The Risk of Behavior Change
Returning home from Cleveland a couple of weeks ago, I had an interesting insight into the unintended outcomes of organizations mitigating risk.
To mitigate the adverse health effects of fat in my diet, I consciously choose non-fat foods. One of my favorite snacks is yokan – an opaque, subtly flavored, traditional Japanese sweet made of red bean paste and agar. I had a couple of yokan in my briefcase when I arrived at the Cleveland airport.
As the TSA security officers scanned my briefcase, the yokan triggered an alert. It was a suspicious unidentified object and required a hand inspection of my bag. Little did I realize when I decided to improve my diet by eating a non-fat food, I increased my risk of being searched by TSA security. Mitigating one risk created a more immediate and potentially more serious new risk.
The Risk of Environmental Change
A week later, I was walking through an open plaza – a barren, long-underutilized expanse between office buildings near Philadelphia City Hall. Recently, tables and chairs were added to improve and enliven the plaza – occupied, lively spaces are safer spaces, right? That particular morning, as I approached the plaza I saw the tables and chairs were removed. What happened? Why were they all gone? Unfortunately, the addition of outdoor seating – intended to be a benefit – attracted an increase in reported “safety incidents” and daily disputes that required police visits. Once again, a perceived benefit had unintended consequences and raised the risk of more potentially harmful problems.
A barren plaza near city hall seemed like it would benefit from public seating.
Business organizations do the same thing all the time. Decisions made to improve outcomes or reduce risk may create new, potentially harmful risks. One of these risks is a result of the classic trade-off between time and money.
The day before raising the Homeland Security yokan-threat level, I was teaching a group of executives about visual problem solving at the Weatherhead School of Management. We were discussing the time involved in iterative design processes and the aversion most organizations have to committing sufficient time for exploration of a problem at the beginning of a project. For many of the participants, and many organizations, the risk of spending more time on projects is a deterrent against exploratory design processes. Reducing time and saving money are perceived benefits that reduce the risk of delaying implementation or exceeding budgets. Like my preference for yokan, savings appear to be a safe choice.
“By not allowing time for exploration, many organizations increase their risk of actually wasting more time and money on a solution that will not achieve the intended objectives.”
However, prioritizing saving time and money may not be the safe choice or the best choice for the organization. It raises unintended new risks.
Engaging in more exploratory processes yields deeper knowledge and more meaningful insights into the root cause of business problems. By not allowing time for exploration, many organizations increase their risk of actually wasting more time and money on a solution that will not achieve the intended objectives. Often, the intention to reduce the risk of wasting time and money actually increases expenditures of both. In the long term, this may lead to obsolescence or business failure.
The Risk of Process and Culture Change
When using visual problem solving and other iterative design processes, the upfront costs in time are a risk worth taking. They are an investment in understanding a situation and improved decision making. This method is preferable to talking around a table, where complex relationships are masked by the elusive nature of spoken words. Drawing through a problem provides a visual record of the discussion and reaches results faster. One of my favorite modern architects, Le Corbusier, said this best, “I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies.”
Shouldn’t the fundamental truth of a problem always be the goal?
Sketching from a visual problem-solving workshop.
Striving for the truth is the driving force behind any good consulting team. As I settle into my new role at Electronic Ink, I am intrigued by the pursuit of what we call “The Human Truth” – the realities of how people interact with the carefully defined procedures and expensive systems that organizations invest in to complete these tasks. Uncovering “The Human Truth” takes time. We immerse ourselves in our clients’ problems and understand what the people involved are actually doing. This research is the foundation of our design work and constitutes a significant proportion of the total project time.
“It is only by drawing often, drawing everything, drawing incessantly, that one fine day you discover to your surprise that you have rendered something in its true character.” —Camille Pissarro
Research is followed by a design phase which translates information into visuals of the current state. These visualizations are drawn and redrawn to reveal the true character of the problem. For us, it is essential to truly understand and represent our clients’ challenges, and our iterative processes methodically reveal what is actually happening. The 19th-century French painter Camille Pissarro expressed this benefit: “It is only by drawing often, drawing everything, drawing incessantly, that one fine day you discover to your surprise that you have rendered something in its true character.”
As designers, we know that time spent drawing through a problem is a worthwhile investment to mitigate the risk of bad decisions or a poorly defined problem down the road. We spend time drawing in the short term to save time and money in the long term.