Tag Archives: engineering

We Must Break Free of the Engineering Mindset

We Must Break Free of the Engineering Mindset

GUEST POST from Greg Satell

In 2014, when Silicon Valley was still largely seen as purely a force for good, George Packer wrote in The New Yorker how tech entrepreneurs tended to see politics through the lens of an engineering mindset. Their first instinct was to treat every problem as if it could be reduced down to discrete variables and solved like an equation.

Despite its romantic illusions, the digital zeitgeist merely echoed more than a century of failed attempts to generalize engineering approaches, such as scientific management, financial engineering, six sigma and shareholder value. All showed initial promise and then disappointed, in some cases catastrophically.

Proponents of the engineering mindset tend to blame its failures on poor execution. Surely, logic would suggest that as long as a set of principles are internally consistent, they should be externally relevant. Yet the problem is that reality is not simple and clear-cut, but complex and nonlinear, which is why we need be ready to adapt to the unexpected and nonsensical.

The Rise of the Engineering Mindset

In the 1920s, a group of intellectuals in Berlin and Vienna, much like many of the Silicon Valley digerati today, became enamored with the engineering mindset. By this time electricity and internal combustion had begun to reshape the world and Einstein’s theory of relativity, confirmed in 1919, had reshaped our conception of the universe. It seemed that there was nothing that scientific precision couldn’t achieve.

Yet human affairs were just as messy as always. Just a decade before Europe had blundered its way into the most horrible war in history. Social scientists still seemed no more advanced than voodoo doctors and philosophers were still making essentially the same arguments the ancient Greeks used two thousand years before.

It seemed obvious to them that human endeavors could be built on a more logical basis and saw a savior in Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Tractatus, which described a world made up of “atomic facts” that could be combined to create “states of affairs.” He concluded, famously, that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent,” meaning that whatever could not be proved logically must be disregarded.

The intellectuals branded their movement logical positivism and based it on the principle of verificationism. Only verifiable propositions would be taken as meaningful. All other statements would be treated as silly talk and gobbledygook. Essentially, if it didn’t fit in an algorithm, it didn’t exist.

A Foundational Crisis

Unfortunately, and again much like Silicon Valley denizens of today, the exuberant confidence of the logical positivists belied serious trouble underfoot. In fact, while the intellectuals in Berlin and Vienna were trying to put social sciences on a more logical footing, logic itself was undergoing a foundational crisis.

At the root of the crisis was a strange paradox, which can be illustrated by the sentence, “The barber shaves every man who does not shave himself.” Notice the problem? If the barber shaves every man who doesn’t shave himself, then who shaves the Barber? If he shaves himself, he violates the statement and if he does not shave himself, he also violates it.

It seems a bit silly, but the Barber’s Paradox is actually a simplified version of Russell’s Paradox involving sets that are members of themselves, which had baffled mathematicians and logicians for decades. Clearly, for a logical system to be valid and verifiable, statements need to be provably true or false. 2+2 for example, needs to always equal four. Yet the paradox exposed a hole that no one seemed able to close.

Eventually, the situation came to a head when David Hilbert, one of the most prominent logical positivists, proposed a program that rested on three pillars. First, mathematics needed to be shown to be complete in that it worked for all statements. Second, mathematics needed to be shown to be consistent, no contradictions or paradoxes allowed. Finally, all statements need to be computable, meaning they yielded a clear answer.

The hope was that the foundational crisis would be resolved, the hole at the center of logic could be closed and the logical positivists could move along with their project.

The System Crashes

Hilbert and his colleagues received and answer faster than most had expected. In 1931, just 11 years after Hilbert proposed his foundational problems, 25-year-old Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems. It wasn’t the answer anyone was expecting. Gödel showed that any logical system could be either complete or consistent, but not both,

Put more simply, Gödel proved that every logical system will always crash. It’s only a matter of time. Logic would remain broken forever and the positivists hopes were dashed. Obviously, you can’t engineer a society based on a logical system that itself is hopelessly flawed. For better or for worse, the world would remain a messy place.

Yet the implications of the downfall of logic turned out to be far different, and far more strange, than anyone had expected. In 1937, building on Gödel’s proof, Alan Turing published his own paper on Hilbert’s computability problem. Much like the Austrian, he found that all problems are not computable, but with a silver lining. As part of his proof, he included a description of a simple machine that could compute every computable number.

Ironically, Turing’s machine would usher in a new era of digital computing. These machines, constructed on the basis that they would all eventually crash, have proven to be incredibly useful, as long as we accept them for what they are — flawed machines. As it turns out, to solve big, important problems, we often need to discard up our illusions first.

