Designing for Your Spheres of Influence

Knowing what you have influence over, what you don’t, and what’s in between can be the difference in creating possibility and hope or despair and confusion.

The term sphere of influence was coined to refer to nation’s geopolitical power and used as a guide to frame a given country’s social, economic, political and military strategy.

The same term can be applied to individuals and organizations, too. We possess domains — much like a sphere — that we exercise influence and those where we do not.

The Sphere of Proximal Influence is where we have direct influence. These include things like our inter-personal relationships, partnerships, our motivation, and tools.

The Sphere of Distal Influence are areas where we have little or imperceptible influence like economies, the climate, geopolitics, and technological landscape.

The Zone Of Uncertain Influence is where these overlap. This is a dynamic space that is also difficult to navigate. This might include our field of practice, neighbourhood and community, our markets, and our social institutions like schools and religion.

Design Spaces: Understanding Order and Complexity

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 
the courage to change the things I can, 
and the wisdom to know the difference.[1]

Serenity Prayer, Unknown

The above prayer is prominent in Alcoholics Anonymous and points to one of the central issues with change-making: knowing what you have influence over and with and what you don’t.

When we are seeking to design a strategy for change within these spaces, it’s important to know what we’re up against. The Cynefin Framework can be instructive here. That framework helps us identify situations and contexts where we have greater direct and indirect influence. In more ordered systems (patterns of relationships) there is greater coupling between causes and effects, how information relates to one another, and the patterns of activity generated through action. In ordered systems, we can more closely link our intentions with our actions and outcomes. These find a home within Spheres of Proximal Influence. That isn’t the case with the Spheres of Distal Influence.

Knowing this, let’s consider how we might design spaces in congruence with these patterns of relationships.

In the Sphere of Proximal Influence, we are dealing with situations and people where we can gain immediate feedback from our actions. Our closeness to the situation and the richness of the information that we gain from our interactions provides us with a means to learn. In these contexts, it is easier to design strategies to accomplish specific outcomes and our evaluation data can help us connect those actions to outcomes. Here, the design consideration is establishing key relationships and maintaining them in a way to support ongoing learning. The way in which we organize our institutions, programs, and policies matter considerably in this case because our designs and the outcomes are so closely linked.

We don’t have this in the Sphere of Distal Influence. This is often where we find ourselves dealing with the frustrations associated with social change efforts, climate change mitigation, or dealing with rapid proliferation of new technologies (like AI). These are domains that require collective action in an environment where results are often opaque. While we are not helpless in addressing these issues, our efforts — especially at the level of individuals — yield little perceptible change. In this context, strategic design feels more wishful, than intentional and our evaluations are more hopeful than reliable.

Designing Spaces: Dealing with Uncertainty

It’s the middle space, The Zone of Uncertain Influence, where our designs require some sophistication. In this space, our aim is to create patterns of interaction that we can gather feedback from and use to make strategic decisions. We require designs that recognize that interaction isn’t as clear with these systems as with others. This is where the guiding tenets of complexity in the Cynefin Framework are useful: Probe-Sense-Repond.

For this environment, we want to create interactions — people, ideas, experiments — that stimulate coherent activity. If we try a new idea, we want to commit to observing and monitoring what happens when we introduce that new idea into a situation. In complex situations, we are looking for how a new idea (or product, service, policy etc..) interacts within the situations we deploy it. We can’t know how things will work out with great certainty ahead of time.

However, this means paying great attention to how we set things up before we deploy them. Time, care, and attention are all critical variables in framing our design work. This means doing good research and knowing that the research will have inadequacies. It requires we engage in sensemaking and futures thinking to explore ways in which our ideas might interact within the systems around them. This is the space for design thinking. It’s where the steps in design thinking are most useful to consider.

These steps, outlined below, encourage us to consider how complexity manifests itself in the ways our ideas and intentions (can) affect a product, service, or policy moving ahead. Using these steps, we’ll want to consider the upper left quadrant of the Cynefin Framework and see to better surface, explore, and leverage the enabling constraints in the system.

Constraints are critical features of any designer’s plans. Designers work with constraints and in complex situations the most useful constraints are viewed as ones that enable us to do something. Within complex situations, the role of fit and tinkering is important because that is another means of probing and gathering information about what we’re doing and how we’re facilitating influence.

Designing With and For Complexity

The Zone of Uncertainty is difficult for the designers because we’re not always certain whether our actions are having the desired outcomes. Our ability to work with and be comfortable with complexity is critical. Understanding what complexity is and how it is manifest in situations is vital, too. As designers, it means being humble in approaching problems. It also involves us learning how to evaluate and to ensure that what we are creating is creating positive coherence in a situation and not leading to more problems than it solves.

This means being active and involved in the complexity of the situation. Complex situations expose leaders who seek to operate from a distance. Ironically, leaders can be more distant from areas of proximal and distal influence within an organization, but not for the Zone of Uncertainty. This is where leadership is needed and active involvement is vital.

For complex situations, obtain as much diverse sources of feedback early and often in the design process. This is a domain where co-design is most useful, and where participatory approaches to design are likely to yield useful products more than any other. Involve yourself and others actively is the central message if you’re working in the Zone of Uncertainty. If you’re working in the Sphere of Proximal influence, leverage those relationships. Build on the intimate knowledge and expertise that comes from operating in a zone that is akin to ordered systems like those on the right side of the Cynefin Framework.

For work in the Sphere of Distal Influence, look to bringing as much as you can into the Zone of Uncertainty simply because it allows greater influence — even if it’s uncertain.

Knowing where you sit and what you can expect from each zone of activity helps us to create better and more appropriate products, services and policies that are likely to achieve real influence.

Mapping this out, figuring out what’s needed, and determining where your work fits within this is all part of the strategic design work that I’m involved in. Need help with making sense of it all? Let’s chat.

This post is available in audio format to provide different options and greater accessibility.

Spheres of Influence

Image Credit:  Philip Oroni on Unsplash

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