My mower broke last time I used it. Payback for all the times I have mistreated it, yanked its handle, tilted it on 2 wheels over a gutter, or banged it roughly into a tree stump. The chassis rusted out where the handle attaches, so much so that the handle on the left side pulled off, taking with it a nicely rectangular chunk of rusted mower. So I did what any self respecting man would do. I left it in the shed and ignored it.
On a crowded loop station this morning I notice a regular looking middle-class man in his late thirties, standing to the side of the crowd on the station platform, tentatively reaching into the yellow recycle bin to retrieve a mint condition daily newspaper, probably discarded by a fellow traveler minutes earlier. No regular scavenger, his down-turned eyes and the furtiveness of his stance convey a sense of the stigma that society holds for what should be a perfectly rational and sensible act — reusing something that is at hand rather than buying his own.
Christmas is coming, again. Last year, Australians reportedly spent $A32B at an average of $A1,200 per person during the silly season. Nearly twenty million of these gifts with a value of around $A1B were unwanted and were sold, re-gifted, stored or dumped. For myself, a distinctive marker of post-consumerism came when a ten year-old family member declared a few weeks out from Christmas that he didn’t know what to ask for this year because he couldn’t think of anything he particularly wanted. It seems that between Christmas, birthdays, special days and rewards for good behavior the number of buying opportunities outstrips some family member’s needs or even desires. So it seems we are now living in an age of post-consumerism, even for ten year-olds. We are beyond some western models of growth, in uncharted territory.
When times are tough, the tough get making. So claimed none other than Clint Eastwood in his Superbowl half-time pitch for Chrysler. In a voice so gravelly it sounds like a cracked gearbox that lost its last drop of oil 100 miles back, Eastwood parables the Detroit story — once great, KO’d by globalism and cheap offshore labour, now revived after transfusions of foreign (Italian) money and a new US consumer patriotism fueled by signs of life in Motown’s once mighty corpse.
We are all enculturated in the mythology of the master architect, the grand designer, the silver-haired visionary. Stories from design history depict larger-than-life figures, towering over grand designs, by virtue of their superior designerly powers, like design deity. Some historical figures were indeed geniuses. It is said that Frank Lloyd Wright’s reticence in revealing his concept for Fallingwater was making Kauffman (his client) increasingly nervous. With just hours before Kauffman was due to walk through the studio door, Wright apparently gathered his apprentices around the drafting table and sketched the concept in all its cantilevered glory before their eyes, narrating his thoughts as he drew. What this story says about Wright’s power of mental conceptualisation is inspiring. Myths are built on the exceptional, not the mundane.
When an internationally recognised architect achieves the translation of a shimmering vision into a completed building, what becomes of the lofty intentions to create habitable art? Apart from having a handy ice-breaker or conversation-starter for a dinner party flat-spot, how are the occupier’s lives made any different by the designer’s vision? Or is the signature façade just appliqué on an otherwise nondescript commodity high-rise block?
Strategic planning, in common with most forms of master-planning, makes overt and implicit assumptions that a well-devised plan dictates the activity of the organisation it is designed for. Maxims like ‘if you fail to plan you plan to fail’ have reinforced plan-bias in a generation of project professionals, managers and executives. Failure of planned projects has often been attributed to human infirmity and inability to execute on the activities that the plan has made explicit, not on the paradigm of action and activity that assumes a priori ordered, linear execution. It is time planners reconceived planning and their plans.
The very notion of plan as controller of action seems orthogonal to our dynamic, lattice-shaped always-on world. From TED to HBR we are told constantly how social structures trump hierarchical structures, loose-coupling trumps static arrangements, agile trumps formal, right brain trumps left brain, collaborator trumps dictator. Sure, you need a plan if you are building a bridge, but the stuff of knowledge work — the design and delivery of a new business service, for example — is subject to very different considerations. But alternatives to master-planning have themselves been discredited or slow to be taken up. Of these, ‘situatedness’ stands out as noticeably resonant with the new era of social enterprise. The undisputed queen of situated cognition (thinking), Lucy Suchman, claimed in her landmark book:
the term situated action… underscores the view that every course of action depends in essential ways upon its material and social circumstances.
