Luud Engels is a system architecting trainer at High Tech Institute.

15 December 2022

System architecting isn’t only useful for high-tech companies. It can also benefit politicians. Luud Engels explains.

Over there, under the parasol: cap, sunglasses, beer – that must be our prime minister.

If I arrange another beer, can I join you?

Beer is welcome and if you don’t talk politics, you can join us.

Deal! I’m a political illiterate. I give a training here and can only talk a little about high-tech system architecting.

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Sounds interesting! I’ve been on quite a few trade missions and I know the Netherlands plays a leading role there.

It certainly does! I’ve had the opportunity to work for companies that could predict which high-tech product they needed to have on the market in three years and put genius researchers and supremely capable engineers to work to reach that goal.

Precisely because it takes a considerable number of different areas of expertise to develop, manufacture and maintain such a high-tech product, a tangle of conflicting requirements arises from that multitude of disciplines. But successful companies stand out because, despite this tangle, they can agree on an approach and thus make the right decisions in a timely manner.

That must be enormously complex indeed. But fortunately, those bright minds and handy hands know which calculations and models to apply. In my work, we also apply models, but they’re more the subject of discussion than leading to consensus and correct decisions. With us, it’s more human work.

There may be more similarities there than you think. All experts in high tech are lords and masters in their fields and often take the stage to showcase exactly that: beta superiority.

Rutte Luud

On the one hand, you desperately need the expertise, models and calculations to keep those professionals innovating in their fields, digging deeper and deeper tunnels. On the other hand, every new insight in a certain discipline is used as a weapon to beat the brains out of experts from other tunnels.

Islands arise, sometimes even camps, and the plague is that they all have a valid point.

Okay, okay, so it’s human work too. But you said just now that they do come to an agreement. So how do they do that?

It’s all about system architecting. They reach working agreements – you can call it an approach – in which the various disciplines provide each other with insight into where, in essence, the contradiction is manifesting itself and for which parameters a balanced solution must be found. So this isn’t about negotiating or trying to reach a consensus but about making jointly weighted choices. Once they all have an overview and agree on the entire system, these bright minds subordinate their own tunnel wisdom to, say, the higher good.

It’s nice that that’s how it works in high tech, but how different it is with us. No doubt you’ve seen debates where people are too busy proclaiming their own party truth and unwilling to listen to each other, let alone understand each other. That system architecting doesn’t work with us.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate – those debates don’t have the common purpose that does prevail within successful companies. In the debates, the system goal is conspicuous by its absence.

No, it can’t be because of that. For example, we’ve set a very clear goal for nitrogen reduction: 50 percent less by 2030. How concrete do you want the goal to be?

Here you touch on a basic error. You see, that reduction isn’t a system goal. This is exactly where constructive companies differ from politics. Let me explain.

The system goal will include terms such as food quantity, food quality, sustainable operations and conservation of the environment. However, no system has ever been developed with the goal of reducing nitrogen, which is exactly why many protest as soon as you do set such a goal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no climate wimp. I see the excess nitrogen deposition as a negative effect that needs to be fixed.

I’m pretty sure that farmers, citizens and businesses subscribe to the system goal of producing food sustainably in the Netherlands. If you had invited them to keep heading toward that system goal while the nitrogen surplus needs to be repaired, you would have got cooperative thinkers instead of counter-thinkers. The system goal always involves the desired effect, and most people, therefore, want to participate in it.

I see your point. So the Netherlands can be governed by system architects?

No, but even politicians would benefit from practices and methods such as those within system architecting: proclaiming system goals results in solution supporters; proclaiming solutions results in aimless opponents.

So we messed up?

In this line of approach, yes, definitely. However, some things have also been messed up in high tech, and misses will continue, but every mistake is an opportunity to improve. How else do you think system architecting came about?

You said you wouldn’t be talking about politics!

I didn’t. We just talked about decision-making.