Stop! Just stop it! Now, right now! You know who you all are. I’ve just about had e-bloody-nough of you lot and your Tinkering with Thinkering.
Design Thinking, Leadership Thinking, Coproduction Thinking, Nudge Thinking, Anthropocene Thinking, Humanistic Thinking, Innovation Thinking, Lean Thinking, Complexity Thinking, Ergonomic Thinking, Behavioural Thinking, Creative Thinking, Positive Thinking, Safety Thinking, bloody Systems Thinking and all the other similarly pointless linguistic redundancies.
I’m going to start with Systems Thinking. That phrase has caused all kinds of bother, having been used over the years to mean all sorts of things: from a bit of Pot Noodle Project Management (just add water) to achieving some sort of Quantum Transcendence (a near-Buddha orbit). Arguably invented by the early Cyberneticians, the phrase in terms of its contemporary lexicon should be synonymous with Russ Ackoff, but similar phrases have been attributed to all kinds of clever bods over the years. Ironically in talking about systems, they were typically hidden away in the depths of their silos of physics, engineering, mathematics, biology, psychology, computation and philosophy going all the way back to a couple of ancient oriental geezers. I could write this solely in Lao Tzu memes, but way down at the other end of the thinking scale, let’s get something clear before we start. Peter Senge did not invent Systems Thinking and his bastardisation into all those rules and shared vision claptrap, has caused decades of painful top down abuse. Even if that’s not what he meant, that’s what has happened and if I could go back in time just for a moment, I’d ignore the genocidal despots and take out Senge. It’s that bad.
First of all of course, there were systems, lots of them in one form or another, then a few people noticed them and started thinking about how those systems actually worked. Then someone started thinking about people who were thinking about systems, who in turn thought about how people thinking about thinking about systems, were thinking and so on and so forth in an ever decreasing circle of navel gazing, in the pretentious pursuit of profundity. In reality that sort of thinking should be called metaphysics which albeit unfashionable, is one of the myriad ways of thinking systematically, that is Philosophy. Systems Thinking is not simply thinking systematically, as you can do that and legitimately invent all kinds of nonsense that has nothing to do with how Systems actually work. And boy have we got some of that claptrap in close proximity to the word System: mostly spiralling around some happyclappy who has drawn their 5/7/9/12 point list of equivocal platitudes into a shape that they peddle with furious confidence.
And on that note Systems Thinking is always peddled as something positive. Now, getting momentarily scientific, there are such things as closed systems. Ordered, teleological, designed, mechanical and controlled and there are concepts, methods and tools that are perfectly applicable in these sorts of spaces. Reliability, Lean and Six Sigma (Lean on speed) to name but a few, that are often collectively referred to within Systems Thinking. There are also such things as open systems. Complex, adaptive, emergent, alive and dynamic and there are very different concepts, methods and tools that are applicable in these sorts of spaces. Nonlinearity, storytelling and sense-making and these are also referred to within Systems Thinking. All systems are nested, I know, but trying to apply closed system methods in an open system, causes most of the organisational disasters that we are currently confronting.
The universe is made of systems, or at least that’s how humans – on average 1.9 arms + 1.9 legs + 1.0 thinking appendage – have come to know a bit about the universe, by studying its myriad systems. Traditionally this has been reductively; studying systems by breaking them down into their bits. Over the past 70 years however we’ve also tried to study systems holistically; by making sense of their cumulative effects. Go on define system, I dare you. Well, before you try, don’t get all het up as the best brains in the world so far, pretty much agree that there is no single definition of a system. There are some reliable characteristics and if you got two out of three, you’re probably right:
- A system has bits that affect each other directly, indirectly and occasionally both and neither.
- A system has at least one effect that is not present in any of its bits.
- A system has a boundary that is typically where you place its proper noun, beyond which the affect and effect of its bits, are manifest.
In reality there is no such thing as Systems Thinking, it’s little more than a catchy phrase nailed to the back of a 70 year old bulging bandwagon. The biggest problem with this particular flavour of Tinker, is that they have a tendency to latch on to a tiny bit of this map; typically the first thing they accidentally bump into that reinforces their existing schema. They then spend most most of their time trying to make the universe fit their ideology, like some crazed pavement preacher, selling pencils from a cup.
