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Design thinking & complexity pt 1

October 3, 2013

I promised to address this yesterday following a presentation on Design Thinking at the conference here in Ohio.   I started talking about the differences that complexity theory makes to design thinking some time ago – In Malmo at the XP conference as I remember it – and have now introduced that material in modified form onto day four of our accreditation programme.  I should make it clear this is early thinking and I know that people like Ann (who is with me here) are working on this as well and I am really looking forward to her new book on the subject with another good friend John Seely Brown.

Interestingly my feelings on traditional design thinking are similar to my feelings on the whole SCRUM method namely they both have value but they are linear and involve pass-offs to experts at critical phases in the process.  As I have said at more conferences than I care to think of going through a linear process in shorter cycles or drawing it as a circle does not make it non-linear.  When I did the original research on this by sources were Simon (1969), Rowe (1987 & Buchanan (1992) along with several conversations and conferences.  The essence of the approach seemed to be:

  1. A claim to be a solution rather than a ‘science’
  2. A focus on synthesis rather than analysis
  3. A 3/5/7 stage circular process, generically Define-Research-Ideate-Prototype-Implement-Learn
  4. The heavy use of visual metaphors
  5. Designers going into the field to observe people in action

To me, there was an ideological underpinning linked to the softer side of systems thinking.   I went through a whole two-day workshop as a participant with IDEO as well and that left a strong impression of linearity and expert-driven design.  It also seemed more suitable for product design than service creation.  Most of the examples I see at conferences are also products so that may be generic to the approach it needs something concrete to deal with.  Rather like the manufacturing focus on much AGILE practice.  In the workshop I was in there was a lot of heavily facilitated discussion on tables which I think constituted the research phase.  Interestingly each table had a scribe who wrote down what we said and I have to confess I had several No I didn’t say that, I said this now correct it conversations followed by No I really mean it I want that changed until finally the facilitator got directly involved.   There was a little too much control for my mind and at the end of the day we were told that the experts would now go offline and present solutions to us in the morning.  My protest that maybe we could be involved in that was rejected and I was branded as a troublemaker; not for the first time in my life.

So my experience of the process was linear and contained, the experts ideated after we had contributed the ideas.  The learning stage at the end is a feedback loop its not the same thing as making it a non-linear process.   Now I know one experience should not inform me, hence the reading and conversations but none of that really changes my judgement on this.

I finally ended up with the table below which I leave with you for the moment.  Tomorrow I will dive into it in more detail.  The opening diagram by the way is my doodling a design for SenseMaker® Journal.

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