Don’t alert the immune system

Maybe antibodies are behind people doing more and thinking less

When you’re working as a part of a team embedded in a larger system, you have to be careful about the birthing process of the design solution. People love exploration but the business system hates it.

This is because the larger, more mature organisations are too efficient for their own good. When a functioning system has permanently tipped into exploit mode, exploration becomes a threat to the system.

A mature system is one that has had plenty of time to optimize its activities to the point that it has achieved some sort of operating equilibrium. To a system such as this, the uncertain pay-offs of exploration are anathema.

If you blunder into a design project in a large organisation, it’s immune-system will kick-in. When the antibodies of the organisation. i.e the organisation’s collective measuring methods, its KPIs, become aware of your project, you are left with two options. Abort or get as much done as you can. Most designers go with option two.

Don’t alert the immune system. It doesn’t care that not everything that can be counted, counts and that not everything that counts can be counted.

The people side of organisations truly want to make exploration possible. However, more often than not, it is the business system that sets the constraints. Exploration is harder to measure than exploitation. The whole point of exploring is to work with uncertainty while to exploit is to work with what you are certain of.

While it is practical and often important to satisfice, trying to settle too early isn’t the right thing to do. Design teams in large organisations need to solve for this meta-problem when working on their design-management frameworks.

The picture of Newman’s design squiggle is a reminder of why it’s so hard to explore before you can exploit the solution.