Friday, July 14, 2017

Book Review: 'Applied Minds: How Engineers Think' by Guru Madhavan

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Ibarra’s coverage:

o How Outsight Works (Pages 11-19)
o Avoid the Competency Trap (29-36)
o Understand What Leaders Really Do (36-58)
o Elements of a Good Story (63)
o We’re All Narcissistic and Lazy (73-78)
o Mindsets That Set Network Traps (78-84)
o The BCDs (Breadth, Connectivity, and Dynamism) of Networking Advantage (87-103)
o How to Network Out and Across (103-112)
o Chameleons and True-to-Selfers (121-129)
o The Trouble with Authenticity (129-132)
o Stretch Beyond Your Current Self-Concept (145-154)
o Process, Not Outcome (162-164)
o A Predictable Process 166-174)
o The Big Questions (177)
o Connecting the Dots (190)

As I worked my way through Ibarra’s lively and eloquent narrative, I was again reminded of an observation by Søren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Not everyone wants to become a leader. Not every aspirant can. Throughout history, the greatest leaders have been results-driven. They saw what must be done and set about to do it. If assistance was needed, they secured it. They demonstrate a trial by error process, learning so much more from their setbacks than from their triumphs. They are — and are perceived to be — leaders because they “do leadership.”

I share Herminia Ibarra’s hope that those who read her book will develop — over time — a more central and enduring identity as a leader. “Sometimes the journey leads to a major career shift; other times, the transition is internal: you’ve changed the way you see your work and yourself. It’s worth it. Start now. Act now.” To which I presume to add, “Bon voyage!”

How almost anyone can develop an engineer’s mind-set, one that could create a significant competitive advantage

Few people complete a formal education in engineering (B.S. degree through a Ph.D. degree) but Guru Madhavan is convinced – as am I – that almost anyone can develop an engineer’s mind-set, one that could create a significant competitive advantage for them. “Engineers help create solution spaces — suites of possibilities that offer new choices, conveniences, and comforts — that redefine our standard of living.” They have developed a mind-set that guides and informs those efforts.

Howard Gardner has much of value to say about multiple intelligences that have almost unlimited applications in what are often viewed as separate and unrelated arts and sciences. Mudhavan agrees with Gardner: “The engineering mind-set can be applied successfully in every walk of life because its core elements (structure, constraints, trade-offs) and its basic concepts (including recombination, optimization, efficiency, and prototyping, are equally effective in finding solutions to nonengineering challenges. We can see all these aspects converging clearly in the work of one of the most famous film directors of all time, who studied and had a ‘thorough grounding’ in engineering. His early technical training had an important influence on his creations.”

Madhavan points out that, for Alfred Hitchcock, everything he presented on screen “was rooted in technical logic, even creating a suspenseful cinematic moment – the immediacy and very essence of the experience that would be thrilling and ‘chilling movie audiences long before air conditioning.’” Such effects are the result of both art and science.

The Birds offers an excellent case in point. The technical issues with the movie were “prodigious,” Hitchcock said. “I mean films like Ben Hur and Cleopatra are child’s play compared to this.” Madhavan notes that live birds had to be trained for every shot and the aeorodynamic principles of gliders were applied “to simulate fake bird movements. Special wire works, miniatures, and gears were used to arrive at authentic-looking shorts of the feathered actors – a Hollywood version of robotics before computers.”

Obviously, the engineer’s mind-set can help to create “suites of possibilities that offer new choices, conveniences, and comforts — that redefine our standard of living.” It can guide and inform those efforts. But there is a higher purpose to which Madhavan refers when suggesting that everyone is an engineer “at some point in the way we design our destinies. That’s why it’s the responsibility of not only engineers, but just about everyone to share the future course of engineering, which is entering an era of new eclecticism. With a shared vision we can create better solution spaces, convert random motions into progress, and improve societal muscle strength to address the complexities of today and tomorrow.”

Guru Madhavan provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel in this volume from a scope and depth of sources and resources that require 39 pages to be cited. Also of great value are the lessons he has learned from this material as well as his determination to prepare those who read his book to create their own “suites of possibilities that offer new choices, conveniences, and comforts” and help others to do so. With all due respect to a higher standard of living, we also need a higher quality of life. We don’t need a world filled with engineers but we could certainly benefit from a world in which everyone can think like one whenever necessary.

Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.