‘People will be looking at this. We don’t know what will be there in 50 years. We have to think about how it will suit the community in the long-term!’
‘No, at the end of the day, it’s just a concrete box. End of story.’
I observed this tense argument between an architect and construction manager about the design of a functional building. They had had finally met on the eve of construction where their competing priorities and ways of perceiving the world brought them into conflict.
For the architect, the design was everything. It was a place for people to work. It was something that would be viewed and either hated or admired. They perceived the building in a holistic way.
For the construction manager, it was a functional building with a budget and time-frame. One of hundreds he would see go up and, one day, come down.
There was clearly a gap between the way they perceived the intended purpose of the building. The architect viewed the infrastructure as a component of the broader community. The construction worker perceived the building as a functional tool that would be operated and maintained.
These perceptions and the way we categorise the world inevitably leads to disagreement, conflict and can also limit or enhance our creativity.
When we are infants, we learn to recognise the blurry images in front of us and assign them labels from the words we hear. We learn to make distinctions between objects and assign them distinctive qualities so that we can navigate the world.
Over time, our ability to categorise the world become more inventive and complex. We form abstract ideas like ‘art’ and ‘science’ and silo our ideas and thoughts around what these constructs mean. For example, we learn to associate numbers and formulas with mathematics. This construct is related to order and predictability. In contrast, art comes to mean freedom, creativity, and expression.
Psychologist, George Kelly, referred to concepts like this as ‘constructs’ as part of his personal construct theory. Kelly believed understanding constructs was the key to unpacking the mind and behaviour.
Constructs start off black and white. There’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘yummy’ and ‘yucky’. But over time, we become better at the shades of grey.
For example, art is initially viewed as the activities we provide children, like painting, drawing and craft. But over time, children and adults learn that art can require a level of mathematical precision—perhaps scientific accuracy—when applied.
I recall when I was at school, a talented friend of mine drew a shape and asked me what I thought it was. I guessed but I was wrong. It was just a ‘line’. I was looking for meaning but he was educating me about the practical reality of art. Art could be broken down into how to apply a simple logic of geometry and measurement that made him a better artist.
Similarly, maths and scientific theories, although orderly and logical, ultimately need to be expressed and communicated in language, which can be highly subjective and even creative. The more complex concepts, like Quantum Mechanics, requires a level of abstract thought and imagination that is beyond most artists and possibly most people on earth. Einstein was famously quoted as coming up with the concept of relativity by fantasising what it would be like to ride a wave of light.
In short, strict adherence to how we view a construct, can limit our thinking and, hence, our progress. When we allow something to challenge our constructs, it can lead to something more original and memorable.
The most recent time this has occurred for me is revisiting the revived television show, Twin Peaks, which has now returned to television after a 25-year hiatus.
The original show came out in 1989 and drew the audience in with a classic ‘who dunnit’ murder mystery. This central plot played to the logical murder mystery construct. That is, we expected to follow a detective solve a series of clues until the killer is revealed in the final act.
But director and co-creator, David Lynch, disrupted the genre, introducing surreal and non-traditional elements.
There were dream sequences involving mysterious clues provided by a dancing dwarf, a giant, and the murder victim herself. The primary protagonist, Agent Cooper, used intuition and insight to help him solve the mystery. One scene showed Cooper state the names of suspects as he hurled a rock towards empty bottles. The rocks that hit led to prime suspects in the murder.
In the finale of the original show, he eventually visited a strange parallel world between worlds and came face to face with demonic spirits who seemed to be at the bottom of the murder mystery. So much for ‘the butler did it’.
Lynch deconstructed the traditional murder mystery, which infuriated many viewers who simply wanted a beginning, middle and end to fit their existing schemas.
The result was something unique and memorable that invaded popular culture and has since influenced many popular shows for decades.
The new season of Twin Peaks has taken this notion even further.
A whole episode was devoted to the first nuclear test in New Mexico in the 1940s that catapulted the audience inside the explosion where a parallel universe was seemingly unlocked. For 45 minutes, we are invited into an extensive, surreal television experience that would challenge the obtuse constructs of most television audiences.
To many it would be perceived as unstructured nonsense. To others it provided meaning in a non-linear and structured manner.
To some extent, Lynch returned the audience to their infant state again trying to find meaning in the blurry images and sounds. It’s uncomfortable and challenging because it doesn’t fit an existing construct.
Benefits of Challenging Constructs
Aside from the enjoyable/frustrating Lynchian trips to the surreal and abstract, I believe there is a modest application of this kind of thinking that can be applied in more practical ways.
Creativity can be achieved by relaxing the boundaries between constructs.
Computers were once considered a tool of a programmer or computer technician. The average person didn’t use or even know they needed a computer. The visual interface, introduced by Apple, destroyed this artificial boundary.
The computer was no longer a computational tool. It became a way of facilitating every aspect of life and work through automation.
More recently, this new way of thinking has opened new models of operating and has disrupted whole industries through the internet and smart-phone apps.
My first experience in an Uber initially had to overcome an apprehension that I was sitting in a strange car with a strange person. Of course, I had been doing this my whole life with taxi drivers. The construct of how we travel and who can provide the service needed to evolve.
I’ve also learned to embrace the ‘cloud’. My original construct of ‘security’ was that I had my valuable information in a close, secure, physical location like on a backup drive.
But if it’s stolen in one place, like on my laptop, then I will never see it again. The construct of security needed to evolve to appreciate that information is sometimes more secure when it isn’t limited by being contained in one place.
As part of Opposite, I’ve spent the past couple of years using an approach called process engagement, which deconstructs existing constructs—that is, ways of thinking and structuring our work—to help develop creative solutions as well as reset thinking to simplify workplace processes.
Here are a few examples of how it helps:
- Initially remove the labels and categories from the existing processes, structures, and roles. The preconceived structure and language can bias you before you can proceed. For example, if you assume someone has a role ‘administrator’ you will ensure there is administration for them to complete.
- Set some parameters around the process redesign so that the task isn’t aimless but make sure those parameters do not box you into designing the same thing again.
- The focus should be on defining the users/customer needs not their preferences. The preferences usually come from preconceived ideas or ‘constructs’ about what works. For example, the user may assume they need a new procedural document but they may need a training program or to remove some procedures.
- Don’t assume that stakeholder consensus is a positive sign. Avoid the need for a solution to appeal to all stakeholders. Inventive ideas can challenge constructs. If some individuals are pushing back, this doesn’t always mean you are wrong. It might be a sign you are on the right track.
- Allow your own ‘fresh’ ideas to be challenged. Your ideas may be the most ‘construct-challenging’ but challenging a construct is not the aim in of itself. It still must bring about something meaningful.
Design & Implement
- Eliminate visual cues that prime an instinctive response. Like Lynch, you don’t have to always convince someone in a rational, linear way. You can simply make something ‘feel right’. For example, there is a tendency to create logical systems and processes look like complex blueprints or contractual documents. This primes the user to expect something monotonous and so they won’t read it.
- Prioritise aesthetics. Many people make the mistake of assuming graphics and attention to fonts is something that you do at the end. Aesthetics should not be thought of an enhancement to the solution. It is intrinsically part of the solution.
- Get the solution implemented immediately for testing. There is a tendency to keep refining an idea until it’s ‘safe’ to distribute. But it is much more beneficial to engage users in a collaborative process as you build and design.