Archive for the ‘Dialogic Design’ category

We Tried To Warn You

March 23, 2008

In Boxes  and Arrows, March 19

There are many kinds of failure in large, complex organizations – breakdowns occur at every level of interaction, from interpersonal communication to enterprise finance. Some of these failures are everyday and even helpful, allowing us to safely and iteratively learn and improve communications and practices. Other failures – what I call large-scale – result from accumulated bad decisions, organizational defensiveness, and embedded organizational values that prevent people from confronting these issues in real time as they occur.

So while it may be difficult to acknowledge your own personal responsibility for an everyday screw-up, it’s impossible to get in front of the train of massive organizational failure once its gained momentum and the whole company is riding it straight over the cliff. There is no accountability for these types of failures, and usually no learning either. Leaders do not often reveal their “integrity moment” for these breakdowns. Similar failures could happen again to the same firm.

I believe we all have a role to play in detecting, anticipating, and confronting the decisions that lead to breakdowns that threaten the organization’s very existence. In fact, the user experience function works closer to the real world of the customer than any other organizational role. We have a unique responsibility to detect and assess the potential for product and strategic failure. We must try to stop the train, even if we are many steps removed from the larger decision making process at the root of these failures.

Dialogue as Participatory Design

November 3, 2007

(Insert standard excuses for blog slipping here).

Torch Partner Robin Uchida hosted the second year of Juice Dialogues at Ontario College of Art and Design, October 25-27. Wit the theme of Making the Invisible Visible, I kicked off the Friday night session, followed by Gary Gray, founder of Carder Gray agency. I was delighted to accept an invitation to present, as well as participate in the open dialogues with faculty, students, and design community professionals like myself. This is the kind of exploratory educational venue all universities should hold regularly, and the type of informal program design schools in particular need. Provocative presentations with Q&A, followed by a circle of dialogue for everyone who stayed on, hosted by insightful, caring facilitators that easily generated the space for listening and understanding to emerge. Each night’s dialogue lasted well over an hour, and afterward, I physically felt energized, inspired, and buzzed, like I had been at a great party.

My talk was on Dialogue as Participatory Design (see on Slideshare), which is my first attempt at integrating the concepts of structured dialogue as participatory design for social systems and public domain issues. While I”m sure we could use which have many stakeholders and where no single “answer” is possible. a way of facilitated design thinking with stakeholder groups holding a complex problem in common. While we at the Agoras Institute and at the Blogora wiki have written books and pages about SDD as a model of participatory design and decision making, we have not shared these ideas with designers who practice Participatory Design as a school of design. I have not seen similar tools employed in transformation design practices yet either, but perhaps unstructured dialogue is preferred for front end conceptualization of problems. I would like to know what the experiences are of other design teams that have employed facilitate dialogic methods in problematizing, conceptual design, scenario planning, or even in visual sensemaking and generative ideation.

Here’s a brief summary of the concepts from the talk:

A participatory design approach based on structured dialogic design is presented. Dialogic design represents a developing perspective toward design for complex or techno-social systems where stakeholders must own the design planning, solutions, and take responsibility for action. Where participatory design methods engage “users” in design play and process as a generative design approach for creating the right products, dialogic design requires participants’ deep contribution to the outcome of the designed solution or service itself. Think of the significant need to involve community stakeholders in transformative solutions for public policy, transportation, urban planning, or infrastructure. Consider the need to involve medical practitioners and even patients in healthcare delivery or service solutions. Consider dialogic design a means of radically democratic design, guided by principles such as requisite variety, requisite learning, and requisite authenticity.

Bursting at the Seams

October 16, 2007

Jeffrey Sachs – Speaking on solving global problems at the Reith Lectures. He may be a one-man Club of Rome.

And how can it be, ladies and gentlemen, that we think we can be safe? We think we can be safe when we leave a billion people to struggle literally for their daily survival, the poorest billion for whom every day is a fight to secure enough nutrients, a fight against the pathogen in the water that can kill them or their child, a fight against a mosquito bite carrying malaria or another killer disease for which no medicine is available, though the medicines exist and are low cost, thus letting malaria kill one or two million children this year. How can this be safe? How can we choose, as we do in the United States, to have a budget request this year of $623 billion for the military – more than all the rest of the world combined – and just $4.5 billion for all assistance to Africa and think that this is prudent? One might say it is science fiction that a zoonotic disease could arise and somehow spread throughout the world, except that AIDS is exactly that. How many examples do we need to understand the linkages, and the common threats, and the recklessness of leaving people to die — recklessness of spirit, of human heart, and of geo-political safety for us?

