/ Essay

How many designers does it take to change a lightbulb?

How many designers does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: "why a lightbulb"


Most of us work in a "solution oriented" management culture. “Don’t come to me with a problem if you don’t have a solution” is a commandement of that culture. This probably has some merit in particular contexts but is largely overused and can be dangerous because it prevents us from really understanding the problems that surround us. It also prevents problems to be socialized in a way that might lead to more complete solutions. Ideas are born too soon... premature ideas that are smaller than we would have liked them to be.


Here’s an example (I know you love examples)


Linda is a new employee joining the company. Her mentor, Steve is expected to show her around, take her to lunch and basically be her buddy for the day. But Steve is busy and has to leave Linda alone on a few occasions. She is left to herself and since her computer is not ready, she reads various company pamphlets trying to look busy but feeling awkward. 


Steve notices this… what does he do? In a classic “Don’t come to me with a problem if you don’t have a solution” culture, Steve would be tempted to report something like “new employees need their laptop when they come in” (what the hell for? To play angry birds?). Those solutions are simply cosmetic and will never lead to an innovation in new employee on-boarding. 


Why a laptop? (So what would a designer do)


Tim Brown - of IDEO fame - often expresses that “design wants to be big again”. What I think he means by that is that is that instead of fixing issues locally, we should use Design as a way to understand the system as a whole and then create a better system instead of jumping to short sighted solutions. 


In this case, the designer would first start by understanding the system from the view points of all relevant actors. He would meet the mentor, the new employee, the HR rep, the employee’s manager. Build empathy and a holistic understanding of the system. Only then would he start working on a new concept that meets the needs of these actors (I’m simplifying the Design Thinking process so much right now that it physically hurts me). There would be a lot of uncertainty about some ideas for this new system so these ideas would become experiments that could validate or invalidate ideas based on how they satisfy the various actors' needs. 


In the end the result could be that the on-boarding session happens offsite and feels more like an excursion or a day camp where Steve is brought in only for the last activity. Or something completely different. The point being that the whole system is redesigned to fulfil all the actors.


“should we apply this to all problems?” of course not.  Mainly “complex” problems.


- My computer mouse is broken > Simple problem. Just replace the mouse.


- This algorithm is a security issue > Complicated problem. Get the right expert(s) on the case.


- Customers don’t seem to be happy with our new update > Complex problem, no expert can absolutely state what the cause is and many people might feel differently. Start the design process.


A big issue that we are seeing in organisations is that people tend to approach “complex" problems as if they were “complicated”. I’ll get back to you guys with more on this topic. Meanwhile go check out Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model for more insights into the difference between Complicated and Complex problems - thank me later ;)  Being able to identify complex problems is the first step.


Happy problem solving!

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