Practice and Thermostats

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.”

Jean Luc Picard

The concept of practice is one that is not given much attention in the design or evaluation literature. Practice is what doctors do, lawyers do, and designers of different stripes do, too.

Practice is where art and science meet and it’s difficult to assess, yet it’s where real innovation takes place. Practice isn’t rote rehearsal, but the application of craft and skill, experience and insight, evidence, and attention to a problem or issue.

If we are designing new products or services, we can have all the right research, participation and engagement with clients, partners, and real or intended service users, along with plenty of time and resources at our disposal** and still produce something that fails to achieve notable or desirable impact.

** OK, that last part might be stretching credulity.

A lawyer can do her work flawlessly and still lose a case. A doctor can perform a procedure without error and patients may still see little improvement in their condition. Much of the work we do with complex conditions and situations is like this. The only way we get better or closer to achieving what we want is by building in the right feedback mechanisms to learn from this and apply those lessons in the future.

It doesn’t mean we’ll always succeed, but we will learn (which is the next best thing).

Thermostats for Action

Innovation requires some form of adaptive action to get to a destination. I’ve used the analogy before with sailing — there isn’t a means to get to a destination directly, rather it requires indirect, adaptive approaches along the way. The innovation journey of a million miles is taken by many tiny actions and reactions.

Evaluation comes into this by creating a feedback system to record those actions and reactions to help increase our understanding of what happened along the journey. Evaluation also works with a benchmark — a waypoint — that allows us to calibrate our actions and outcomes.

The most useful example is that of a thermostat. A thermostat doesn’t care what temperature it is, nor does it make the assumption of what is the best temperature, what it does is gauge feedback from the atmosphere systematically and executes a simple set of actions to react to it. That might be turning on the heat or cooling or not doing anything, by intention.

Calibrating our Decisions

A good thermostat takes the temperature of the room consistently on an ongoing basis to gauge its reactions in a timely manner.

For our practice, this means collecting data on our ideas, our choices, our actions (and reactions) and using some form of benchmark (a learning goal) to serve as our gauge. Our methods of data collection, analysis, and sensemaking will determine whether the benchmark is working for us.

Have you built in your benchmarks for your practice? Do you know what they are? And if you do, where have you placed your thermostat?

Answer these and watch the temperature rise on your ideas.

End note: Need help finding your wayfinding point or building in your organization’s thermostat? Reach out – I can help you and steer you in the right direction.

Photo by Moja Msanii on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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