Critical thinking and systems thinking are two essential concepts that deserve more attention during the automotive disruption we are currently witnessing. That said, these good ideas still need to be followed by action.

My father used to say, “Thinking has a colossal future.” Now, it’s not just about what one thinks but how one thinks. For instance, being able to think critically sounds like a dull truism. Critical thinking—it has a nice ring to it. Likely, few would refute the notion that critical thinking is crucial for personal and professional growth. It’s one of those concepts that elicits automatic agreement: This is a good thing.

Critical thinking is an approach to thinking that combines the analysis of facts, evidence, and arguments to form judgments through rational, skeptical, and unbiased evaluation. Thinking independently and autonomously is of crucial importance in this process. A critical thinker must proceed in an unbiased, inquisitive, and systematic manner, examining facts and counterarguments and not following a herd mentality. Indeed, it is easier and more efficient to accept, without questioning, that things “just are the way they are.” In other words, critical thinking is occasionally exhausting but worthwhile.

Example of critical thinking in practice: A team in an ADAS project tasked with developing a driver assistance system component debated whether to adopt SCRUM or a conventional approach for the development process. The client-side project manager explored various alternatives with the team. Though the team had no prior experience with SCRUM, the success rate of past conventionally managed projects wasn’t encouraging either. The team asserted that “SCRUM should be used these days.” However, contractual obligations required the project to be Automotive SPICE (Level 2) and ASIL-B compliant for functional safety–concepts the team was unfamiliar with. After thorough deliberation, it was decided to proceed conventionally with this project while considering a hybrid approach for future projects.

A few aspects of critical thinking were applied in this decision. For instance, subjective views were filtered out. Even at the risk of disappointing and perhaps even demotivating the team, the decision was made to take a known, instead, though not unproblematic, risk because the risk of attempting an agile transformation in the midst of a project was considered unpredictable.

Critical thinking is an essential building block in the puzzle of an organization, but this approach is insufficient to provide a holistic perspective on the entire company. Systems thinking is a suitable approach for this purpose. It is a method of seeing the world “as a whole” and simultaneously as a set of internally interconnected aspects to better understand the whole. Systems thinking helps to figure out solutions for complex scenarios and interrelationships so that a more effective solution can be found to complex issues. An occasional casual phrase such as “you should see the big picture” expresses the longing for deeply understood systems thinking.

Systems thinking is a structured, iterative approach to thinking. Using it could be defined in iterative phases as follows:

  • Define scope (e.g., the whole company, department, project, team, etc.)
  • Analyze the system’s components: The system’s “moving parts” (e.g., teams, project roles, and business functions, environmental influences, legislation, quality systems, interlocking standards (such as functional safety, ASPICE, and cyber security), road release processes, marketing activities, production facilities, etc.)
  • Understand the relationship within the system components (e.g., what milestones must be achieved for road approval to be granted, etc.)
  • Impact analysis: what would be the impact of changes? In this context, it is particularly interesting to identify potential changes that would have the greatest impact.

A practical example of systems thinking: In a large mobile communications company, numbers had to be able to be ported from one network to another due to a new legal requirement (also known as “number porting”). Industry insiders will immediately recognize that the entire company was affected, including system development, sales, marketing, billing, call centers, accounting, logistics, etc. A particular challenge was that the so-called “partner systems” had to be updated simultaneously. An analysis of this mammoth task revealed that hundreds of requirements documents had to be changed so that the developers could adapt all partner systems. The usual approach was distributing the requirements documents and hoping the entire system landscape, with all its complex parts, would function correctly after the mega-update. The danger was acute that critical errors would be overlooked.

Instead of leaving all partner systems alone with the new requirements documents and hoping for the best, the person in charge had the idea to appoint an “end-to-end” feature owner who would holistically accompany the process route from the first to the last step until the systems were released. This was a seemingly small organizational change in the enterprise-wide development process, but the initiative was rewarded with complete success. The role of feature owners was subsequently established as a standard procedure.

In this case, the system’s thinking was manifested by how the extensive change wasn’t merely approached “by the book” but through a systematic analysis of all components and a thorough assessment of the associated risks.

Combining those two approaches is particularly effective. By their very nature, systems thinking and critical thinking are closely intertwined. For example, critical thinking is well suited to analyzing and questioning problems and, in doing so, examining them for possible opportunities and risks. This approach is also known as “critical systems thinking.”

It is worthwhile taking a further look into these two approaches. This is because it is a matter of critically applying systems thinking and examining the effects of the two concepts regarding systematic feasibility in the “project management triangle.”

This involves looking at solution approaches regarding time constraints, solution quality, and effort and considering team dynamics to implement an effective solution. “Critical System Thinking” thus becomes “Effective Critical Systems Thinking (ECST).”

The idea stems from the automotive industry experiencing disruptive changes due to electrification and autonomous driving. A new mindset is needed to meet those challenging, new paradigms successfully.

The ECST principle extends the CST approach to include the following aspects:

  • Systematic risk reduction: active risk reduction is encouraged instead of merely managing risks.
  • De-programming the team involves actively protecting the team from distracting disruptive influences of hypes and management fads.
  • Long-term planning: Unlike the agile approach, long-term planning is encouraged in the ECST approach. In the process, planning is critically scrutinized and constantly adapted.
  • Respect for software complexity: in the automotive business, mistrust and skepticism are rampant regarding the growing role of software in vehicle development. This skepticism must be actively addressed so that software talent in the automotive business does not leave.
  • Encouraging disruptive thinking: nothing is the same in the automotive business–or so it seems. Elon Musk’s “Giga Casting”–an idea to produce vehicles from a single mold and achieve significant savings–is a prime example of disruptive thinking.
  • Consideration of effort, scope, quality, and the time component: good ideas are plentiful, but their execution is the real sticking point.
  • Meaningfulness: Money only motivates to a limited extent. Truly successful teams don’t work for the dough; they work because they are passionate about the task.
  • Continuous learning and adaptability: Curiosity and learning must be actively encouraged.

ECST – effective critical systems thinking – represents a progressive, extended way of thinking that holds particular promise in the complex world of the automotive industry, which is undergoing disruptive changes.

ECST can be trained and coached. Both managers and engineers can achieve a higher level of effectiveness as a result. It’s never too late to do so because the common belief that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks doesn’t stand up to the critical thinking aspect of ECST. ECST promotes continuous learning, so ECST is a universal, timeless strategy that can be applied at all organizational levels.

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I am a project manager (Project Manager Professional, PMP), a Project Coach, a management consultant, and a book author. I have worked in the software industry since 1992 and as a manager consultant since 1998. Please visit my United Mentors home page for more details. Contact me on LinkedIn for direct feedback on my articles.