Rather than to attempt to abstract away action from its circumstances and represent it as a rational plan, the situated perspective of action studies ‘how people use their circumstances to achieve intelligent action’. Rather than build a theory of action out of a theory of plans, the situated approach investigates how people produce and find evidence for plans in the midst of their situated actions. Suchman’s account of islander navigators illustrates the polar extremes of thinking about human action and decisions in-the-moment.
Alternative views of human intelligence and directed action are suggested by contrasting the European and Micronesian approaches to navigation over many centuries. The European navigator begins with a plan—a course—which he has charted according to certain universal principles. He carries out his voyage by relating his every move to that plan. His effort throughout the voyage is directed at remaining ‘on course’. If unexpected events occur, he returns to his plan, and designs and executes corrective action.
By contrast, the Micronesian navigator begins with an objective rather than a plan. He sets off toward the objective and responds to conditions as they arise in a seemingly ad hoc fashion. He draws upon his tacit knowledge and familiarity with the environment, learned and infused over years or decades of living in the one place. Once at sea, he utilises information provided by the wind, the waves, the tide and current, the stars (without having explicitly mapped them) and steers accordingly. If asked, he can point to his objective at any moment but he cannot describe his course. Vast migrations of peoples in the eleventh and twelfth centuries over huge distances occurred, particularly amongst Pacific islanders, using just these methods of navigation.
The European navigator exemplifies the prevailing paradigm of purposive action. While the Micronesian navigator’s actual course is contingent upon unique circumstances that cannot be anticipated in advance, the European navigator’s path is derived from universal principles of navigation and is essentially independent of the exigencies of his particular situation.
Suchman’s story was based on work performed by Edwin Hutchins, now a distinguished cognitive scientist and ethnographic researcher who validated the reality and effectiveness of the navigational methods of the islanders as a young postdoc in 1978. One take-away is how different ways of acting are favoured differently amongst cultures—how to act purposefully is at least partially learned and is subject to cultural variation. European culture favours abstract, analytic thinking where the ideal is to reason from general principles to particular instances. The Micronesians, however, navigated in relative terms, learning a cumulative collection of concrete, embodied responses. They were guided by handed-down accounts combined with memory and experience accrued over years of actual voyages. Suchman went on to argue that all activity is ‘fundamentally concrete and embodied’ and our responses to situations are both cultural and conditioned.
Micronesians and Europeans both use instruments and work to plans. It is just that the instruments are of a different kind and the plans have different representations. All actions, according to Suchman, are situated, and although we like to think of ourselves as drawing on the European tradition of cognition and planning, in reality we all act like Micronesian navigators most of the time. The argument for situated action hinges on uncertainty. Circumstances cannot always be anticipated ahead of time and are constantly changing, so we always find ourselves acting in a reactive fashion to some degree. Our actions as they are observed to play out are never planned in the strong sense in which we expect planning to lead action. In some forms of design, plans are best viewed as a weak resource for what is primarily a reactive and unpredictable series of decision-making episodes.
Suchman did not deny the usefulness of plans, but claimed that plans should be considered a priori improvisations and post hoc reconstructions of action. In other words, that there is no strong cause and effect relationship between plans and actions.
It turns out that in many accounts, plans are more useful after acting than as a predictor of action. It is often only when we are pressured to account for the rationality of our actions, given our ‘European tradition’, that we invoke the omniscience of a plan, or retrospectively and selectively reconstruct our situated actions so that they conform to an imagined or recovered plan, a behaviour referred to by academics as post hoc rationalisation.
When stated in advance, plans are necessarily vague, in so far as they must accommodate the unforeseeable contingencies of particular outcomes and situations. When retrospectively reconstructed, plans systematically filter out detail that characterises situated actions in favour of detail and actions that appear to align with the plan.
The navigation story also illuminates our assumption that representations of actions (such as plans) can in fact be the basis for an account of situated action at all. Culturally, acceptance of a causal relationship between planning and action is almost universal, so much so that to question it risks treading on belief rather than fact. This belief is rooted in positivism and, of course, rationalistic thinking.
So how valid is a priori planning for knowledge-intensive collaborations today? Why can’t we just step into the canoe and pursue our goal in relative terms, independently of the structures of pre-ordained solutions or handed-down wisdom? Are we even capable of disengaging ourselves from our European enculturation for a few moments to consider such a stance? Come on all you paid-up members of professional project management associations, step up and take a swing at this one…