09 December 2008

Choosing discovery over comfort.

In a recent conversation with someone I admire greatly, I heard them say, “I don’t like surprises.” I was a bit taken aback and this statement has lingered in my head ever since. Reliability, replication and process are comfortable, and at the core of so much of commerce. Much of what we have is due to humans perfecting rote process. Six Sigma is considered the ultimate study and practice in refining such things.

I sometimes feel the Doctor Jekyl and Mr. Hyde pull when this topic comes up. Because of my business background I recognize the benefits of replication, and yet I also see where it fails miserably. Having spent the majority of my career managing the design process as an entrepreneur, I know about the revenue implications and the importance of risk mitigation and reliable outcomes. Clients rarely hire designers with break through, cutting edge outcomes in mind. They are looking for sure footed measures to accomplish good results. The business side of me pulls towards reliable process, while the designer inside me pushes towards discovery hoping for greatness.

For a long time I have been on record as promoting toolsets over process for designers. Yes, there is a certain amount of process that is always necessary. And, yes, it makes sense to routinize reporting and tracking. But assembly line process for problem solving will return ordinary solutions. So I would posit that when you see a process heavy design group, the expectations for greatness are likely fairly low.

All systems are geared towards economizing and optimizing (if you hear MBA types saying maximize, you might help them understand this is rarely possible, almost never desirable, and likely a misunderstanding of the word… please point them towards a dictionary). These systems focus on managing variants and invarients. Unfortunately, what is often overlooked are the benefits of variation. Whether you call them ‘happy accidents’ or ‘unexpected outcomes’, you will find that most scientific and philosophical breakthroughs lacked ordinary methods or factory like process. Those same variants that many work so hard to control… are from where greatness comes. It may be just the smallest glimmer of hope, but I think you have to give people a chance to break through, to make a difference, and the opportunity to achieve greatness. Just the opportunity for discovery is ultimately more gratifying than comfort.