4 April 2011
Design Leadership

Practical wisdom

A few evenings ago I watched a really interesting TED talk by Barry Schwartz on practical wisdom.

Although his examples were rooted in education and law, I couldn't help but feel that practical wisdom was also the core of good design. After all, what is design except the ability to improvise novel solutions to new problems based on your knowledge of a set of rules and your ability to apply them with flexibility?

The talk also made me think about my own personal feelings towards project management. I believe that project management processes are often used as a series of inflexible rules (or sticks) intended to ensure average teams reach a minimum level of performance. However this will have the opposite effect on good people, constricting them and eventually demotivating them. I've seen this happen with numerous friends who have wanted to do good work but ended up being crushed by industrial age management and forced to leave in order to protect their own sanity.

Instead I think it's important to hire good people and give them the flexibility to set their own agendas and apply their own rules. This is obviously one of the goals of the agile manifesto. Reduce bureaucracy and let the genuine good nature of designers and developers flourish. Sadly a lot of agile processes seem to be reinstating these rules in order to manage less experienced teams, starting the cycle all over again.

Barry Schwartz talked about two kinds of people who find themselves in this situation. One type of person tries to work within the constraints of the system and bend or subvert the rules in a way which allows them to do good work. Many of the best University educators I've met fall into this category. Then you have the change agents. The people who are so incensed by the rules that they want to create systematic change. These are the people who interest me the most. The people who can come into organisations, tear down the walls and build up new structures and new teams who are able to effect real progress.

So in order to become better designers we need to think flexibly, learn through doing and cultivate that sense of practical wisdom.