Critically, envisioning a structure involves having the wisdom to know when a structure is valuable, and when it isn’t.

Consider, for example, the following catechism by George Heilmeier—a former director of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), who also engineered the liquid crystal displays (LCDs) that are part of modern-day visual technologies. His approach to innovation is to employ a checklist-like template suitable for a project with well-defined goals and customers.

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks and the payoffs?
  • How much will it cost? How long will it take?
  • What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?

This type of structure “helps ask the right questions in a logical way.”

2. Adeptness at designing under constraints
The real world is full of constraints that make or break potential.

Given the innately practical nature of engineering, the pressures on it are far greater compared to other professions. Constraints—whether natural or human-made—don’t permit engineers to wait until all phenomena are fully understood and explained. Engineers are expected to produce the best possible results under the given conditions. Even if there are no constraints, good engineers know how to apply constraints to help achieve their goals. Time constraints on engineers fuel creativity and resourcefulness. Financial constraints and the blatant physical constraints hinging on the laws of nature are also common, coupled with an unpredictable constraint—namely, human behavior.

“Imagine if each new version of the Macintosh Operating System, or of Windows, was in fact a completely new operating system that began from scratch. It would bring personal computing to a halt,” Olivier de Week and his fellow researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology point out. Engineers often augment their software products, incrementally addressing customer preferences and business necessities— which are nothing but constraints. “Changes that look easy at first frequently necessitate other changes, which in turn cause more change. . . . You have to find a way to keep the old thing going while creating something new.” The pressures are endless.

3. Understanding Trade-offs
The ability to hold alternative ideas in your head and make considered judgments.

Engineers make design priorities and allocate resources by ferreting out the weak goals among stronger ones. For an airplane design, a typical trade-off could be to balance the demands of cost, weight, wingspan, and lavatory dimensions within the constraints of the given performance specifications. This type of selection pressure even trickles down to the question of whether passengers like the airplane they’re flying in. If constraints are like tightrope walking, then trade-offs are inescapable tugs-of-war among what’s available, what’s possible, what’s desirable, and what the limits are.

Applied Minds: How Engineers Think will help you borrow strategies from engineering and apply them to your most pressing problems.