Where Design Thinking and Complexity Collide

In this article I would like to add a few reflections on a number of Dave Snowden’s blogs, starting with his table which has been designed to compare different approaches to design and complex problem solving.


Credit: Dave Snowden

Dave explains this table in his article Mischief, thou art afoot which is well worth a read before continuing.

In looking at this table, it is really worth reading Dave’s comments about his personal experience with Design Thinking, since this demonstrates the gap between what some designers claim they are doing, and what they are actually doing:

I had one very negative experience years ago in a Design Thinking seminar on the west coast. I was there as a participant and it was my first experience of the IDEO process. It was only one experience so I am not making it a general judgement but it does emphasis my concerns. All of us (I was an external expert) were marshalled into brain storming sessions and each group had a scribe from the facilitation team.

As things went on I started to look at what he was writing and got to the point where I took the guy aside and said That isn’t what I said. The response was an apology and he would look at it. Half an hour later I checked again, nothing had changed and the misrepresentation has continued. So I did a more public challenge and was told he was synthesising the material. Under more pressure he said that he was recording what you really meant to say at which point I got a little difficult. Others were pulled in, I was unpopular but it was changed.

Then we came to the end of the day and everyone was sent away so that the experts could now produce a solution that we would be presented to us in the morning. I rather suspected that the solution was already formed before the seminar and the recording of participants was being recorded to support that solution. Now I know this was one case, I know that people say it is not how it should be; but when you make a process linear this sort of problem is common.

Source: Ethnography Part II

In my most recent article for Sustainable Brands which looks at the challenges for leaders in developing an authentic purpose within their organisations, I introduce this schematic diagram:


Credit: Simon Robinson

I would like to suggest that underlying both this diagram and Dave’s table is the notion of who has the better access to ‘truth’. This notion of truth is slippery, and for me I sometimes distinguish between people who are absolutely convinced they have the truth, those who are consciously counterfeit in that they have a desire to make people think they have the truth, and those who are humble enough to recognise that their ontological and epistemological stance towards meaning and truth is more a lifetime spiral movements towards the truth, a destination unlikely to be arrived at.

I am sure many of you have seen a variation of this image pop up in your social media feeds. I do not know who the person is who created it in order to attribute it, but I would like to feature it here as it seems to really grab people’s attention:


Credit: Unknown

In looking at this image, you immediately understand the general idea of what it is trying to say. That with a change of perspective we can access the ‘truth’ as opposed to what is true. But I would like to make two observations.

The first is that this is slightly deceptive, since the overview perspective, where we see both projections, is perhaps not a new ‘paradigm’ in that the same level of thinking and understanding of light is used to understand the differences in colour and shape. What is trivial in this diagram becomes very far from trivial when reading on-line discussions on the problematic differences in definitions of systems thinking, complexity thinking,  holism, holistic thinking and the like, just to give you one example.

The second aspect of this diagram, and I think that perhaps Dave may relate to this, is the hidden suggestion of elitism. In this instance, someone who is elitist looks at those who are maybe circle people and those who are square people, and they achieve a false sense of superiority in having their higher-level perspective on reality. I maybe pushing a reading of this picture too far, but Joe Corbett recently published an article The Spiral of an
‘Integral’ Delusion in which he concludes:

If there is one thing holding back the development of the integral vision into a reality, it’s not a mean green-meme bent on social division and deconstruction, but the continued belief and practice of integral leaders and the integral community that the next integral stage of development is characterized by superhuman individualism in the oscillation of the spiral away from “collectivist” green. On the contrary, once integral leaders and the integral community come out of the delusion of superhuman individualism, they will realize that the only solution to first tier problems isn’t self-interested narcissism and tribalism but a collectivist vision of networked individuals working toward common purpose and universal human interests.

I think the one thing I would add to the table, as a different dimension, is values and humility and stance towards ‘the truth’. For me Hans Georg Gadamer summed up the problem by saying that “language and reality belong together”.

Gadamer’s aim is to “describe identity in a plausible way that leaves room for multiple interpretations, without falling into the morass of relativism or the iron cage of dogmatism”. p6

“Ontological Perspectivism” this is Wachterhauser’s term which he defines as the philosophical position which “maintains that things like texts are such that they contain within themselves “faces” or “looks” that present themselves in different historically mediated contexts in such a way that we can say that it is possible for one and the same reality to show itself in many ways”. p7

Gadamer’s general strategy in his masterpiece Truth and Method was to argue that “all Being is such that it is always at one and the same time “one and many”.

Any reality is what it is only by being situated in its logical or intelligible relationships to other realities.

We now need to understand Gadamer’s interpretation of language. Just as with interpretation, he does not fall into the trap of either linguistic constructivism – “language is the means by which we construct or impute meaning to reality” or alinguistic essentialism – “the intelligibility of reality consists in its ideal, alinguistic structure which the mind can intuit without any necessary reliance on language.”

So when Gadamer says that language and reality belong together he means that language is an indispensable place where the intelligibility of the real makes itself manifest. Language “participates” in intelligibility and the intelligibility of reality “participates” in the intelligibility of language”.

All disclosure of reality is both a making manifest and a covering over, both an unconcealment and  concealment of the real.

I just wonder if ‘design’ is a little too sexy nowadays, what with things such as design thinking and business design etc. It takes scientists many years to be trained in their ways of observing, and as a psychologist I received years of training on how to conduct many different forms of investigation while at all times being cognisant of the ways in which asking a question can impact on the behaviour, outcome and emotions of the person or people being studied.

But if you have no values, if have a hidden agenda, if you are a scientist wishing to prove your hypothesis independently of the data collected or if you are complexity thinker who only sees complex problems in terms of squares and not circles, then our collective understanding in multidisciplinary teams will remain stagnant. And if we hold on to any form of elitism, then it is we ourselves who will suffer the most, since what we believe to be enlightenment is simply ego-driven delusion.

It is not so easy to maintain a commitment to values and a genuinely open exploration of the truth requires a level of humility in order not to fall into traps of our own thinking. I myself have embarked on a multi-year study of Gadamer and Plato, as these two thinkers for me provide me with a perspective with which to explore the whole spectrum of science, design and complexity.


Credit: Goldengateblond

I think I would like to finish with this very funny graphic which again many of you may have already seen. The approach we take – science, design, complexity – is not necessarily going to help us to achieve any kind of working consensus if we have already made up our minds and glued ourselves to our paradigms. There are of course no amount of additional perspectives which can help people shift their thinking, and I guess we have to simply be inspired by Buckminster Fuller quote “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

I have also really been enjoying Dave Snowden’s series of blogs, and I can certainly recommend them to you.

Related Articles

This article is the prequel to this series: Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part One

3 responses to “Where Design Thinking and Complexity Collide

  1. Thanks Simon – great post. I’ve been playing at this interface of Design Thinking (with architects/ community developers) and Complexity (complex adaptive systems and complex adaptive reflexive systems) and Ethics/ Values (System’s ethics – i.e. what might actually work in perpetuity ia real world where CAS’s and CARS’s meet..)

  2. Pingback: Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part One | Transition Consciousness·

  3. Pingback: Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the the Cheese Part 3 | Transition Consciousness·

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