There is of course a thing called Systems Theory – this stuff is mindbending but you do need to read some of it – and the interdisciplinary application of the theory in understanding the universe around us, is called Systems Science – and you definitely need to study and practice some of this stuff. Unless you’re at least half way through this pretty picture, you’ve got little chance of legitimately thinking about the universe in terms of its systemic nature. I’m here because Dumbledore asked me. End of story, goodbye, the end. Any questions?
The big problem in Tinkering with Thinkering is that adding the word Thinking as a suffix to various other things, actually has the effect of undermining the things. It says, come on my 1 day course, learn my list in a shape and I’ll give you a certificate to prove you’re now a fully fledged Prefix-Thinker. No you are not! In particular, I reserve a special kind of deep visceral and personal hatred of Design Thinking. In my experience the pedlars are not qualified to talk about the theory and practice of design and have rarely studied thinking beyond the level of ubiquitous coffee-shop psychobabble.
The Thinking suffix infers in people’s minds that they can think like a designer, not be a designer that’s too hard. Not understand the philosophy of aesthetics, master the art of articulating from the imagination, improvise in various media, nor the science of cantilevers and downpipes, nor the psychological predispositioning of ceremonial vistas. No, none of that, just Thinking like it, a bit, a sort of poundshop, bargain bucket, fake jewelry, sort of thinking. Looks shiny! There’s nice!
We are dumbing down and depractitionering the world and that is bloody dangerous. Worst of all there’s no need to do it. If you need to design something, simply get a designer to join in. The bits of design that the other people need to know will tacitly rub off and you all get a better design. Designing is itself a process of thinking critically to leverage the relationship between form, mechanism, interaction, function and purpose in the transformation of ideas into behaviours. In short, you cannot design without thinking or you’ll get a shit design. Of course irrespective of the quality of the design, this also assumes that you can get your hands on a good designer, not just technically gifted, but the sort who knows how to engage with other humans.
This weird little bit of Venndalism is proportioned deliberately to convey a truth about design: that it operates in the overlaps and those other mutually exclusive parts are beyond the designer’s control. You can design something for a particular function and people will inevitably use it for something else. Builders favour form, Engineers can control the mechanisms, Architects live for the interaction, Technologist search for functionality and nobody beyond the occasional Artist, has much influence over purpose. Are you getting a sense of what it takes to be a designer? In the end, some people no matter how hard they work or study, don’t get it, they are good at something else. So arguably, there is a sort of way of being and thinking that is design, but the field is so diverse, that there is no single or worse, average, designer mindset. That’s a gross oversimplification that’s thrown at all kinds of ignorant stereotypes.
Carol Dweck has some responsibility for popularising this sort of Thinkering twonk. You should definitely read her book entitled Mindset but do so from the unequivocal standpoint that there is no such thing as a fixed mindset, nor a growth mindset for that matter. Despite the title, it has little to do with the concept that is described within decision and systems theory. I imagine that she had some minor emotional trauma in school caused by one of those physically gifted types that are derided in the book. What if your God given gift (that is insufficient to be successful in the world according to the hypothesis) is a positive outlook, born with a growth minset, so to speak? I hate that book, as it makes out that people without a growth mindset are broken, described like some faulty internal capacity that abdicates any social responsibility. Apart from a very small proportion of profoundly disabled people, everybody learns and grows just by being alive, but it can be battered out of you. It’s not the presence of a fixed mindset that holds people back, it’s the absence of opportunities to grow. If you watch some of her more recent presentations, Carol talks much more about creating environments for people to flourish: a social responsibility rather than taking a broken internal fixed mindset and making it fit the fixed definition of growth. That’s irony for you.
A good example of this Mindset Fallacy, is the current bandwagon around Adverse Childhood Experiences. Apparently (the data is still up for debate) if you got more than a couple of ACEs, you’re destined to repeat those experiences in adult life and fail to realise your potential not just socioeconomically, but physiologically and psychologically. I suspect that ACEs Thinking, is a middle-class apologist’s fantasy excuse for persistent poverty. If you got a Dad who’s a thief and beats up your mum, you need another ACE like a divorce or a prison sentence, in order to be better off. It’s not the presence of Adverse Childhood Experiences that causes enduring bother, it’s the absence of Amazing Childhood Experiences to help people grow away from the adversity.
