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Scaffolding for change
Change, which ultimately underlies any form of design and innovation, is something that resembles not a recipe –rather its antithesis. It requires navigating the unknown seas we discussed here. Indeed, in unknown contexts, change is unpredictable, but that does not mean you should navigate blindly.
Change is about potentials, energy allocation, and adjacent possibles, that increases the likelihood of certain outcomes. Unintended consequences are the default. As explorers, we want to grow the type of changes we want to see and this requires creating and maintaining the necessary structure that would support its growth, a scaffolding structure.
Here I propose that our design and innovation processes are, or at least should be, in fact, scaffolding to the very change we aim to generate.
A scaffolding is a structure that is not meant to last, and serves as a support to grow, build, or repair [something], usually the end-structure meant to last. The obvious example that comes to mind is in architecture & construction, but such structures can also be found in nature, as part of plants ecosystem for instance, and are used in medical application research. In other words, a scaffolding is an enabler. Furthermore, we should be able to remove the scaffold (or let it decay) and whatever we helped grow should sustain itself.
However, not all processes are equal in terms of their ability to sustain a scaffolding approach.
Many innovation and design processes exist as means to reduce options to a few that are the most suited to a certain problem. This engineering approach to innovation & design as “problem-solving” assumes that for a defined problem there is a set number of solutions, amongst which there is the best solution. Indeed, this works in rather clear, unambiguous, and static situations but not in a complex, ambiguous, and ever-evolving context.
The problem is not always “defined” nor is it “a problem”, rather it is an entanglement of patterns, processes, systems, (etc.) from which what is identified as “problematic” emerges. Here “root cause analysis” does not work because nothing is specifically the cause but the entangled interactions and any changes to one of these intertwined patterns will necessarily have unpredictable consequences. This ambiguity is what defines a complex context.
Funnelling processes seek to remove options to a specific set or subset suitable to address a specific problem or specific asperities of the problem. Funnelling processes look for causal relationships between the solution and predefined outcomes. This works well when ambiguity/uncertainty is low/marginal because consequences are known, knowable, isolated and localised. Most iterations of the Design Thinking process, the Design Sprint, Hackatons, etc. displays funnelling patterns.
Layering processes seek to increase options for an unspecified, unclear situation and/or challenge. Layering processes look for potentials, probabilities, and likelihoods, to “increase the things we want to see” and “decrease the things we don’t” –knowing that unintended consequences are the default in uncertain situations. Such a process is what is needed to sustain a scaffolding approach. It is done through a portfolio of strategies or a portfolio of innovation.
Processes bring a form of “coherence” through constraints. For these constraints to work, they need to be in relation to their ecological environment (the organisation, the team, the culture). This means that processes exist in relation to –and therefore respond to– their environment. The relationship is not symmetric though, and processes in environments that display high levels of certainty can claim more control over its conditions (to some extent).
However, this interdependence is key to understanding the notion of bounded applicability: that certain things work in certain contexts but not in others. In other words, you cannot simply take a process as it is done in one company, for instance, paste it in another one and expect it to work as if it was akin to replacing a mechanical part for another.
You don’t “implement” the Spotify, Agile, IBM, whatever model, nor do you “apply” the Design Thinking, Lean, whateverprocess. You try to let something emerge that resembles it because it displays similar patterns –assuming you understand them– but it will be unique to the context you’re evolving in. This requires transposability, assimilation, to fit the landscape of your organisation. This work changes the organisation in return: again, it is a co-evolution process. The useful bit here is to focus on the key patterns that increase the chances to generate the things we want to see and reduce the things we do not.
If we agree that layering processes are what helps create a scaffolding approach, what does this help us achieve? Well, it helps create a portfolio of strategies. The idea is to generate several small and local strategies in parallel, something that a layering process is best suited for, in order to change a fuzzy, complex challenge, not with a direct solution, but with a combination of actions that might take effect at different points in space and time. This means working on strategies inside and outside the organisation, and which have the potential to generate outcomes in a shorter and longer timeframe.
Fuzzy, unclear challenges are sometimes called “wicked problems”, but I think this a mistake because it gives the illusion they can be “solved” like other “problems”, just with different means. The idea of scaffolding and having a portfolio of strategies is not about a single-point solution to “solve” something simply “difficult to understand”, it is the acknowledgement through praxis that the entangled nature of such challenges makes them dispositionally problematic – that is to say, irreducible from the structures they emerge from.