Coevolving Innovations

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Designing for thrownness, design attitude, decision attitude

“Designing for Thrownness” showed up for me via “Design, Wicked Problems and Throwness” by Harold G. Nelson.  The citation of Karl Weick as a source, with references to Flores & Winograd (1986), led me to find the Managing by Designing research led by Boland and Collopy, with the 2004 conference as Case Western Reserve abstracted in a series of videos (of which Thrownness is #4 of 7).

Boland and Collopy differentiate between a design attitude and a decision attitude.

A decision attitude toward problem solving is used extensively in management education. It portrays the manager as facing a set of alternative courses of action from which a choice must be made.

  • The decision attitude assumes it is easy to come up with alternatives to consider, but difficult to choose among them.
  • The design attitude toward problem solving, in contrast, assumes that it is difficult to design a good alternative, but once you have developed a truly great one, the decision about which alternative to select becomes trivial.

The design attitude appreciates that the cost of not conceiving of a better course of action than those that are already being considered is often much higher than making the “wrong” choice among them.

The decision attitude toward problem solving and the many decision-making tools we have developed for supporting it have strengths that make them suitable for certain situations. In a clearly defined and stable situation, when the feasible alternatives are well known, a decision attitude may be the most efficient and effective way to approach problem solving. But when those conditions do not hold, a design attitude is required. [editorial paragraphing added]

This contrast between a design attitude and decision attitude becomes clearer as Weick later describes thrownness.

Design is usually portrayed as forethought that leads to an intention. But on closer inspection, design may be less originary than it looks. One reason is because beginnings and endings are rare, middles are common. People, whether designers or clients, are always in the middle of something, which means designing is as much about re-design, interruption, resumption, continuity, and re-contextualizing, as it is about design, creation, invention, initiation, and contextualizing. What separates good design from bad design may be determined more by how people deal with the experience of thrownness and interruption than by the substance of the design itself.

Weick refers to Heidegger, via Winograd and Flores (1986):

Heidegger [… unpacks] the word geworfenheit (werf to throw, geworfenheit being thrown), which has been translated as “thrownness.” Heidegger treats being-in-the-world … as “the prereflective experience of being thrown into a situation of acting without the opportunity or need to disengage and function as detached observers” (Winograd and Flores, 1986, p. 97).

An example from Winograd and Flores (1986) is summarized by Weick, in the plight of a chairman in a difficult situation.

At a contentious meeting, such as trying to decide whether to adopt a new computer system, the chairperson is thrown into the midst of a garbage can organizing process of ongoing agendas seeking support and animosities looking for an airing, without much control or sense of history and with little opportunity for detached contemplation or any assurance that detachment would help anyway. Here’s what it feels like to be a thrown chairperson:

  1. You cannot avoid acting. Your actions, including the action of doing nothing, affect the situation and yourself, often in ways that run counter to what you intended.
  2. You cannot step back and reflect on your actions. You are thrown on your intuitions and have to deal with whatever comes up as it comes up.
  3. The effects of action cannot be predicted. The dynamic nature of social conduct precludes accurate prediction, and rational planning is not much help.
  4. You do not have a stable representation of the situation. Patterns may be evident after the fact, but at the time the flow unfolds there is nothing but arbitrary fragments capable of being organized into a host of different patterns or possibly no pattern whatsoever.
  5. Every representation is an interpretation. There is no way to settle once and for all that any interpretation is right or wrong, which means an “objective” analysis of that into which one was thrown is out of reach.
  6. Language is action. Whenever people say something, they create rather than describe a situation. This means it is impossible to stay detached from whatever emerges unless you say nothing, which is such a strange way to react that the situation is deflected anyway (adapted from Winograd and Flores, 1986, pp. 34 –36).

This description of thrownness leads Weick to refer to Dreyfus’ reading of Heidegger.

