Viewing entries tagged
wicked problems

Impact Any Problem Like a Designer


This morning I was asked if I approach design management (the emergent term for the application of design to organizations to engage complex problems) as an architect or as a communications designer. It was a little hard to answer is because the answer squarely falls into the domain of neither and both. While I believe whole heartedly in a non-disciplinary approach to design, if it is necessary to specify a form of design practice and theory, it is important to recognize that these fields exist on a gradient. Over the last 15 years of research and practice in design and urban planning, I have developed a systematic approach to structure problems and interventions across this gradient and have developed a simplified conceptual model in response to demands.

Illustrated above, I look at all problems as fitting somewhere within the above structure - wherein a problem might be defined by thought and language (sign), by tangible products and interfaces (object), by spatial context (environment) or by large scale invisible systems such as formal law and culture (culture can be considered another expression of law).  So for example, if you are attempting to solve a big problem like poverty, it exists in all sections because poverty is contextual, has artifacts, and there are many existing specific words and images that are used to communicate the idea of poverty. Whereas a problem that is very well defined, like the design of a toaster, will most likely sit squarely in the domain of objects.

At Carnegie Mellon University, I was introduced to Richard Buchanon's theory on the Four Orders of Design, which was very similar to my own model, but we maintain very different objectives and I found his model is harder to operationalize.  Buchanon does have other variations,  and additional work on operationalization has been pursued by Golsby-Smith.  There are additional models out there and while I find it validating and interesting to look at their models, my own approach emerged from the field. It is not informed by these other works, I point them out merely because they exist, and I find these other frameworks are missing a critical component, the people.

Within my framework, the most important characteristic is the recognition of dispositions held by people who occupy each conceptual frame. Without people - there is no framework.  There are no objects or contexts without people - there is also no design or strategy - people are the scaffolding of everything.  Consequently, I do not consider this framework as universal, but is thus far, a model that has arisen organically through various design interactions with people, technologies, and spaces.

Yet people are highly complex. I cannot manage to engage all people in every project on every level, and therefore I have created over the years a simple heuristic to note critical attributes of people within a project which will determine the project outcome.  All stakeholders in a project have, want, or lack resources (for their interest or mine), they likewise all hold a unique vision for their lives and the project outcome, along with specific objectives, beliefs, expectations, and baggage from prior experiences. I cannot juggle all these balls for every person at one time, but I do attempt to establish an sense of organizational structure between different actors and their unique attributes.

The Difference of Design in Organizations
Lets imagine an international company hires me with a big problem phrased as a simple request, "how do we become the leader in our industry?"  When companies have approached me before, they have already conducted many of the preliminary SWOT assessments and strategy planning sessions. Perhaps they have utilized a more traditional business management strategy, but found the problem too sprawling to meet the discrete demands... for example, it is impossible to identify and validate appropriate benchmarks if the problem itself is poorly defined. Driven by market research, they believe they should offer the same technologies or assets as their competitors. Yet it makes no logical sense to mirror competitor if you want to be the industry leader. It is important to do something new - but what and how?

Using the Framework to Generate the Big Picture
As a complex problem, I will work at all levels of the framework. In the case of robotics, I will take this problem and build a detailed understanding of their robots (the object).  I will look at all documentation, branding, communications, and language used in relation to their robots (sign). I will go into the facilities where the robots are used and spend time understanding the relationship between the robots and the Environment. I will also look at sales trends, labor laws, social movements, international trade agreements, and latent technology trends (perhaps also concerning language, objects, environments) to capture a big picture understanding of the robots in relation to some invisible systems that shape the future of the company.

Digging Deep into the Social Terrain
In this process, however, I have left out the most important component: the people.  Who is talking about the robots? Who is listening? Where are they? When customers purchase the robots, what are they saying? How do they represent their needs?  In the environmental context, who works with the robots and how?  How do those people exchange information about the robot in that context?  More importantly, how does the robot relate (or not) to the resources, objectives, histories and so on, of every person at every level?  If I go to the capital and talk to the people shaping policies that inform the outcome of robotics markets - congressmen and lobbyists for example - what can I learn from them?

Insight by Emergence
Working through this framework to understand the problem is only the first step. Yet the more I can build knowledge at each level of interaction, the more flexibility I have to craft and test interventions. Perhaps the corporate strategy is something simple like a branding campaign or promoting a national policy - yet perhaps it also requires manipulation to the technology to better facilitate how other companies train their employees? If that is the case, what language should be used and by what device should it be communicated? By means of this approach, the key insights and opportunities will emerge and do not need to be invented - nor can they be predicted.

