We have seen the worst of our government in the past few weeks. Our politicians have seemingly forgotten that their mission is to solve problems. Instead, they’ve regressed back to settling differences through tribal conflict. Isn’t that something that we should have put behind us centuries ago?
Why is it that our politicians can never solve complex problems?
I have always been fascinated with complex problem solving. It’s why I found myself a job at the Boeing Company at the start of my career. My job was to find ways to use computer automation to help Boeing solve ever more complex problems. While at Boeing, I was introduced to the discipline of systems engineering.
In the 1940′s, with the urgency of World War II as the impetus, large systems integrators like Boeing and AT&T had to find a way to eliminate the unpredictability of trial and error engineering. That way was systems engineering – which replaced the guessing game of early engineering efforts with a predictable engineering discipline that would allow new complex systems to be reliably brought online very fast.
The results speak for themselves. It’s that discipline in engineering that has given us the tremendous advances in aeronautics and electronics in the decades that have followed. Those supercomputers most people carry in their pockets would never have been possible were it not for the discipline of systems engineering.
Systems engineering imposes a rigorous problem-solving process. – Requirements are analyzed and quantified, alternatives are thoroughly studied, and the most optimal solution is selected. Emotions are wrung out of the process as soon as possible. When a problem is too large or appears insurmountable, it is broken down into smaller problems that are solved individually. Each step along the way and every decision is exhaustively documented and reviewed by peers. It’s a scalable process that allows any problem, no matter how complex or difficult, to be tackled with a good probability of success.
Of course, it’s not a perfect process. There are plenty of strong opinions, politicking, and sometimes even special interests to deal with. However, engineers are able to handle this as they are trained to work through their differences to find the best answers. Engineers are taught to detect and avoid the pitfalls of relying on opinions and ideology. Instead, they must relentlessly seek true and indisputable facts. Being able to do this effectively is a condition of employment. Engineers that can’t follow the process must be let go – businesses simply cannot afford to keep underperformers.
The problems that systems engineers must tackle are many times more complex than anything that our politicians will ever have to address. While the results are never perfect, and challenges abound, when a new plane makes its way out to the runway for that first flight, it’s a certainty that it will fly. The discipline of the process almost guarantees it.
Contrast this to the way our politicians solve problems. In the unlikely event that their metaphorical plane will ever find its way out to a runway, chances are it will come to an ugly end at the end of the runway crumpling into a pile of wishful thinking and intentional sabotage.
What’s the difference? Simply put, in systems engineering, opinions are suppressed and facts are emphasized while politicians seem to practice the exact opposite of this.
Why is it that we intuitively understand that the world’s most complex problems cannot be solved by people who rely on opinions and ideology, and yet that is exactly how we try to solve the world’s most important problems?
I am often asked what my vision is for legal informatics – the form of computer automation that targets legislative work. I’ve been pondering that question a lot over the past few weeks. Modern computing has revolutionized our lives. In the past twenty years alone, the way we interact with others, buy and sell products, keep ourselves entertained, and manage our lives has changed many times over thanks to computers and the Internet. Too often though, when I look at how we apply legal informatics, we’re simply computerizing outmoded nineteenth century processes – which, as we have seen in recent events, don’t work anymore.
I think it’s time that we rethink how we are governed – using the tools and technologies that have improved so many other aspects of our lives. Maybe then, we can have leaders who are problem solvers.