Human Behaviour

Read some more about human behaviour in the paper: Recognizing and Understanding Human Behavior to Improve Systems Engineering Results, see Paper#6 on the downloads page.

Many risks that threaten the success of our projects are caused by human behaviour, or rather ill-understood or even ignored human behaviour. Things that can go wrong by humans acting in unpredicted ways are caused for example by:

  • customers not knowing well to describe what they really need
  • users not understanding how to use or operate the system
  • users using the system in unexpected ways
  • developers and systems engineers, who also happen to be humans, doing wrong things during the development of the system

Actually, in these examples, the humans aren't acting unpredictably at all, because it happens again and again in many systems and in many projects. If we don't learn to understand why people act like this, projects will continue to be affected by these issues.

Real human behaviour
Based on our cultural, social and technical background we consciously or even subconsciously assume people to display a certain behaviour. When humans do not behave like we assume they should, the behaviour seems unpredictable. When behaviour is unpredictable, it is difficult to create proper control functions with humans in the loop. Even if the engineers don't forget to include human behaviour, they may find out that the humans in the system don't behave as expected, with unexpected results.

The engineers who designed and built the baggage handling system of London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 claimed that their system was a huge technical success and that the failure to get tens of thousands of bags on board of the proper aircraft was caused by "human error". After all, the terminal was delivered on time and on budget, which admittedly was quite an achievement. However, a passenger is not interested in the technical detail of baggage handling in one airport.
Normal people aren't interested in the technical details of a terminal.
They only want:
      To check-in their luggage as easily as possible
and
      To get their luggage back as quickly as possible and in acceptable condition, at their destination

They didn't. Everything in between is irrelevant to that passenger. One of the problems is to determine what the project (or work in general) really is about.

If we can overcome our intuitive tendency to assume how people should behave and start studying how people really behave, human behaviour turns out to be much more predictable than we think. Therefore, understanding of real human behaviour and the incorporation of this behaviour in the loop should be an integral part of Systems Engineering in order to create really successful systems.

The behaviour of people responsible for success
Project Management is responsible for the success of the project producing the system. Therefore, Project Management must understand the behaviour of all people involved in the project and adapt to this behaviour to make sure that things that can go wrong don't go wrong.
During the project, Project Management can reach all these people involved, can observe what tends to go wrong and make sure it doesn't.
Systems Engineers or developers in general have an even wider responsibility, being responsible for the success of the system not only during the project, but also after delivery, in operation, maintenance, and disposal. After the project, however, the people involved are beyond the influence of the Systems Engineers end dother developers, so that the system must be designed in such a way that success happens by design, automatically. This calls for thoroughly understanding how humans behave, to make sure that the system successfully performs its mission, together with the humans using it, and other humans being affected by it.

Before understanding the particularities of other people's behaviour, it's good to start with understanding our own behaviour and from there extrapolate and extend our understanding of all types of behaviour. On the following pages we'll discuss some elements of human behaviour which may pose risks for the successful and timely delivery of the systems our projects are supposed to produce.