President Kennedy talked about a way of solving problems, and that too will be a theme of these Lectures. We are entering I believe a new politics, and potentially a hopeful politics. I’m going to call it open-source leadership. If Wikipedia and Linux can be built in an open source manner, politics can be done in that manner as well. We are going to need a new way to address and to solve global problems, but our connectivity will bring us tools unimaginable even just a few years ago.

We have new, old, and reinvented tools – online and offline – for generating collective wisdom toward solving complex social problems. What’s missing is the same thing that has always been missing: a bit of vision from the stakeholders, who might be committed to resolving differences among the different holders-of-stakes, to attempt a true dialogue with a meaningful consensus for action.

Dialogic design may be a means for such open source politics. It provides a means of engaging people with a problem in common in an open, democratic, and productive design thinking process. Policy making is a design problem, wherein a large and variable set of unwieldy inputs and voices overwhelm the decision maker, and a sensemaking process ensures to arrive at a decisions that intuitively organize the meanings and needs of the policy into a course of action. This is very hard work for politicians and policy wonks, neither discipline of course, being trained in design thinking. But it is a problem of designing, nevertheless.

In dialogue, you are heard and your contributions are honored, as are all contributions. Wisdom is that which emerges from the common through the exchange, understanding of the problem space, and generation of design possibilities. It is not wikiality – whether online or on-face, its the real deal.

Buber on social networking

September 16, 2007

OK, not really, but I got your attention – I am rereading Martin Buber on dialogue, where he takes on the problem of “monologue disguised as dialogue.” a false dialogue of abstracted opponents. More than anyone else I’ve read, Buber reminds usof the inherent and deep human need to connect.  And in distinguishing between dialogue real and false, he’s speaking to a fatal flaw / human need underlying all of our attempts to perfect online social networking. Because a lot of his ideas are so underappreciated now, they are worth recovering in the new contexts of the dissociating online world we spend half our lives in.

Buber spoke about the relationship of human beings to one another, the importance of true dialogic encounter, the power of the here and now, and the threats of the modernity to psychological health or wholeness. Dissociation was a critical concern of his, back then in the 50’s when people typically had (or lived as thought they had) just a single identity.

“Vital dissociation is the sickness of the peoples of our age.”

Dissociation with the real world of human lifeworld was a predominating concern for Buber, and other pre-postmodern thinkers: Maslow, R.D. Laing, Carl Rogers, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Fromm, Krishnamurti. Just because we have socially adapted to embrace our dissociation as a way of celebrating the fragmentation of contemporary life does not mean we have evolved into it. Human beings become partial identities, fragmented souls, if starved of F2F encounters and genuine communication. Consider your own experience –  which of our own virtual interactions lead to real interpersonal connections (beyond the instrumental)?

In Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue, Maurice Friedman goes on: “These organic forms — the family, union in work, and the community in village and town — were based on a vital tradition which has now been lost. Despite the outward preservation of some of the old forms, the inward decay has resulted in an intensification of man’s solitude and a destruction of his security. In their place new community forms have arisen which have attempted to bring the individual into relation with others; but these forms, such as the club, the trade union, and the party, ‘have not been able to re-establish the security which has been destroyed,’ ‘since they have no access to the life of society itself and its foundations: production and consumption.’ (Between Man and Man, ‘What Is Man?’ p. 157).

Buber wrote this in 1954 – so how much further have we (socially and intrapersonally) dissociated since then? Do we even care, do we have any way of assessing our essential disconnection, even as we evermore frantically connect online?

Back to tech – First of all, small-scale networking is highly intentional – wikis, invited lists, social network services like Ning, Web and email groups. But I’m uncomfortable with the large-scale social networking services, even though I use some of them. Not with the tech, which is cool enough, but with the meaning of the experience and the “meaning of the network.” These are not values-neutral services.  OK, LinkedIn is fine for keeping track business connections, especially the weak-tie relationships that are easy to let slip by. A blue-suit values system, useful but not all that inspiring.

As a professional, MySpace is not worth my time, and Facebook – well, I’m not even going to get started. Its not just that the scale and reach of Facebook creeps me out, or the total loss of personal privacy you give up, allowing their corporation to locate any information on the web someone tags about you and associates it with Facebook. Even if you consider its value as a “terrorist network” search tool as purported by some, based on its CIA links and Gilman Louie investment, its not that. Its this:

– Do I really want to create an online identity that represents “me” to a million people I don’t need to be in touch with? And then to maintain and upgrade that identity on a persistent basis based on its inherent values system, its distracting features, and its communities that don’t help me personally?

