FSG Blog
May 4, 2022

Confessions of an Engineer

Joe DuFresne (CAPT, USCG retired)
Principal, Futures Strategy Group

When it comes to innovative thinking, engineers often get a bad rap. Labels like “data-driven, mechanically minded, and linear thinkers” are assigned to contend that engineers struggle with creative thinking and pursuing ideas “outside of the box.” How can this be so?  Thousands of years of technological innovation throughout human history will show that engineering is very creative indeed.

First, we should establish what we mean by an engineering mindset and why it can be useful. Within the “STEM” construct, the Science part of STEM is the discipline that works on exploration and discovery.  Engineering is the discipline of problem solving.  Mathematics provides the tools that allow Science and Engineering to explore and solve. These disciplines together ultimately create and improve the Technology that changes our lives and our world, ideally for the better.

Science and Engineering use linear thinking a lot, but linear thinking is not the opposite of creative thinking.  Linear thinkers use systematic processes and data to approach problems.  Nonlinear thinkers prefer more free form approaches.  Both employ creative thinking; however, one starts with a method, the other with a blank sheet of paper.  The scientific method and, in naval architecture, the design spiral, are tried and true linear processes that scientists and engineers use in their creative work.

Not all problems demand the same level of engineering creativity, however.  Ask an engineer to build a bridge across an interstate and they will use well established methods of truss design and materials science to construct a timely, strong, resilient, safe, and cost-efficient structure. There is little creativity needed or wanted there, otherwise we would have to endure construction traffic indefinitely.

But ask an engineer to build a bridge between two cliffs a mile across and high enough for large ships to pass under and they need to invent a whole new type of bridge. Without enormous creativity there we would still only be crossing San Francisco Bay by boat. 

An engineering mind does have a couple of rules that are often misconstrued as limitations to creativity.  The first rule of problem solving as an engineer is to set boundary conditions to the problem.  Setting boundary conditions does not mean restricting “out-of-the-box” thinking, however. Without an explanation of which variables are free to control and which assumptions are fixed, a problem becomes unsolvable. Unsolvable problems are best left to philosophy.  

The second rule engineering minds face is dealing with abstract concepts.  Science and engineering operate in the physical universe. However, abstract entities arise quite frequently when working in this discrete physical space.

For example, engineers often find themselves needing to take the square root of a negative number, which of course is impossible since two negative numbers multiplied together make a positive number.  Never fear, in comes mathematics to the rescue!  Math provides an imaginary number, “i,” which represents √-1 (square root of -1). Like the 5-year-old’s imaginary friend who is there, but actually isn’t, “i” allows √-3 to become i√3 and we pocket something that can’t exist but move forward with it anyway.  So engineering minds deal with abstract, and sometimes completely imaginary concepts all the time, but need a tool to facilitate those concepts into the physical world in which they operate.

Engineering minds in strategic foresight

It’s true that engineers often struggle with the early stages of a strategic foresight exercise. 

Ask an engineering mind to think about what the future may look like in 10 to 20 years and you are apt to receive a bemused look – or a highly stylized, gadget-heavy prediction of what will most certainly be. 

But these should not be disqualifying features. In fact, engineers are often essential contributors to foresight teams.  Engineers are adept at recognizing the larger system surrounding problems and identifying cross-impacts that others might miss.  Their natural problem-solving disposition allows them to shape innovation with an eye to executability, the latter often being the most challenging element of a strategic foresight exercise.

The use of scenario planning in strategic foresight provides a useful tool to tap into what engineers bring to the table by providing a discrete problem for them to solve.  Scenarios meet the first rule of engineering minds by setting boundary conditions, identifying what assumptions are made about a particular future operating environment, and choosing which variables the team is allowed to manipulate. Scenarios build discrete stories around abstract or ambiguous conditions to make them understandable and manageable, thereby meeting the engineers’ second rule.

From scenario sceptics to true believers…

FSG has extensive experience working with engineers as clients and scenario planning participants, including at NASA AeronauticsFord Motor Companythe Panama Canal Authoritythe Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the US Coast Guard. Through that experience we have found engineers to often be skeptical in the early stages, but ultimately become among the most passionate supporters of the process.  This is not surprising, since scenario planning seems custom-built for those data-driven, mechanically minded, linear thinkers out there to exert their creativity into solving the problem of how we prepare ourselves for an uncertain and complex future.  A lesson we scenario planners can take from that is to explain the process in terms of the rules that engineers recognize, so that they are able to immediately embrace the task.

Contrary to stereotype, successful engineers are fairly balanced in their left/right brain strength, but they require the skills of their left brain to engage their right brain.  Seeking them out to participate in strategic foresight will provide enormous benefit to help us find innovative, practical strategies to manage an uncertain future.

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6 thoughts on “Confessions of an Engineer”

  1. Joe, this is absolutely terrific.

    I particularly zeroed in on your comment about the “boundary conditions” that engineers are trained to observe as akin to the “plausibility” requirement of even the most adventurous scenarios we create for clients. I would bet you that the engineers who, as you say, become converts to our process do so because of our fidelity to boundary conditions.

    Thank you for this one, Joe.

  2. I had the opportunity of being one of those engineers embracing scenario planning for the first time with the Futures Strategy Group. I have to admit that at the beginning we wanted to somehow quantify scenarios; but soon se learned that there are different schools of thought, and the one used by FSG is more qualitative in nature. The methodology proved to be more practical because in the end it forces you to visualize the scenarios and strategize so that one can ready for the best and the worst. In the end, we were able to develop the general strategy to expand the Panama Canal, a project that in the end has become an icon of Panamanian administration of the Canal, and which has generated immense benefits both, to international trade, and to Panama. Today I am the Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States, and I am now looking at the Caribbean Region (all our 25 Member States and 10 Associates) under a scenario planning prism.

  3. Rodolfo! What a pleasure to “ hear” your voice in this blog. Your comments brought back some fine memories. I often thought that part of what made Panama Canal engineers adept at scenario planning (and you were) was the contribution that Panamanian culture and attitudes made to the mix. My experience has been that engineers are often impatient with processes like scenario planning. However, a little patience and reflection (perhaps while watching the sun set over the Pacific) goes a long way. Additionally, you brought non-engineers into the project. That inter-disciplinary piece was important, as well. The Canal was always a favorite project and one we are proud to have supported.

  4. In my experience, many of us buy into the current stereotypes of what right brain/left brain people are versus the reality that we all just express our creativity in different ways. In our experience at the Port Authority, many of the linear thinkers were incredibly creative once they realized that what we were asking them to do was simply re-write the universal rules that constrained them, then imagine how they would problem-solve under these new constraints. Our biggest takeaway from scenario planning was that planning doesn’t have to limited to either the planners or the engineers, but that some of our best thinking comes when everyone across the enterprise is challenged to release their own version of creativity.

    • Thanks for your comments, Robin! As you say, it’s not only important to get that range of creative approaches to the table, but understanding that as project leads and facilitators we have to know what levers to pull to engage them. Almost like explaining something in two different languages.


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