Design Age - Part 4

After this installment I'm likely going to take a rest on the issues of complex design. If this is the first time you found the string, please go back and read the Introduction in Part 1 and the following installments in Part 2 and Part 3. They will give you the background needed to really understand the full impact of this most recent Part 4.
The Dilemma of the Crowd

For most problem solvers there is a paradigm we have been following for as long as we can remember. It's the trail of the lone discoverer. The 'me against nature, the world and all the other idiots who couldn't be bothered to figure this issue out' complex. But there is this strange phenomenon happening more and more often. The longer I spend time on this problem, the more and more angles and alleys it reveals. What I thought was going to be a simple solution to a problem I thought was clear, the more cloudy and tantelizingly obscure the issue becomes. I begin to talk to some close friends and colleagues about parts of the problem, not wanting to reveal everything at once, to get their take on the issue. Over time I reveal more and more of my discoveries and pretty soon, without my really understanding what is happening, I find they are talking about the same issue with their friends and I find out about this by accident. Now the idea is presented to me in a way I hadn't even considered and by asking a few question, I find out it's like the party game 'telephone.'
What I hear from this other person is only vaguely like my original idea, but it has some interestingly new twist of understanding I hadn't considered.

Behold the dilemma of the crowd. What do I do? So many people have talked about the issue I raised. Originally I thought the solution was going to be so simple. Now it has taken on whole new dimensions I hadn't even considered. Vive la crowd. Vive la imagination. Now I can either feel threatened and marginalized or invigorated. Can I really harness the power of the crowd? Can they possibly have something to contribute?

Horst Rittle and others come down emphatically on the side of the crowd. Why? Well, why not. A single person trying to deal with all the variables will go crazy, literally insane to try and consider all the possible permutations and alternatives. There will be more failures than successes. Why keep trying when there is so much failure? There is no possible way to consider all the unintended consequences which each decision precipitates.

Modern war colleges teach the new officers to plan and then plan again and then plan again, but when the first round is fired, your plan is no good any longer. Why, because the first round came from someone who wasn't supposed to fire first. So if my plans aren't going to work, why even make the effort? From a military point of view Planning goes with exercises and training. Plans without training isn't really planning at all. Try out as many different ideas to create new scenarios and then adjust the plan. Just like the image above states, Plan-Assess, Prepare-Assess, Execute Assess. If there was ever a continuous improvement loop this is it.

How does this relate to the scenario I am facing? Plenty. The kind of problem I'm trying to solve is known for it's almost infinite array of alternatives and variables. It is by all rights an indefinite problem. Rittle and his colleagues coined the word "wicked." And they were right. My problem is wicked, difficult and depressing. I want to give up, but I know I can't. Surely there must be a way to find some solution. So I only have one option, really only one...the crowd or at least a group, certainly more than me alone.

And so the journey begins. I begin recruiting the people who also know about my problem. And they know others as well. Pretty soon I've collected a whole host of folks who have so many different viewpoints about the problem, how can anything come out of this cacophony of viewpoints?

So begins the journey of insanity of approaching wicked problems. Quickly you find out there isn't one answer that is right, there are possibly many answers. To find out if they have any validity you have to try them out. Sometimes trying them out in the real world is almost impossible until you commit people and resources and that will certainly have consequences you never even imagined. Sometimes disastrous consequences. But this is the nature of this type of problem. One solution reveals more possible refinements, just like the military planners, one idea leads to another but only when the training reveals weaknesses and strengths to work from. But the collective viewpoints of a group go a long way in identifying many deficiencies due to the many viewpoints and lenses of experience which color the perceptions and responses of the group members.

In the end a consensus is all that can be achieved. That is enough to move forward and so you do. Continuing to plan and investigate, knowing you will never have a perfect plan, but you weren't really looking for perfect anyway, just something that is good enough to try, good enough to fight for now. Maybe even flexible enough to accommodate change along the way.

So let's take a quick breather here. Why didn't I frame this discussion around a real world issue as an example. For the simple reason you have brought your biases and lenses of experience with you as you read this article. I didn't want to cloud the message about a wicked problem while you are jumping all around thinking about all the things you thought of that I didn't talk about in the example. I want you to think about how this kind of scenario effects you. Can you take on this kind of problem and still survive? You can if you use the wisdom of the crowd to help you.

As members of the professions, crafts, merchants and trades who change the built environment, we deal with these issues every day. We either choose to only work around the edges of the larger issues saying "That's a problem for policy analysts and politicians, not an engineer like me or not a repair technician like me or not an owner like me. But I believe that is where you are wrong. You do have a set of experiences, often years of very rich experience and tested knowledge. If you continue to hoard those resources, you won't have a voice in the inevitable change that is already crashing around us and will continue to disrupt the comfortable professional careers we have grown complacent about over the past 50 years. It is very likely the solutions others much younger and less experienced will try are going to fail and fail miserably leaving us even further behind.

As always remember, "Collaboration is the Glue of Success."

This article is a member of the tag group Strings


  1. I quite agree "Collaboration is the Glue of Success" Yes crowd colud be deceptive but a reflective mind can derive creative pleasure from it. Nations of the today's world had harnessed the beauty of crowd, China for instance. My commendation to Andrew Abernathy -A thoughtful piece [Design Age]

  2. Anonymous, thanks for the compliment. Continue to watch for more on this topic in the future.