– What if my identity is not static enough to fit their context-free model? In my genuine experience I”m not really the same, consistent person to everyone. Any self-simulacrum removed from its context seems ultimately unsatisfying and phony.

– What if the very idea of my online Self is something I wish to have control over, to assert and retract my self-presentation when and as I want? At least LinkedIn is just an online resume service – I don’t know what Facebook will do with my identity once I’m tired of it. Will people find me in 5 years after I’ve left the service and ask where the old Peter Jones went to?

– What if its becomes the new “permanent record?” Do I trust these guys with my personal data?

Yes, we are all postmodernists now. We have learned to thrive in the temporary autonomous zones created by a shared life of the mind. But I prefer to do my Facebooking live, F2F.

Perspectives on Dialogue: What Matters?

August 23, 2007

In Why the Crowd Has No Wisdom I pushed several issues with the “wisdom of the crowd” idea:

1. What is distributed wisdom? Wisdom can be considered an emergent pattern of meaning from participants in a dedicated search for meaning and guidance.Collective wisdom emerges from a dialogic engagement among observers that have actually pondered a situation. Is Wikipedia “wise” or just really a helpful set of editors sharing what they consider factual and informative?

2. Can the crowd help me with a problem? What is the intention of the group from which we expect to find wisdom or even knowledge? Where knowledge is the entry fee we pay to generate wisdom from the group, it is not the outcome of the group. More knowledge is not what we need, we usually need some sort of contextual direction based on understanding of a situation.

3. Are large groups effective? When generating distributed knowledge from a large, generally unknown group – like a prediction market – can we achieve anything better than a measure of popularity or sentiment? Do we have any evidence that large groups have any better sense of the future, or any consensus toward solving difficult problems facing us? Maybe an individual in the group has a killer idea, but won’t that idea be washed out by too many uniformed participants? If the crowd was right, wouldn’t everyone in stock markets be buying the same stocks?

Margaret Mead and Peter Block hold the small group as the best working unit of wisdom generation. While dialogue circles can scale to large sizes, their effectiveness to make group decisions based on a group understanding diminishes in correlation to size.

There are several demographic studies that compel attention toward a less-informed populace, not more, Internet be damned. Even the French (friends of the intellectual life) have weighed in on their cultural decline – consumer caprice!

School Faced With Consumerist Barbarism

By Philippe Meirieu, Le Monde,Thursday 22 March 2007

In France, debates concerning education are too often reduced to debates about school. Our history certainly invites that: no other country is built through and around its school system more than ours. And if we don’t restore hope in an institution that today has been broadly reduced to a triage center, we will have to face both the explosion of youth and the depression of teachers. When fatalism triumphs and disappointment is the rule among those who incarnate the future, we have something to worry about…. In consequence, let’s celebrate the way the electoral campaign has made a place for scholastic problems.

We are faced with a completely unheard-of phenomenon: caprice – which used to be only a stage in the individual child’s development – has become the organizing principle of our collective development. We, in fact, know that the child always goes through a phase in which he believes he can boss beings and things around. Whether one talks about initial narcissism or infantile egocentrism, one always emphasizes the same phenomenon: the child, enmeshed in desires that he cannot yet either name or register in an encounter with someone else, is tempted to move to action. The educator should therefore accompany the child; teach him not to react immediately with violence, not to rush headlong into a collision…. To take the time to question himself, anticipate, reflect, metabolize his impulses, construct his will. That’s the business of pedagogy.

The bolded sentence advises self-dialogue, an interesting orientation to pedagogy. While not directly supporting a case that crowds are less wise than we may hope, it suggests the selection of population sample (or stakeholders) is very important.

My colleagues have responded with some compelling distinctions.

Dr. Liss Jeffrey of the eCommons/Agora and New Democracy Workshop (see the Netizen News) makes an impressive case:

I would say that I take a more conventionally grassroots democratic view ( as in demos or perhaps ‘demosophy’) as crowd sourcing seems to me an interesting and worthwhile if never infallible or even reliable ‘ bottom up’ approach.Nor do I share your disdain for “the mean” ( this used to be the mass I guess, an equally flawed concept of some kind of abstraction of a person quantified. I have a lot of respect for the common sense of Canadians.I refuse to blame Americans en masse as this position lacks nuance and suffers from obvious contradictions).

