On Complex Adaptive Systems Engineering, The MITRE Corporation

Brian White (bewhite@mitre.org), The MITRE Corporation - Director, Systems Engineering Process Office

We suggest and explore a portfolio of distinct-but-related systems engineering activities that collectively may work well in very difficult environments. We encourage their consideration and application in limited domains, at first, to gain confidence in their viability. If/when they work well they might be tried in broader contexts.


Our well-known and applied techniques of conventional systems engineering (SE) are not only insufficient, but sometimes counterproductive, in addressing the most difficult systems engineering problems. It is worthwhile to examine some complementary techniques that might have a better chance of working in such environments. We don’t yet have all the answers but perhaps simple answers do not even exist. In many real cases, there may be no action anyone can take to solve really complex problems. Nevertheless, we should continually explore new mindsets and techniques that could prove valuable in practice in ways that further progress towards satisfying needs for improved capabilities. We offer eight SE activities constituting what we call a Complex Adaptive Systems Engineering (CASE) methodology.

Outline of CASE Activities
Create Climate for Change: Create a climate for engineering the environment of the System. Continually plan for agile, constructive change (hopefully, accelerating the processes of natural evolution) through proactive dialog with stakeholders, customers, and users. Architect a Strategy: With System stakeholders, strategize how to achieve a healthy environment for the System, within its various system, system of systems (SoS), enterprise, and/or complex system contexts.
Target Outcome Spaces: Describe the customers’/users’ mission/vision in terms of one or more desired outcome spaces, not solutions. Reward Results: Work with System customers and, if possible, a governing body to create appropriate incentives, but for results, not promises, i.e., realized outcomes that fit within the desired Outcome Spaces defined.
Formulate Management Heuristics: Discover and promulgate management heuristics that will help stakeholders improve their decision making processes, i.e., suggest practical ways to know when and how to make better (and more, or less, frequent) decisions.
Stimulate Natural Processes: Continually “stir the pot” by introducing variation (innovation) and selection (integration) while shaping and enabling future constructive change, while trying to avoid chaos and stasis, respectively.
Develop in Operational Regimes: Develop evolutionary improvements of the System in actual operational environments with real users to the extent feasible. Assess, Learn, and Re-Plan: Continually evaluate overall results and trends focusing on the “big picture,” and revisit all the above activities in an iterative fashion to improve their application to the System and its environment.

Slides Audio Paper

©2008 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved.