Pictured: the author on his motorcycle in North Carolina.
Pictured: the author on his motorcycle in North Carolina.

by Don S. Gelosh, PhD, CSEP-Acq

Motorcycling season is in full swing here in Virginia: one of the reasons I enjoy living in the Commonwealth. Sunny mornings, warm afternoons, and lots of twisty roads with a thousand smells of freedom. Anyone who has ridden a motorcycle understands what I am saying.

Earlier this summer, as I was getting ready for my first ride of the season, I realized that the safety techniques for motorcycling were very similar to the leadership techniques for systems engineering. As one of the coaches for the INCOSE Institute for Technical Leadership, I have been preparing for our next cohort reporting this summer and thinking a lot about technical leadership. I realized that I needed to share that epiphany with my systems engineering colleagues. Thus, this blog entry was born!

Let’s look at all the ways motorcycling and systems engineering leadership overlap.

Manage your risk through preparation

Safe and enjoyable motorcycling is all about risk management. It is a risky sport but you can mitigate that risk by having the right tools (protective clothing and gear), keeping your motorcycle properly maintained, getting the right training and practicing.

The same holds for technical leadership. You can mitigate your risk of failing by having the right leadership tools; maintaining a high level of knowledge, skills and abilities; getting the right training, and taking opportunities to practice leadership whenever and wherever you can.

Go where you look

One of the first things we learn as motorcyclists is that you go where you look. On a bike, when you look to the right, you will tend to move right; look to the left and you move left. Therefore, we use that to our advantage. If we need to turn left, we push on the left handlebar (called countersteering) and look to the left and the bike leans into the left turn. If we need to turn right, we push right, look right and the bike goes right.

The similarity with systems engineering leadership is that you need to establish a vision so your team knows where to go. If you have no vision, then any road will get you there. It is necessary and important to establish a vision and to make it known to every member of your team. Only then can you really expect your team to follow you and help execute your technical plan.

Focus on the solution, not the problem

On a recent ride, I came around a corner and saw the remains of a small animal in the middle of the road. Instead of watching the road ahead, I focused on the remains and ran right over them, which can be dangerous. If you focus instead on the path around the obstacle, the bike will go where you are looking and you will miss the roadkill. In systems engineering leadership, the same is true; if you focus too much on the problem, you will lose sight of the solution. Once you’ve recognized and understood the problem, it’s time to start looking at the path to meeting the challenge.

On a motorcycle or as a systems engineering leader, it’s also important to anticipate future bumps in the road. You need to keep looking ahead for obstacles in your path and when you see one, try to identify it, determine what you’re up against, and then start making plans for how you’re going to resolve it. In some cases, you may want to warn the folks behind why you took the path you did.

Slow, look, lean, and roll

When you approach a curve on your bike, you need to “Slow, Look, Lean, and Roll.” This means that you slow down, look through the curve, push on the appropriate handlebar to lean the bike in the correct direction, and roll on the throttle to pull you through the curve.

If you consider the curve as a challenge, we have another similarity to systems engineering leadership. As you approach the challenge, you should slow down and consider how you plan to meet it. You should look at and through the challenge and carefully plan how to get past it. Then you should lean into the challenge with determination to resolve it, and finally roll on the throttle to execute your plan, meet the challenge, and head on to the next one.

Stop or change: make the choice

In some cases when riding, it may be necessary to either quickly brake or to swerve in order to not hit an obstacle. If you have room to brake safely and no one is coming up on you from behind, that is usually the best approach. However, you may not have enough room to slow down and stop, so you will have to swerve to miss the obstacle. But if you try to brake and swerve at the same time, you may lose control of the motorcycle and crash. Not good. You need to pick one choice and stick with it.

In systems engineering leadership, you may be faced with a challenge where you have to decide if you need to stop what you’re doing or if you need to change direction. Just like in motorcycling, you can’t do both. In one case, you may have to stop what you’re doing and evaluate how you plan to meet the challenge, then you can proceed and execute your solution. In another case, perhaps you can’t stop, but you can change direction slightly and keep moving forward. Decide what the best solution is and then act on it, one way or another.

Recognize danger before you’re stuck

Some motorcycling magazines publish articles asking what you would do if you encounter a particular dangerous situation while riding. Of course, the situation they describe has you so far into the danger, there is no safe way out. Then they tell you the best solution is to avoid getting into that situation in the first place and provide a few tips on how to recognize the danger before it happens.

The same approach holds true for technical leadership. The best solution is to fix things before you get into trouble, and experience is the key. Talk to your mentors and coaches, get their take on things, and try to understand how they have handled similar problem situations. Keep your eyes and ears open, maintain a situational awareness of what is going on around you, your team, and the program. After a while, you‘ll start to develop your sixth sense and you’ll recognize problems before they happen.

Get on the road!

You can’t learn how to ride a motorcycle, or how to be a leader, just by sitting in a room and reading a book. While that type of knowledge learning is very important and necessary, you really have to go out and experience what it means to ride or lead in order to be any good at it. Systems engineering is a contact sport; get out there, make contact with your team and colleagues and start leading! See you out there.

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About the Author

dsgeloshDr. Don Gelosh is Director of Systems Engineering Programs for the Institute’s Corporate and Professional Education (CPE) division. Dr. Gelosh advances the overall state of practice for systems engineering through his efforts with the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) and the Systems Engineering Division of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA). He has more than 40 years of systems engineering experience from various assignments with the US Air Force, government, industry and academia. Dr. Gelosh’s SE research areas include Technical Leadership, Experience Acceleration, Workforce Development, Competencies and Competency Frameworks, Learning Technologies, Modeling CAD Layout Tools, VLSI & VHDL, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and US Federal Acquisition.

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One thought on “Engineer’s Corner: Systems Engineering & Motorcycle Safety

  1. Hi Don!
    Thanks for advise! Please add one more bullet: ALWAYS MUST WEAR a HELMET! Someday this will save your life.

    Thanks again for your detailed advice

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