Trouble, divergence, alignment, diversity

In my field of human centered design, it is understood that before any group of people can collaborate effectively on anything, they must first align on the problem and then align on the solution.

What does this mean? Aligning on a problem means to share a conception of the problem — to think about it in roughly the same way. It is important to note here that until a problem is conceived, it is not even a problem — it is a troublesome situation.

And troublesome situations have the potential to be problematized in divergent ways implying diverging paths to a solutions. More often than not, groups confronting troublesome situations problematize the trouble in divergent ways, compounding the trouble, because now stubborn, troublesome people appear to block the way to a solution.

This happens for at least three big reasons.

Big Reason Number One is personality. Individual persons with different temperaments, sensibilities and capabilities understand and perceive the world differently in both subtle and dramatic ways, and notice different aspect of situations.

Big Reason Number Two is discipline. When people from different backgrounds confront a troublesome situation, they tend to notice very different features of the problem. Specifically, the notice symptoms of problems they specialize in solving. Different disciplines conceive problems in different and incompatible ways, and this is one factor that causes departmental strife in organizations.

Big Reason Number Three is the lived experience of incomplete information. Divergence of understanding is exacerbated by incomplete data. Given a smattering of facts, our habitual way of understandings (the combo of personality and expertise) fills in data gaps to complete the picture and perceive a gestalt truth. And we all have access to different smatterings and experience the smatterings in different sequences. Our early impressions condition our later ones. Being humans, a species with a need to form understandings, who prefer misunderstanding to an absence of understanding (perplexity), we immediately begin noticing whatever reinforces that sense, and tune out what threatens it. So the specific drib-and-drab sequence of data can play a role in shaping our impressions. The earliest dribs and drabs have “first mover advantage” in gestalt formation.

These three big reasons are not even exhaustive. It’s no wonder organizations are full divergent perspectives and controversy. (Contra– “against” + -versus “turned”). Generally, these circumstantial impressions and expert diagnoses of troublesome situations are not entirely wrong. Some are likely truer than others, but it is hard to determine which is truer than which. And it is somewhere between possible and likely that none are true enough for the purposes of solving the problem. As a matter of method, we designers assume none are right enough. (And if it does turn out that a preexisting truth turns out to be true enough, now we can support that truth with data and align the organization to it.)

Our job as design researchers is to go out and investigate real-life examples of the troublesome situation and expose ourselves to the profusion of data that only real life itself can offer. We see what emerges as important when we allow people to show us their situations and teach i\us how it seems to them.

This gives us a new, relevant conception of the problem rooted in the people we intend to serve with our design solutions.

Once an organization shares a common conception of the problem, they are better able to conceive solutions that they can align around.

And further evaluative research — getting feedback on prototypes of candidate solutions — allows teams to align around solutions that people consistently respond to favorably.

Aligned implementation teams can collaborate effectively on working out the solution in detail.

So, as I hope you can see, the designer’s task is largely a political one of cultivating alignment through collaborative research, modeling, ideation and craft.

I am unable to believe that this is not generally a better way to live.

When I am at my best, I conduct my life in a designerly way in accordance with my designerly faith.

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