In situations such as these, designing unfolds in a world that is already interpreted where people are already acting, where options are constrained, where control is minimal, and where things and options already matter for reasons that are taken-for-granted. These taken-for-granted reasons are lost in history and hard to retrieve, if retrieval were even an issue. The question “why are we doing this” seldom comes up in the mood of thrownness because acting with what is at hand is primary and detached reflection secondary.

Regardless of whether designing occurs in the context of living a life without a rehearsal or creating a building that is a work of art or crafting a meeting that doesn’t explode or coordinating people to control damage, the common thread is that people in each setting share a mood of “disclosive submission” to the world (Dreyfuss, 1995, p. 173). In such a world, understanding occurs through acting, not through isolating and categorizing phenomena, and people act their way into understanding.

This is existentialism with a twist. If existence precedes essence, then thrownness is existence whose essence is gradually disclosed as a small subset of all possible options for expression and interpretation. The tiny subset that defines “essence” is the residue of a larger set of possibilities edited down by culture, institutions, socialization, habitats, and labeled experience.  [editorial paragraphing added]

Weick then describes the significance of thrownness to design in five ways.

The concept of thrownness seems useful within a vocabulary of design because it articulates the context within which designs will be more or less effective. The concept does this in at least five different ways.

First, if we take thrownness seriously, it means that designing starts with a different set of background assumptions. The mind-set is not one of designing as if one faces a blank slate and a greenfield site, but instead it is designing as if one faces a population thrown into a determinate situation characterized by limited options, unreflective submission, continuous acting, occasional interruption, unquestioned answers, ready-made categories for expression and interpretation, and disjunction between understanding and explanation.

Second, thrownness suggests that design is incremental even when it aspires to be much more. It is incremental because designers are thrown into an already interpreted world of the client, a world that they typically extend rather than upend. Design is also incremental because clients assimilate and normalize new design and bend it to whatever is already underway so that their action can continue.

Third, good design gains meaning from its resonance with the condition of thrownness, which means that good design counteracts some of the features of a “determinate situation” mentioned earlier. The counteraction created by good design may enlarge a limited set of options, reduce blind spots, facilitate brief reflection, reduce the disruptiveness of interruptions, encourage trial and error with safety, refine primitive categories into a more nuanced set of distinctions, and tighten the coupling between existence and interpretation.

Fourth, good design supports the mood of thrownness. Support means that the experience of thrownness is enriched when improvised actions are rendered stronger and more appropriate. In the case of a contentious meeting, for example, good design takes the edge off thrownness by providing affordances that make it easier to generate wise action, reflection-in-action (Schon, 1987), action that can be fine tuned and reversed so that prediction is unnecessary, increased situational awareness with decreased dependence on stable representation, richer interpretations, and more differentiated and nuanced language.  [….]

Fifth, the assumption of thrownness in a preinterpreted world spotlights the potential value of design that stirs up those preexisting interpretations, throws some of them up for grabs, and encourages people to redecide what matters.  [editorial paragraphing added]

The above easily makes sense for me, because I’ve read (and discussed) Winograd and Flores, and Dreyfus’ reading of Heidegger.  These concepts may be less natural for people who haven’t been immersed into phenomenology.

References

Boland, Richard J., and Fred Collopy. 2004. “Design Matters for Management.” In Managing as Designing, 3–18. Stanford University Press. http://books.google.ca/books?id=s3SO96AH9UQC&pg=PA3

Dreyfus, Hubert L. 1990. Being-in-the-world: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. Mit Press. http://books.google.ca/books?id=ACIxwxBq2ZgC&pg=PA173

Weick, K. E. 2004. “Designing for Throwness.” In Managing as Designing, ed. Richard J. Boland and Fred Collopy, 74–78. Stanford University Press. http://books.google.ca/books?id=s3SO96AH9UQC&pg=PA74

Winograd, Terry, and Fernando Flores. 1986. Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. http://books.google.ca/books?id=2sRC8vcDYNEC&pg=PA34


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