The first in a series of posts exploring the nature of design. Originally posted on the Moment blog.
A cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. - Schrödinger’s Cat from Wikipedia
Schrödinger’s infamous paradox was the setup for one of my favorite talks at IA Summit this year: Schrödinger’s IA: Learning to Love Ambiguity, a twenty-minute talk by Kerry-Anne Gilowey, an independent Content Strategy consultant from South Africa. Gilowey used this thought experiment to open up the topic of ambiguity and reveal how navigating ambiguity is an important skill for problem solving.
Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian physicist who seemingly wasn’t very comfortable with ambiguity, or at least not with the ambiguity built into the assumptions that many physicists made when applying the prevailing theory of quantum mechanics, the “Copenhagen Interpretation.”
For those a who need a little refresher on quantum mechanics (like me… quanta-wha?), the Copenhagen Interpretation says that quantum mechanics does not describe an objective reality, but rather deals with the probabilities of observation. Thus, a system exists as a superposition of states and only becomes one or the other when an observation takes place. In plain language, in a situation of uncertainty all possibilities are true until an outcome is observed. The cat is simultaneously both alive and dead until you open the box and look at the cat.
Erwin didn’t buy it so he formulated this analogy of the cat in the box to illustrate what he saw as a flaw in this theory of quantum molecular structure–pointing out that, in reality, the cat cannot be simultaneously alive and dead. There is only one outcome, we just can’t know what it is yet. We won’t know until we open the box.
A variety of other interpretations of quantum mechanics have been proposed. My favorite, the many-worlds interpretation has inspired countless science fiction and comic book authors over the years. But, despite the other proposals, Schrödinger was not successful in overthrowing the orthodoxy of the Copenhagen Interpretation. He did, however, leave us with a nice little parable on the nature of ambiguity.
Gilowey began her talk with the observation that our first conversations with our clients often results in diagrams of plans and processes that attempt to make the work we will do understandable and tangible. She pointed out that those diagrams, though well intended, are pure fiction when compared with the actual process many of us take toward solving problems.
Further, if misused, our plans can be detrimental to the problem solving process. They trick us into thinking we know the path forward. We (and our clients) get attached to the steps, rather than the outcomes. We fail to question the assumptions. We march forward even when we’re not sure if we’re going in the right direction. We act confident. We act as if we know what the outcome will be. That’s what the client expects, right?
She didn’t eschew planning completely, but rather pointed out how our blind adherence to a plan in situations of uncertainty can cause a series of problems:
We look for answers before we truly understand the questions
We make decisions too early and close off future possibilities
We ignore things that don’t fit our pre-existing definitions
We favor forward motion over changing direction
We end up solving the wrong problems instead of finding the right ones
Gilowey then offered the famous “squiggly line” design process as a more accurate depiction of how the work of design actually happens (ironically, again visually referencing Schrödinger. This time his concept of Verschränkung, or “entanglement”).
Her thesis (and the most tweetable comment of the talk): “Discovery is not a phase, it’s an ongoing activity.” Like the Copenhagen Interpretation, “in a situation of uncertainty all possibilities are true until an outcome is observed.” Through our process of exploration, we observe the outcome, we open the box. We learn what a good answer looks like. When that happens, the line starts to flatten out.
Her challenge to us: embrace the squiggles–the ambiguity–and be open about how this process really works. We need to recognize and honor the uncertainty, keep the possibilities open, explore the problem space, try things, fail, then try something else before we can find the right path forward.
In this, she touched on one of the most salient points about how designers think–the design attitude.
Setting Gilowey’s talk aside for a minute, the predominant approach to problem solving in the business world–the one many of our clients learned in their MBA program–is not a design attitude, it is a decision-oriented one. In one of the fundamental essays on design thinking, Design Matters for Management, Richard Boland and Fred Collopy write about the differences in these two approaches.
Boland and Collopy’s definition of a decision attitude is an approach to problem solving that aims to get to the best answer based on past and present experience. Sounds like common sense, right? We’ve all employed this approach when designing I’m sure. What Boland and Collopy point out is that this attitude takes for granted that ‘good’ design work has already taken place and has created appropriate alternatives to decide between. Most management literature is devoted to the best methods for data gathering and analysis for the purpose of choosing between alternatives, not as much to generating the alternatives in the first place.
In contrast, their definition of a design attitude is is an approach to problem-solving that aims to get to the best answer possible within the skills, time, and resources of the team. A subtle difference, but a significant one. What this attitude takes for granted is that the process will not just involve deciding among existing alternatives, but will require the invention of new alternatives–a decidedly future-oriented posture in comparison with the decision attitude.
A design attitude is not bounded by past and present experience alone. Yes, we designers consider those inputs, but to those we add other inspirations. Then we work to create new alternatives from the inspiration those inputs provide. Most design methods are geared toward just this goal, identifying, designing and refining a range of alternatives.
Finally, as the authors point out, neither approach is the be-all and end-all of problem solving methodology. They both have their weaknesses:
The decision attitude is too susceptible to early closure of the problem-solving space, just as the design approach is too susceptible to keeping the search going long after it is beneficial. There is a time for openness and a time for closure in our project-based episodes of problem solving and managers need to develop strength in both the decision and design attitudes. - Managing as Designing
Keeping in mind the importance of both approaches to problem solving, let’s return to Gilowey’s talk. I’ll leave you with her advice on how to do the sometimes uncomfortable job of embracing ambiguity in a decision-making culture. As I see it, these seven points offer guidance on how to embrace a design attitude and bring your collaborators along for the ride.
If you’re not going to work in a linear way, be open about it. Don’t hide behind a GANTT chart.
Let your collaborators know when you don’t know the answer, but make sure they know that you DO know what questions to ask.
Communicate early and often
In situations of uncertainty, it’s important to make sure everyone knows what to expect.
Stay calm. It’s contagious
When things don’t go the way you expected, relax and roll with it. It’s all a part of the process.
Have a healthy fear of commitment
Actively consider whether you are doing the right thing, don’t just stick with an activity because it’s on the plan.
Collaborate with your client
Involve your client and your team in your process. Bringing them into the work removes the mystery and alleviates the doubt.
Commit to the work, not the deliverables
You’re there to provide a solution, not a document.
Thank you Kerry-Anne. Words to live by.
P.S. If that design and decision attitude stuff sounds a lot like divergent and convergent thinking to you, you’re not the only one. But rather than go off on that tangent here, I’ll refer you to another IA Summit inspired post, Modes of Thinking, by Brad Nunnally and Andrea Mignolo, to get your fix on that concept.