Impact by Design
The final outcome of such a problem will rarely consist of one single action.  Rather, it will require many small interventions choreographed across the system.  Some interventions are more important than others. To describe the processes on design for wicked problems deserves more attention than I can provide right, yet with this framework, one is equipped to better understand any kind of problem to get going in the right direction by doing the following:
  1. Get away from the tunnel vision of a personal discipline or expertise
  2. Build an integrated and fluid systems understanding of a problem 
  3. Identify many points of intervention across scale/scope and points of view
  4. Leverage the most powerful yet high-risk asset of any problem, the people.
  5. Uncover new opportunities for exploration and testing

Finding Zero Gravity in Big Messy Social Problems

500 volunteers "move a mountain" 10 cm with spades, art performance by Francis Alys
I recently worked with a team who has been tasked with a massive problem in federal government. The problem is so huge, if you ask every person on the team to explain it, they will each give you a different answer.  They have less than a year to somehow tame this wicked problem.  I was brought in because with a problem so big and ugly, no one could agree on the team how to start dealing with it.

We all know that whenever someone says "well I'll tell you the real problem," you might as well stop listening to him because that person has no idea whats going on. First, there is no 'real' problem. There are only perceptions of problems, evidence to be found, and theories of how those perceptions and evidence match or do not match.  To define a big problem is hard, and sometimes impossible, but one needs a path forward and isolating everything through one concept is not the way.  To find the best path forward requires discovering the most opportune point of entry into the problem and the only way to find this is for everyone in the room to stop thinking.

In the past, I've written about the necessity to have clarity of your personal values regarding the work that you do and also the necessity to not inject those values in the work.  These statements may appear to be contradictory - but they are not.  You need to stop thinking about the problem, and identify where you stand, so as to better separate yourself and engage it on its own terms. Clarity of values is essential to ensure they are not integrated into your thought process and avoiding integration is essential to inform better thinking about the problem.

Its like when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see the same car on every street, but before you bought this car, you never saw it anywhere.  When you let personal values exist with your attempt to engage a problem - that x is good or bad, that x is desirable or not, that x is the right solution - that value is surrounded with a gravitational force that will pull other ideas and ways of working near it. Like just like seeing your new car over and over, you will see things that align with that value, and everything else will be less obvious. You might see every Black Toyota Corolla on the street and fail to see the Black Prius.  If you approach the problem stripped of values, it will be necessary to construct strategies to observe and measure ideas/insights, and these strategies will exist only in relation to the problem - not the other stuff. You will develop a better way to see cars.

Another thing that can derail the ability to deal with a big problem is when the problem/solution is to advance alongside a desired side-benefit.  If I approach a problem with the goal "this solution will be so excellent it will impress lots of people, generate a 10 million dollar contract, and therefore advance my career" then every idea and option will be weighed against that 10 million dollar contract.  A lot of people make this mistake and I used to do it all the time which led to more  frustration than happiness.  Approaching a problem in this way, you forget that there are a million external unknown factors which also will determine the acquisition of the reward, and if it doesn't happen, you will still not see them - believing that your solution was somehow a failure but unsure why.

The bigger problem with this approach, is that the solution generated is not likely to be the ideal solution for the problem because it was affected by the gravitational pull of the reward.  With the reward in the review mirror, I will lose sight of the fast and simple solutions in front of me. I will get distracted. I will lose others on the road. Under the stress of all these new conditions, I will generate an output that meets the reward criteria, but the output will not structurally align to the demands of the problem. It will only create a new set of problem conditions, eventually passing the problem to someone else, and potentially making the problem bigger.

There a place where your values come back into the problem - when the job is finished. The reward of this process does satisfy personal values, but on account that the process has generated the best viable solution that checks as many boxes as possible.  Since these boxes are determined by the demands of the problem, the problem has been crushed, and even if it continues, it is only a whisper compared to the previous chaos.  To watch something terrible change from chaos to whisper is truly satisfying.

To work in zero gravity is to be liberated.  Solve the problem according to the demands of the problem and the other things will likely happen anyway. Success, however you measure it, because you will leave a path of crushed problems behind you and others will eventually notice. And if they don't, it doesn't really matter because you've done something extraordinary that speaks for itself.