Over the July 4th holiday I was able to read the first 50 or so pages of Peter G. Rowe’s 1987 monograph Design Thinking. This book, like so many good things in TUG-land, was recommended to us by Jorge Arango. I’m eager to continue reading, but the number of note-card doodles I need to work through with the turn of each new page has me doubting I’ll get all the way through to the end before business as usual resumes on Monday. That’s OK though, because I’ve already learned and been influenced by so many things in this text, including some intriguing ways to break apart and examine the enterprise of doing architecture work.
Rowe is obsessed with, as he puts it, “the influence exerted by the structure of the problem-solving process itself.” In three different examples from three different architects, Rowe starts to build an argument about procedures and the inclinations of different procedures. The cases help Rowe illustrate a beguiling tension between the conditions of the project as given by the client, and the “enabling prejudices” (Gadamer, 1975) of the architect and of the architect’s procedural approach.
I’m eager to see where Rowe is taking this, but am already brain-asplode from what I’ve consumed thus far. And I’m burning a lot of sharpies and note cards. And tweeting-out some of the chestnuts, not the least of which is this delightful across-the-board way Rowe has of characterizing all of the architectural procedures in his sometimes-widely varying case studies:
“the unfolding … assumes a distinctly episodic structure, a series of related skirmishes with aspects of the problem at hand” – Rowe ’87
— dan klyn (@danklyn) July 4, 2013
Not all of the approaches to getting architectural work done described in Rowe’s text are iterative, but all of them are episodic. And in a UX world where so much of the procedure of making things is agile, a reader like me can’t help but see corollaries between what Rowe is describing in military terms and what agile folks describe in terms of athletics. Rowe’s choice of the word “skirmish” to characterize the episodes of project activity really grabbed me. As opposed to “sprint.” My contention, again on Twitter (this time in a message to Christian Crumlish) is that the stuff we do and make would be profoundly different if we adopted Rowe’s metaphor and the entailments of his metaphor:
@mediajunkie what’s possible as the process and outcome of a sprint is prefigured in powerful ways by that word
— dan klyn (@danklyn) July 4, 2013
Problem-centric, Not Project-centric
The entailments of “sprint” include going as fast as possible in short duration, linearity, and a finish line. If your approach to the procedures by which work gets done is project-centric, these entailments of “sprint” are hugely helpful. Specific and not-prolonged bursts of exertion with a clear finish line and distinct lanes for participants to work inside of. And there’s always a winner. That sounds like a well-run (see what I did there) project. Adoption of “skirmish” to replace “sprint” and bringing in a different set of conflict-flavored entailments is probably not helpful if you continue forward with your procedures and processes in a project-centric manner.
That’s part of what’s so fascinating to me about Rowe’s metaphor and his instantiation of it with regard to the procedures of doing architecture work. The framing is problem-centric, not project-centric. And when you move the frame from project to problem, swapping “sprint” out for “skirmish” and sporting event out for warfare starts to make wholly different kinds of sense and meaning. The inclination of skirmishing is not to solve the problem, but rather to figure out what the problems are. What before how. The inclination of sprint is to solve the problem, or break it into as many 2-week chunks as it takes to solve.
This book gets even more fascinating when you dig into what Rowe means by “problem.” Based on the work of Newell, Shaw and Simon from 1967 and upon further distinctions made by Churchman, Rittel and Bazjanac between 1967 and 1974, Rowe sets forth two broad classes of problems and a sub-class of the latter class: well-defined, ill-defined and wicked problems. I was captivated by Rowe’s gloss on these, and by his assertion that most architecture work is set in motion against ill-defined or wicked problems. If we accept Rowe’s assertion, it follows that the procedures adopted by architects are problem- and not project- centric. And in the face of ill-defined and wicked problems, it follows that the procedures adopted by the architect are likened to skirmishes and skirmishing.
Skirmishes are asymmetrical. Non-linear. They’re differentiated from battles insofar as they do not presuppose a crisp (or even intentional) beginning and/or ending. Continuity in tactics, approach, personnel and equipment from skirmish to skirmish is not required or even expected. Skirmishes do not presuppose winners and losers. Skirmishing does not always or need to result in destruction; rather, the necessary pre-condition for a skirmish is simply the coming or bringing together of opposing forces.
Which brings us back to Mr. Arango. In 2011 at the annual Information Architecture Summit, Jorge presented a panel along with Andrew Hinton and Andrea Resmini titled More Than A Metaphor. Their argument, in three parts, was and continues to be that “the architecture part” of information architecture is not a metaphor, and that the work we do in information environments isn’t similar to or like unto the work of architects in the built environment. It’s the same work. In Jorge’s section of the conversation, he presented a diagram that he described as a “force diagram.”
Arango was trained as an architect, and the contention he made in his presentation is that the unique value provided by architects is the leadership to deal with all those opposing forces. The ability to lead a team who’ll figure out an architecture to take on the unevenly-distributed, complex and contradictory forces of the project.
As we practice it at TUG, this figuring-out of “the what” of the project always happens inside of some sort of time box. And yes, you could say we’re sprinting inside of these time boxes or that the edges of the boxes are tantamount to a finish line if you’re so inclined. But the work we’re doing, the energies we’re exerting back at that snarl of uneven project forces and objectives and variables to declare a clear “what”… The action of the verb to characterize the activities we engage in to yield those structures is “to architect.” And the meaning of the action of this verb and of this work we do strikes me as sharing a far deeper set of affinities with the meaning of the action of the verb “to skirmish” than those it could be seen to share with “sprint.”
Post-script: Lakoff and Johnson have said all that you need to know about metaphors and entailments in their 1980 book Metaphors We Live By. There’s a PDF of this work out there on the interwebs that’s easy to find with Google, and I exhort you to do so.
Another post-script: I think this sense of skirmishing is what Graham Linehan is talking about with his approach to writing: “I will research and procrastinate and sort of circle an idea for as long as possible before attacking it.”