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The Advanced Design Institute (ADi) works to facilitate a deeper and broader understanding of design as activity and culture. Design activity is the way individuals and organizations continuously create our world. Design culture provides the societal context that supports design activity. In a time of dramatic change and of increased complexity, design culture is more timely and crucial than ever. The purpose of ADi is to advance design culture through public education.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Everything Real is Not True

Decision makers want to be able to make good decisions. Decisions that will at the very least make the company money, the nonprofit effective, or the governmental agency politically popular. They want to make decisions that lead to better products, services, or organizational behavior. They also want to be seen as effective leaders worth the money, prestige and trust they desire or have invested in them. The problem is that good, let alone great, decisions seem harder and harder to come by.

Confidence in leaders or even the concept of leadership is very low at the moment—so low that a lot of public discussion deals with how to get along without the present crop of leaders. Professional literature deals with the availability of new prescriptive recipes which, when followed correctly, guarantee to bring certainty and success to decision making with or without good leadership. The market overflows with workshops and training sessions that promise to provide the right sequence of experiences that lead to painless, accessible, and cost effective problem solving abilities, which in turn promise to consistently provide solutions to complex problems embedded in confusing circumstances or better yet provide ready-made answers.

The desire for consistency and certainty has been part of the human condition for as long as we know. The earliest cosmologies and associated rites and rituals were all meant to give structure to chaos and mystery but there always seemed to be less predictability than desired and more unpredictability than tolerable. Ancient decision makers would go through great effort and cost to ask the Oracle at Delphi for a simple answer to their straight forward question only to be given responses that, by necessity, required deeper thinking on the questioner's side. The early Christians found that their leader spoke only in parables leaving centuries of interpretation of what the true answers were.

Despite the apparent popularity of these and other traditional means for accessing of wisdom, decision makers have continued to look for other less opaque methods of inquiry that would provide information that was more accessible, straight to the point, transparent, accurate, consistent and stable over time. In the Western tradition the right approach to coming up with accurate answers to questions seeking the basis for good decision making was soon identified as the outcome of rational thought using the protocols of the scientific method.  This approach worked so well for gaining a better understanding of the natural world and for the creation of sophisticated technology that it was only natural that managers, administrators and others in leadership roles would come to depend on the same design of inquiry for decisions that the scientists used.

However this scientized approach, with some exceptions, has not provided the kind of guarantee of good outcomes expected. This comes from what I believe is a confusion between what is true and what is real. Science can only determine that which is true but managers and others must deal with what is real as well.  I make the distinction between what is true and what is real in the following way. A painting by Cezanne is real, the atomic weight of copper is true. An experience is real, a scientific observation is true. An organization is real, a proven fact is true. An individual's perspective is real, a predictable event is true.

Determining what is true comes from accurate descriptions and explanations through controlled observation (William James' "tough-minded" empiricism). The true also comes from careful abstract reasoning and logic (William James' "tender-minded" rationalism). The real on the other hand is primarily revealed through actions taken by intention as formed by judgment. The real is complex, too complex to grasp in any comprehensive way. The real is unique and particular at any time and place. The real cannot be generalized and universalized unless abstracted into categories and patterns of qualities.

Good decisions and right actions do not and cannot arise from what is true alone. They must be grounded in the particularity of the real. Not recognizing this leads decision makers into analysis paralysis where focus on what’s true leads to unending branching. Decisions and actions must be based on what is real in addition to what is true. This is a symmetry however, not a polarity. That is, it is a unity rather than a compromise or conflict between the two. The binary relationship as shown below needs to be preserved in the process of good decision-making to assure that neither is negated or made dominate in relation to the other. It must also be recognized that both the true and the real are only the basis for decision making and not the means.


The pressure on educators of decision-makers and the educated decision-makers themselves to locate their work in the scientific tradition has led to the deformation of what is real into the pretense of that which is true—not bothering to stop at even the level of compromise. Formal educational curriculum, professional development programs and training methods supporting decision-making and leadership roles have been well developed in the realm of that which is true but not enough has been done in the development of similar areas of support in the realm of that which is real. There is a clear difference between what business, civil and governmental organizations need from educational programs and what academic programs provide for instance.  An example of the contrasting divergent needs of education and business is represented by Foreman1 as a relationship between academic orientation and business requirements (neither being systemic which is another issue in itself). This is an instance of the split between what is ‘simply’ true and what is ‘really’ true:

In an article in the Harvard Business Review2 the professional intellect of an organization is said to operate on four levels of increasing importance:  1) cognitive knowledge, 2) advanced skills, 3)systems understanding, 4) self-motivated creativity. Only the first deals with what is ‘simply’ true. The others are in the realm of that which is ‘really’ true—i.e. both real and true.

Decision-making and leadership need to be grounded in the tradition of science and logic but not to the exclusion of judgment and reality. Design is an emerging field of inquiry for action that blends the distinction between what is true and what is real into a balanced systemic relationship.

1. Foreman, David C. 1995. "The Use of Multimedia Technology
    for Training in Business and Industry." Multimedia Monitor 13(7):  22-27
2. Quinn, James Brain, Philip Anderson, and Sydney Finkelstein. 1996 "Managing
    Professional Intellect" Harvard Business Review, March-April;  71-80

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