Design is the articulation of intent to achieve a goal, including plans for executing that intention. We're engaged in design whenever we devise products, services, procedures, tests, policies, legislation, campaigns — just about anything in the modern knowledge-oriented workplace. And when we design, we risk error. Our design might not achieve all we hoped, or it might not achieve the goal at all. Or we might discover that the goal we were aiming for isn't what we actually wanted. So much can go wrong that attaining even a measured success sometimes feels thrilling.
Design errors are more common than we imagine. When a system produces disappointing results, we cannot always distinguish design errors from user errors or implementation errors. And we don't always know whether the system was being used in an environment for which it was designed. That's why we sometimes mistakenly attribute system failures to something other than design error, even when design errors played a role.
Because we usually use the term error for undesirable outcomes, the language we use to describe design errors carries connotations that limit our thinking. For this discussion, we use error to mean merely unintended as opposed to unintended and unfavorable. With this in mind, when a design "goes wrong" we mean that it didn't achieve the goal, or that we discovered an even more desirable goal. We must therefore classify as design errors those exciting surprises that bring welcome results. Typically, we take credit for these as if we intended them, but their sources are often simple design errors.
The Design errors are more
common than we imaginekind of design errors I find most fascinating are those that arise from the way humans think and interact. Let's begin with one of the most famous of group biases, groupthink.
Groupthink happens when groups fail to consider a broad enough range of alternatives, risks, interpretations, or possibilities. Groups are at elevated risk of groupthink if they aren't diverse enough, or lack sufficient breadth of experience, or feel infallible, or want to preserve their elite status, or have an excessive desire for order.
For example, if an elite review team is pressed for time and must review two designs — one by an elite development team, and one by a less accomplished team, it might decide to do a less-than-thorough job on the work of the elite development team so as to make time for careful review of the work of the less-accomplished development team. Because the review team values its reputation for getting work done on time, and because it feels an affinity for the elite developers, an error in the elite developers' work can squeeze through. That might not be a bad thing, of course. Some design errors produce favorable outcomes. Such beneficial errors are rare, but we ought not dismiss the possibility out of hand.
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
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before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
- Teamwork Myths: Conflict
- For many teams, conflict is uncomfortable or threatening. It's so unpleasant so often that many believe
that all conflict is bad — that it must be avoided, stifled, or at least managed. This is a myth.
Conflict, in its constructive forms, is essential to high performance.
- Exploiting Failed Ideas
- When the approach you've been using fails, how do you go about devising Plan B? Or Plan C? Here are
some ways to find new approaches by examining failures.
- New Ideas: Judging
- When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They
sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge
new ideas more effectively?
- How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Focus on the Question
- When group decisions go awry, we sometimes feel that the failure could have been foreseen. Often, the
cause of the failure was foreseen, but because the seer was a dissenter within the group, the issue
was set aside. Improving how groups deal with dissent can enhance decision quality.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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