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28 February 2015

The Black Hole of the Agile World: Systems Thinking

Agile fanatics (excuse me: practitioners) love to do things in tiny increments.

That's OK for products where bite-sized deliveries have value, but it's fantasyland for many real-world projects.

Take, for example, the design of a new car. Sure, you can break the car into systems -- chassis, body, safety package, motor, and so on. Waterfall does that, too, but let's consider the airflow over the body. The airflow is affected by the whole assembly. Every part affects the whole. You can't just design a fender in isolation and say, "Looky, looky, I've delivered value!" No, you've delivered an irrelevant piece of scrap.

In any course on Business Analysis, the importance of a unit on Systems Thinking cannot be overemphasized because the Agile world has completely forgotten its value. 

Before the 1990's, there was a role called Systems Engineer.

That title is still around, but the job is not. At least, the job has become a rare grain of wheat a vast field of tares.

A Systems Engineer had many skills of a project manager, a BA, a Systems Thinker, and a cross-disciplinary engineer, all rolled into one.

Along come companies such as Microsoft and Cisco, dropping the qualifying word from titles such as Network Systems Engineer, Software Systems Engineer, and Server Systems Engineer. Suddenly, every engineer, analyst, and administrator is a Systems Engineer. I wish I had a paycheck for every time a recruiter has contacted me with a so-called Systems Engineer job that turned out to be for an IT admin or a software coder.

True Systems Engineering jobs have become needles in a field of haystacks, and systems thinking has almost been forgotten.

Thousands of Systems Engineers lost their jobs due to decimation of the US Defense sector in 2009. (I proud of myself for not pointing out the predictable political element of that.) They still find three strikes against them:
  1. Transitioning to a different job category such as Project Management or Business Analysis
  2. Getting a foot in the door of a different industry (other than fast food)
  3. Living in a job market where all the growth is in part-time service jobs and has gone to low-skilled workers
Hiring managers would do well to consider bringing in experienced cross-disciplinary, systems thinkers. It would not take much training to bring them up to speed in new roles such as PM or BA.

Have you ever thought of a project as a system of people, or a product as a system of technologies? Systems Engineers do that instinctively, and such integrated systems thinking could prevent a lot of headaches for maturing companies.

Now, if you'll pardon me; I need to clean up a spill in aisle five.

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