Linear is Not Always Best

Our society has made a fetish of linear thinking. We’ve been trained to expect that A will lead to B, which in turn will lead to C. We breathe a sigh of relief whenever we experience what Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English describes as a “step-by-step progression where a response to a step must be elicited before another step is taken.”  All of this is deeply comforting — even when it is not entirely appropriate.

In the June 2009 issue of KMWorld Magazine, Dave Snowden recounts an experience from the beginning of his career in which he elected to design a new system in a manner that didn’t fit well within established design methods.  He was creating something that had never existed before and decided early on that IT’s usual linear approach wasn’t going to work.  In fairness, it sounds like he initially did try to conform.  However, once he set about to gather requirements he quickly discovered that

…few if any of the users had any idea of the capabilities of software.  As a result, if you asked them what they wanted, they told you what they currently did, or asked for automation of existing processes.  To use an adage of that time, `Users say they know what they want until they get it, and then they want something different.

Instead of IT’s traditional linear approach, he adopted an iterative method whereby he and his clients engaged in a more curvaceous  “co-evolutionary process” to develop the new system.  Drawing on his own substantive experience of the work his clients were trying to do, he approached the design effort in the following way:

…I could talk with the users in their own language; go away and develop a module with real data; and create reports, monitoring screens and other processes based on a synthesis of my knowledge, the stated needs of the client and my knowledge of the technology.  The application would work in novel ways, users would find new ways of working, and modifications would be agreed upon.  Over the course of a year, a powerful application emerged that was very different from anything that either the user or I could have defined.

In many ways, this is a textbook description of how to implement social media tools within the enterprise.  Work iteratively with your users, create opportunities to learn from each other and from the tool using a series of “safe-fail” experiments, stay in beta for as long as it takes to reflect user reality in your tool, and don’t be afraid to step off the straight and narrow path of linear thinking.  To be clear, this is not a recommendation that you abandon all logic in your design and implementation.  Rather, it is a reminder that there can be great beauty and greater rewards in following a more circuitous route.

[Photo Credit:  Headsqueeze]