I think part of the point is to inform people and provide opportunities for them to inform themselves and others on a given question and topic. I do not always know what matters, (who does?), and anyway it may change.

Dialogue is powerful, but creating the conditions for dialogue so it seems to me takes education, information, lots of hope and many other tactics .That’s where I think the real struggle is situated, nurturing those conditions and building platforms and practices for the dialogue engagement.

Restricting the dialogue to an ‘intentional small crowd’ while this may be practically useful (maybe the room only holds 30) seems to me on principle objectionable.

I do not know on a given day with whom I may need to or may find myself in dialogue, as I make my way through the public part of my life, however surely that readiness for dialogue is part of what we are trying to achieve – those of us who make dialogue part of our practice …

Dr. Peter Pennefather of the University of Toronto suggests a middle way, that we frame any dialogue (online or F2F) well enough so that multiple perspectives are encouraged and accommodated.

Peter Jones responds to some articles cited earlier in this dialogue about blogging and the possible outputs of a million monkeys typing <as well as the above article by Meirieu complaining about the capriciousness of crowds and more specifically of millennials.) This article reflects a common complaint about the capriciousness youth and their lack of commitment to a defined doctrine or a consistent worldview. This seems to have a parallel in a longing for the good old days of insurgency when the battle was over running the nation state in contrast to the fuzzy foes of today’s Brave New Wars who just want to exert influence over a bit of turf they can call their own and will stop at nothing to drive away competitors who compete for that influence.

Unless there is a framing of the dialogue it is difficult to recognize the points of view or perspective that drive elements of the discourse. This is what I think is most important about all the blogging that is going on. Not only are opinions being recorded, but it is now possible to interpret those opinions in terms of the writer’s identity and perspective that can be deduced from other information on the web, often nicely arranged and summarized on their home page.

It’s not the collective knowledge of crowds that is emerging but rather an ability to recognize the collective diversity of perspectives. It is this multi-perspectival view that helps locate information artifacts and to characterizes their nature more completely.

Perspective is developed and usually enabled by “standing on the shoulders of giants” (or monsters). An ability to consider things from multiple perspectives leads to perceptiveness. Perceptiveness is a property generally associated with the culture of ideas. One quality that makes a written text literature is that it is widely recognized as having the quality of perceptiveness. Intellectuals and scholars train themselves to be perceptive and to have the capacity to provide a sophisticated analysis of events. Thus, for focused questions it is efficient to establish a dialogue amongst key informants.

However, in my opinion, all dialogue is useful and increases the overall perceptiveness of the participants. The consensus that can sometimes emerge from dialogue is not a homogenized mean but rather an appreciation of different points of view and a better appreciation of where the uncertainties lies or the level of facticity of the observations bandied about. I agree with Liss that assessing a situation and responding to that situation invokes different cognitive and neurological systems. However, I would not like to separate dialogue from action. It is the coordination of information input and action outputs (including dialogical inquiry to obtain more information) that increases our ability to adapt to what the world throws at us.

The democratic and dialogical principles that should be brought into at play during a staged discourse on a limited platform of ideas aimed at providing long term guidance for the operations of government (e.g. during election campaigns) are different from democratic and dialogical principles that should be applied during a focussed dialogical inquiry aimed at assessing the value of possible solutions to a specific focused but difficult problem. Nevertheless, in both situations there will be common forms of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that will favour participant satisfaction with the process. The skill of being able to inspire imagination in others and the belief in widely dispersed wisdom to be found in the most unlikely places are two such useful elements. These common elements can be developed (taught) through various exercises and must be maintained through continuous use

Is this a middle way between amusing sophisticated discourse by insiders and mindless mass mouthings (typing) of platitudes?

These are all principles of structured dialogue: Demosophia (Wisdom of the People), Framing the Dialogue, Embracing and including multiple perspectives. Thank you for contributing to our shared collective wisdom!

End of the Master Brand Strategy

August 13, 2007

Brandchannel announces that your Master Brand strategy is dead. Master Brands were so millennial anyway, long before Web 2.0 and UGC drove brand messaging up the wall with its po-mo Cluetrain messiness. As this notice issues from the famously inward-looking industry itself, we can assume the trend has been underway for some time. Here is the full paper (from Straightline).

