Systems engineering processes coordinate the efforts of many individuals to design a complex system. However, the goals of the involved individuals do not necessarily align with the system-level goals. Everyone, including managers, systems engineers, subsystem engineers, component designers, and contractors, is self-interested. It is not currently understood how this discrepancy between organizational and personal goals affects the outcome of complex systems engineering processes. To answer this question, we need a systems engineering theory that accounts for human behavior. Such a theory can be ideally expressed as a dynamic hierarchical network game of incomplete information. The nodes of this network represent individual agents and the edges the transfer of information and incentives. All agents decide independently on how much effort they should devote to a delegated task by maximizing their expected utility; the expectation is over their beliefs about the actions of all other individuals and the moves of nature. An essential component of such a model is the quality function, defined as the map between an agent’s effort and the quality of their job outcome. In the economics literature, the quality function is assumed to be a linear function of effort with additive Gaussian noise. This simplistic assumption ignores two critical factors relevant to systems engineering: (1) the complexity of the design task, and (2) the problem-solving skills of the agent. Systems engineers establish their beliefs about these two factors through years of job experience. In this paper, we encode these beliefs in clear mathematical statements about the form of the quality function. Our approach proceeds in two steps: (1) we construct a generative stochastic model of the delegated task, and (2) we develop a reduced order representation suitable for use in a more extensive game-theoretic model of a systems engineering process. Focusing on the early design stages of a systems engineering process, we model the design task as a function maximization problem and, thus, we associate the systems engineer’s beliefs about the complexity of the task with their beliefs about the complexity of the function being maximized. Furthermore, we associate an agent’s problem solving-skills with the strategy they use to solve the underlying function maximization problem. We identify two agent types: “naïve” (follows a random search strategy) and “skillful” (follows a Bayesian global optimization strategy). Through an extensive simulation study, we show that the assumption of the linear quality function is only valid for small effort levels. In general, the quality function is an increasing, concave function with derivative and curvature that depend on the problem complexity and agent’s skills.

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