I actually like the idea of growth and all the ecological or gardening metaphors of life and work, as in the end, it is the normal state of people and the world each of us momentarily inhabits. The trouble is there’s way too much psychobabble spouted about nurturing people, for most people, to be able to tell the wood from the tree shaped manure. Just look at all the cobblers centred on personality: models, tests, measures, acronyms, predictions and shameless astrological barnum effects.
Talking of Barnum Effects, if you are going to try Tinkering with Thinkering there are one or two traps that you’ll need to take into account. My tip to avoid all the brain dead ends, neurotic dark corners and cognitive shit creeks, is to talk about attitudes. You are not your attitudes. You can express many different attitudes all at the same time. You can even hold a forehead full of contradictory ones. You can change your attitude towards something as often as your socks, or reinforce a cast iron attitude that you’ve held for ages. Pineapple does not belong on pizza. You can work with attitudes far more quickly and constructively than you can with behaviours and personalities or tinkering around the edges of cognitive science. You are very easy to work with, when the things you think, the things you say and the things you do, are closely and consistently aligned – irrespective of the correctness of the things.
In terms of leveraging the authenticity that dwells within that alignment, I quite like Debono’s thinking hats as attitudes you can adopt towards something: different ways of framing different views. I should probably do a separate blog on the hats, but in essence it’s a way of getting people to think in six similar ways at similar times. It’s an abstraction, a method, or more accurately a game and therefore always needs to be contextualised, or you’ll end up down the rabbit hole that is Grant Cerepak’s amazing world of Thinking Hats and Coats. Remarkably, you can be very good at one hat, but prefer another. It also reaffirms that it’s perfectly fine to have good, bad and indifferent thoughts about the same thing. Ed describes it as helping people to think in parallel, to cooperate rather than compete, but the real trick is leveraging the diversity of views, rather than narrowing down to a single compromised view. That’s called Group Thinking and it’s an incredibly dangerous and debilitating, happyclappy brain dead end, at a compromise nobody really believes in. It’s a sort of Bystander Effect not to be confused with empathy; you can deeply empathise with someone and completely disagree with them.
Bollocks! I’ve just painted myself into an epistemological corner. After all that, am I willing to accept Lateral Thinking as legitimate Thinkering? In which case I’d have to allow Critical Thinking, which by the way is the actual science beneath pretty much everything that’s touted in all the different Tinkering with Thinkering. There is an actual science to all that criticality and consciousness, but I’m not being drawn into that here. I’ve lost entire days on YouTube attempting that particular flavour of Quantum Transcendence – someone get me a minty chocolate stick and a glass of something dark and swarthy!
Ah, I got it. Nouns in front of Thinking are not allowed, adjectives are fine. Arse! Creative is an adjective! I know I know, the prefix word must be an adjective and must not have a capital letter. I’m going to have to work on these rules. Meanwhile, I’m going to leave you with a story to prove my point, using the Thinkering I know best. I’ve been fortunate and delighted throughout my career in being around hundreds of people as they encounter the same experience. I’d like to think that I’ve contributed and if you’ve been immersed in gaining insight into your favourite little corner of the world, I’m sure you’ll get the point straight away. The rest of you will have to take my word for it… Stop Tinkering with Thinkering:
In the first week in Architectural School a professor stands facing a room full of enthusiastic novices and says “you will learn all about the material nature of designing, the walls and doors, floors and ceilings and all kinds of other structures, but most of that is actually irrelevant; it’s all about the space you create”. I nod in puppylike agreement, scribble a note to that effect and carry on regardless, drawing wiggly lines on bits of paper to represent all that material stuff. About 10 years later, after two Degrees and a load of thinking, I’m sat facing a big screen, fiddling away with all the same wiggly lines and it suddenly happens. I had inadvertently reached the invisible glass boundary of deep insight and had been leaning up against it, for a while. Then busily working away, in an otherwise innocous moment, I gently slipped through the glass, to the other side of the conceptual threshold. It was like all the lights suddenly went on and I could see the world, for the first time in its true texture and vivid colour. I sat up straight, agape, and said out loud… “Shit! It’s all about the space you create”.