We Need to Think Less Like Engineers and More Like Gardeners

The 20th century ushered in a new era of science. We conquered infectious diseases, explored space and unlocked the genetic code. So, it was not at all unreasonable to want to build on that success by applying an engineering mindset to other fields of human endeavor. However, at this point, it should be clear that the approach is far past the point of saving.

It would be nice if the general well-being could be reduced to a single metric like GDP or the success of an enterprise could be fully encapsulated in a stock price. Yet today we live, as Danny Hillis has put it, in an age of the entanglement, where even a limited set of variables can lead to the emergence of a new and unexpected order.

We need to take a more biological view in which we think less like engineers and more like gardeners that grow and nurture ecosystems. The logical positivists had no idea what they were growing, but somehow what emerged from the soil they tilled turned out to be far more wondrous—not to mention exponentially more useful—than what they had originally intended.

As I wrote at the beginning of this crazy year, the time has come to rediscover our humanity. We are, in so many ways, at a crossroads. Technology will not save us. Markets will not save us. We simply need to make better choices.

— Article courtesy of the Digital Tonto blog
— Image credit: Pixabay

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Time Travel Innovation

Time Travel Innovation

Is it really possible to travel back in time? What about traveling into the future, have we finally figured out how to do that? Well, you’ll have to read on to find out…

But before we explore whether someone has finally figured out how to successfully time travel and recruit you to join me in investing in their pre-IPO startup, I’d like to introduce one of the most important visualizations from the world of innovation that many of your have probably never seen – Neri Oxman’s Krebs Cycle of Creativity from January 2016.

If you’re not familiar with this incredibly important visual artifact from the work of Neri Oxman from MIT’s Media Lab, you should be because it does an amazing job of capturing the interplay between Art, Science, Engineering and Design in the creation of innovation. It builds on John Maeda’s Bermuda Quadrilateral from 2006:

John Maeda Bermuda Quadrilateral

And Rich Gold’s Matrix, also from 2006:

Rich Gold Matrix

While Rich Gold’s visualization builds on the logical bones of John Maeda’s Bermuda Quadrilateral and introduces the concepts of speculative design, speculative engineering, and the contrast between moving minds & moving molecules, it lacks the depth of Neri Oxman’s Krebs Cycle of Creativity visualization. But the Krebs Cycle of Creativity does lose Maeda’s expression of the linkages between science & exploration, engineering & invention, design & communication, and art & expression. But even without these assertions of Maeda, the Krebs Cycle of Creativity still captures a number of other powerful tensions and assertions that can benefit us in our pursuit of innovation.

Time Marches On

The Krebs Cycle of Creativity can be viewed from a number of different perspectives and utilized in a number of different ways. But, one way to look at it is as if it were a watch face. In this context as time moves forward you’re following the typical path, a technology-led innovation approach.

Using the Krebs Cycle of Creativity Canvas in a clockwise direction will help us explore:

  • What information do we have about what might be possible?
  • What knowledge needs to be obtained?
  • What utility does the invention create?
  • What behavior do we need to modify to encourage adoption?

It begins with the invention of a new piece of technology created by the usage of existing information and a new perception of what might be possible within the constraints of our understanding of the natural world, or even by expanding our understanding and knowledge of the natural world using the scientific method.

Neri Oxman Krebs Cycle of Creativity

You’ll see at 3 o’clock in the image above that it at this point in time that most organizations then hand off this new knowledge to their engineers to look at this new understanding of nature through the production lens in order to convert this new knowledge into new utility.

Engineers in most organizations are adept at finding a useful application for a new scientific discovery, and in many organizations this work is done before designers get a peek and begin to imagine how they can present this utility to users in a way that drives behaviors of adoption in a way that the behaviors of using the product or consuming the service feel as natural as possible and as frictionless as possible.

And unfortunately the artists in any organization (or outside via agency relationships) are called in at the eleventh hour to help shape perceptions and to communicate the philosophy behind the solution and the to make the case for it to occupy space in our collective culture.

Pausing at the Innovation Intersection

The way that innovation occurs in many organizations is that Science and Engineering collaborate to investigate and confirm feasibility, then Engineering and Design collaborate to inject viability into the equation, and then Design and Art (with elements of marketing and advertising) collaborate to create Desirability at the end. This may be how it works in many organizations, yet it doesn’t mean that it is the best way…

Feasibility Viability Desirability for Innovation

Traveling Back in Time

But as we all know, water can run uphill, the moon can eclipse the sun, and yes time can run in reverse. Viewing the Krebs Cycle of Creativity in a counter clockwise direction and pushing the hands of the watch backwards will have you following a user-led innovation approach instead.