For those who don’t work the consumer-facing side of marketing and design, the Master Brand concept was driven through the influence of giant marketing consultant Interbrand‘s strategy of establishing a mono-megalithic brand that subsumes other brands in a brand family relationship. Since corporate value accrues to the highest-level meaningful brand, the Master Brand presented a way to manage message, visual and corporate brand identity, brand creep – and it attempted to roll up consumer perception to the brand owner as much as possible. A proliferation of brands dilutes the corporate brand and reduces effectiveness, and increase choice complexity – so the Master Brand has its place.

Here’s a blurb:


Master brands and brand architecture are two of the many inward-focused notions that have come to define the world of branding. While these concepts heralded an important milestone, continued adherence to their principles may lead to branding’s downfall. Inflexible models and exclusive language inherent to these concepts are alienating branding’s most critical potential proponents, giving the impression that as branding practitioners, we have built artificial processes to justify higher fees for what otherwise would be considered “expensive marketing.” In this article, we will make the case that traditional brand jargon, brand architecture and its numerous flavors – such as Branded Houses, Houses of Brands, Endorsed Brands and Sub-brands under a Master Brand, and any other “branding” term that puts unnecessary conceptual distance between a business and its brand(s)—is ultimately detrimental to the discipline of branding. We will then provide an alternate view of brand system management that we feel is more relevant to the needs of businesses and the many stakeholders they serve.


Here’s where I really agree with their strategy and intent. They say: “However, to realize its operational and strategic potential, branding must evolve beyond its inaccessible jargon and artificial models to play a more dynamic, inclusive role that bridges connections between stakeholders and adequately represents management challenges and the cultural and motivational realities of the companies they serve.” This part sounds like a dialogic design problem space, and the paper goes on to show how they are encouraging a type of dialogue among various stakeholders, and not a consistent brand image.

I wonder if they have such a methodology for sufficiently engaging multiple, competing, disagreeing stakeholders to reach consensus on a common brand identity and plan? Something like our Dialogic SWOT Analysis?

Seeing Things

June 27, 2007

After about a month of dialogue with Bob Goodman and Eric Reiss, facilitated artfully by GK VanPatter, the NextD Journal publishes our ramblings as “Things you See.” A “brief” excerpt gives you a flavor for my bits:

Looking at the evolution of practices which we play into, I see several converging trends that originated from quite different inspirations: Information Architecture, Design 3.0, Innovation management, and organizational transformation. These are not inherently related trends, but have become interconnected now from the conversations WE have about these issues. Our communities of practice have brought these trends together, not businesses or authors in the research literature. We are creating new design ecologies within our own practices turning the focus of design from the product or service both to the user and back into the organization itself. As GK implies, this is not about creating a new design focus, a new What. Good design practice has always been about evolving the tools or How to’s, as an extension of interdisciplinary design thinking.

Design practice should also embrace and reach mastery of other thinking, research, and creative skills that are not being touched upon in d-schools or Boxes and Arrows. We should be learning and skillfully applying complementaries: organizational design, decision-making, dialogue, strategic scenario planning, work domain analysis, and other macro tools – but we risk losing credibility and leadership if we merely add practices to the portfolio.

Organizations and people’s work practices have their own life cycle and dynamics and are not “designed” by a small team making sketches on the whiteboard or in prototypes. It changes your design role, perhaps forever, to do these complementary design activities well. But to try but not do them well hazards risk to project and client. As with other related competencies, such as field research or project management, we must develop a sense of the environment, and know when to extend the team with deep competencies, and not just extend ourselves as post-disciplinarians (like ourselves perhaps?) As we would not accept a weak designer on a project team, we might not accept a good designer as a strategic analyst. We still need strong competencies, especially as interdisciplinary practitioners.

Design practice evolved in the tradition of following the lead of a defined desirable state, whether structured from a brief, a client proposal, or a value proposition emerging from a prior context such as a product line or user need. I say all design IS redesign, of something. True human needs are very enduring – it is difficult to conceive of a design proposition not derived from a related prior need, something currently supported by other means. We should be very good at this by now.

But we are facing the prospect of removing the imposed frame, designing in uncertainty, and creating better frames that better serve the need. This opens a huge new set of opportunities for future practice, but requires us to innovate collectively, not individually – uncertainty calls for the participation and design thinking of all stakeholders in the space. Not just collaboration or participatory design for a better product/service, but in the collective re-envisioning of the very need for a given artifact, its structure and form, the needs we believe to exist in the world, or the installed base or prior artifacts.