Engineering Mindset

Builder in Stone
Art Institute of Chicago

Maybe because I read Rex Robert’s “Your Engineered House” when I was 13, the purposefulness of the title was lost on me. I never wondered what other approach there might be. I never considered what exactly was an “engineered” house, and in contrast to what? Rex Roberts just talked common sense. When you made something you analyzed your requirements; you designed to fulfill those requirements; you focused on functionality. Most importantly, you always looked for ways to improve. Wouldn’t it be better if…?

Having grown up in a variety of houses in multiple countries, I already knew that there were many possible solutions to the basic human requirement for shelter. I understood that one size did not fit all and that context played an important role in determining what was best fit for purpose.

Whether I was designing a course, or laying out a page in technical documentation, or writing programming standards documents, I always took that same approach: analyze requirements, design, implement, test, improve, iterate.

Not until last summer, when I came across this article about the book Applied Minds: How Engineers Think, did I realize that I (who am not an engineer) had an “engineering mindset”. I felt like I had found my tribe.

I was especially pleased because, despite loving systems, modules, and breaking things into components, I see myself more than a mere deconstructionist.

Having an engineering mindset goes beyond that; as Shane Parrish says in his article, “…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.”

So what distinguishes the “engineered” house? The difference is primarily in approach. Most home building magazines, builders, and realtors ask you to consider what style of house you want and what size (4 bedroom, 3 bath) and what amenities?

The approach in an engineered house is to first ask, “What do you do?” and then to design a house that enables you to do those things comfortably and well. When I recently took the Austin Energy Green Building Workshop, I was pleased that this was the first question that they too asked. Their philosophy is “Green by Design”. Rex Roberts and his ilk would probably respond “Everything by design.”

The book Applied Minds uses this example, “…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?

Whenever I get in a rut, I review those questions.

GPlus Discussion

Hidden until I can reformat it. But a lot of good discussion posts so worthwhile to do it sometime.