Using the Krebs Cycle of Creativity Canvas in a counter clockwise direction will help us explore:

  • What information do we have about what is needed?
  • What behavior should we observe?
  • What would create utility for customers?
  • What knowledge must we obtain to realize our solution vision?

It begins with the identification of a new insight uncovered by the investigation of existing information and a new perception of what might be needed within the constraints of our understanding of our customers, or even by expanding our understanding and knowledge of our customers by using ethnography, observation, behavioral science and other tools to enter the mind of your customers, employees or partners.

You’ll see at 9 o’clock in the image above that it at this point in time that user-driven organizations after having their business artists use their perception skills to investigate the culture and philosophy underpinning this new understanding of behavior and pass it off for their designers to look at through the production lens in order to convert it into new utility.

Designers in many organizations are adept at finding a useful application for a new behavioral understanding, and in user-driven organizations this work is done before engineers get a peek and begin to imagine how they can build this utility for users in a way that creates new knowledge in a way that will differentiate the products or services of their organization from those of the competition.

And in user-driven organizations scientists are called in as needed to help overcome any barriers engineers encounter in realizing the solution that best satisfies the users’ identified needs, while leveraging new scientific perceptions that help shape our understanding of nature and empower new philosophical beliefs about what’s possible.


While we haven’t torn any worm holes through the fabric of the space-time continuum with this article, hopefully we have expanded your repertoire with some new tools to facilitate conscious choices around whether you are going to pursue technology-led innovation (clockwise) or user-led innovation (counter clockwise).

Hopefully we have also shown you a better way of visualizing where you are in your innovation journey and where the turning points in your innovation pursuits lie as you seek to take a quantum leap and transform your past into a bright, shiny future.

So now it is time to answer the question you had at the beginning of this article… Is time travel possible?

Well, nearly a decade ago NASA ran an experiment that proved elements of Einstein’s theory of relativity, specifically that the fabric of space-time warps around the earth in response to gravity. Read about it here

And yes, time travel is theoretically possible, or at least time is not theoretically constant as described in this NASA article.

Neither of these indicate that it is possible to travel backwards in time (despite what Superman physics says), only to affect how time advances, but if anyone wants to invest a million dollars in my time travel startup, I’ll cash your check. Because who knows, maybe your check is what will finally make time travel possible!

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?


Image credits: Neri Oxman, MIT Media Lab; Rich Gold; John Maeda; Pixabay

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Innovation – Marketing versus Engineering

What are the roadblocks and critical relationships between marketing and engineering in the cause of advancing innovation?

Let me start off by recommending that you watch the movie I’ve embedded, as it does a great job of describing how there is often an engineering solution to a problem and a marketing solution to a problem. This in part explains why there is often a tension between marketing and engineering when it comes to new product development – they see different solutions, assign value differently, and view success in divergent ways. So, please enjoy the video, and my article will continue below it:

So in the future, with the problem at hand, you might want to ask yourself – “Is the problem best solved by changes to the real value, redefining the intrinsic value provided, or a bit of both?”

Of course it is very hard for people to ask these questions honestly as they have a default response, but asking them in a cross-fuctional environment may yield a more holistic and informed response. And after all, many of the barriers that people tend to erect in the achievement of something are often because they didn’t feel involved in the decision-making process.

So, what are some of the barriers that people erect in a sometimes tension-filled environment?

  1. Isolation – You just avoid communicating with the other side as much as possible
  2. Stonewall – You just do what you would do anyways and ignore the input from the other side
  3. Passive Aggression – You consciously choose to behave in a way that will cause the effort to fail, so that ideally you get your way instead
  4. Build a Fortress – You build complex written rules of engagement for your department saying that it has to be this way because you’re too busy and these rules will help you be more organized
  5. Omission – You take the inputs but then you don’t do anything with them (marketing doesn’t promote a feature, or engineering doesn’t fully develop it

Working TogetherThe biggest danger to the cause of advancing innovation when it comes to the engineering and marketing departments is that the relationship develops into one without constructive conflict and without healthy collaboration. For innovation to be repeatable in an organization these two sides must share openly, have their perspectives valued, and contribute to a conversation. Marketing and engineering hear different aspects of the voice of the customer in their interactions with them, and they approach solutions to problems in different ways.

I would even argue that there is probably no more important set of cross-functional relationships than those between marketing and engineering, and that their health will determine the future success or failure of the organization. The executive team should consciously monitoring the health of these relationships, because when they start pulling in opposite directions, the entire organization could be ripped apart.

What directions are these two organizations pulling in your organization?

Build a Common Language of Innovation on your team

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