Learning from Failure

One of the Meridian Institute consultants (working with the Forest Service on the “new planning rule”) recently asked me how I might frame discussions for the NFMA rule. Here is what I offered, adding that I thought it already too late for the kind of slow, thoughtful reflection/conversation that might make for effective change:

Suppose we could begin again. The public lands have just now been declared public. All laws, customs, and values are as they are, except that there is no RPA/NFMA. How might we begin to design a public process for managing the national forests as part of the nations’ public lands intermingled with private lands? How might we begin to discuss the possibility of a design process? How best to engage stakeholders?

Now fold in the RPA/NFMA, and the customs and history of the US Forest Service. What might we do now with the NFMA rule? How might that step fit within other design steps that might lead us to a useful outcome for managing the national forests?

Today I’ll add that we might want some “framing” to evaluate the eventual outcome of this NFMA “rule” effort. As I was pondering that, and remembering the many past failed attempts to reform planning and management in the Forest Service, I reread The Logic of Failure, by Dietrich Dörner. (book review) Then I did some internet sleuthing, and found a nice little reflective design blog that also built from Dörner’s wisdom. One tidbit of wisdom was titled “Metamorphosis: Transforming Non-designers into Designers” (pdf). I thought of Forest Service planners and managers. Maybe, if ever they are to learn, some might learn from this little paper. Here, altered a bit to get closer to the Forest Service’s task at hand, is the heart of the message:

[Consider] moving through three transitions:

(P) Pre-emergence
(T) Transitional
(D) Designerly Thinking

Characteristic of each of these transitions is a penetration of barriers. Rather than progression along a smooth continuum, you penetrate these (intellectual, practical, psychological and social) barriers in a step-like function. …

Barriers (numerals in parentheses indicate the transitional stage(s) where the barrier occurs):

  1. Design definitions. Naïve designers [tweak what has been framed too narrowly]; experienced designers also include [interaction, experience from others, emotion, and a ‘systems perspective’]. (P)
  2. Best solution. Naïve designers hold onto the belief that there is a best solution; experienced designers believe there exist many solutions and judged by critical criteria and presented through a design argument or explanation. (P)
  3. Technology-centered vs. human-centered. Naïve designers focus on the technology; experienced designers study human behavior, motivation and need. It’s very difficult to “let go” of gadgets and things; there’s an over-fascination with techno-fetishism among naïve designers. (P, T)
  4. Me and we. Naïve designers defend their own designs; experienced designers look to their team for inspiration and solutions. (P, T)
  5. User research. Naïve designers underplay the role of user research; they know what people want. Tools such as personas [pdf] are resisted rather than embraced naturally in the design process. Experienced designers do not make assumptions about human desires and motivations; they study it instead. (P, T)
  6. Algorithm / design paradox. Naïve designers expect to memorize algorithmic solutions to problems; experienced designers learn to deal with ill-structured problems, seemingly paradoxical situations and design thinking. (P, T)
  7. IT domination. Naïve designers tend to overemphasize efficiency, effectiveness, scalability; experienced designers include experience and emotion. (T)
  8. Idea loyalty. Naïve designers hold onto a single idea; experienced designers engage in systematic exploration of multiple ideas. (T)
  9. Critique culture. Naïve designers worry about [internally generated performance measures]; experienced designers welcome critique. (T, D)
  10. Notebook. Naïve designers [focus on] a particular project; experienced designers sketch continuously, deriving inspiration from all contexts. (T, D)
  11. Role. Naïve designers are learning what they do and how to do it; experienced designers begin to defend the position of design in a multi-person development team made up of designers and non-designers. (T, D)
  12. Research and philosophy. Naïve designers find solutions [patterned from past experience, “best management practices”, etc. — single-loop learning]; experienced designers explore philosophical foundations of design as well [i.e. double-loop learning]. (D)
  13. Reflective designer. Naïve designers spend little to no time reflecting on how they are designing versus experienced designers who can look at themselves “out of body” as they design. (D)
  14. Omnipresence. Naïve designers see design embedded in objects [or events]; experienced designers see systems that affect designs and designs that affect systems. (D)
  15. External / internal. Naïve designers find external answers to design problems; experienced designers begin to look internally and introspectively for inspiration and resolution. (D)

Maybe we can use these barriers/’barrier busters’ to see flaws in the Forest Service’s design strategy/tactics. Or maybe the Forest Service and its bevy of consultants can use them. Or maybe the roundtable participants can use them. Or maybe I’m just once-again wandering about in the wilderness of esoteric thought. More on Dörner’s book in a later post. But it is a “must read” for planners and managers.

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