A look at what – and who – is pushing the future in new directions

It’s the Underlying Assumptions, Stupid

Multiple perspectives - illustration by John S. DykesDesign thinking – Designers solve problems and create new possibilities by asking questions. On a new project, designers will invariably ask what designer Bruce Mau calls “stupid questions,” … “the kinds of queries that challenge assumptions in such a fundamental way they can make the questioner seem naïve.”

As in a medical examination or a structural audit on a construction site, the function of the stupid question is to thump around in the context of a product or issue to uncover, understand and test underlying assumptions.  Designer Paula Scher talks to Mau about the value of approaching a problem from the perspective of an outsider,

“When I’m totally unqualified for a job, that’s when I do my best work … If you have too much expertise—if you think you know the answers already—you won’t be as open to offbeat possibilities. But if you’re a neophyte, you’ll ask what would seem to be obvious … From ignorance, you can come up with something that is so out of left field that it has been ignored or was never considered a possibility.”

Mau points out that, “The fear for so many people is that, in asking these kinds of questions, they will seem naïve. But naïve is a valuable commodity in this context. Naïve is what allows you to try to do what the experts say can’t be done.”

Outside of the realm of design (which I believe is a debatable distinction, since most problem solving activities can legitimately stake claim in the category of “design”), this approach can facilitate reconsideration of the foundations of a situation, provide a different perspective on the world, and help us “regain focus and retackle old, entrenched problems.”

Cut to the White House Situation Room – In what has been described as a “head-snapping” moment, high ranking members of President Obama’s Afghanistan review team realized that his approach to emerging military issues in the region was not simply a matter of “updating” his previous strategy, but essentially “starting over from scratch.”

Over a three month period, President Obama engaged U.S. military experts in an “intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating process for nearly all involved.”  The decision-making exercise became a “virtual seminar” driven by the President’s “insatiable demand for information.” Not only did he invite new perspectives and challenge competing view points to debate, he also listened and asked probing questions a la “college professor/cross-examiner.”

Taking a page from Gordon M. Goldstein’s book on the Vietnam War, “Lessons in Disaster,” President Obama concluded that “both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson failed to question the underlying assumption about monolithic Communism and the domino theory – clearly driving the Obama advisors to rethink the nature of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

Over the course of the analysis, Obama challenged the veracity of long-held assumptions about nearly every aspect of the Middle East scenario. By adopting the open, imaginative mind-set of the naive outsider/learner, President Obama engaged the U.S. military advisors in a rigorous design thinking exercise.

National security advisor, General James L. Jones spoke to the exhaustive inquiry, “From the very first meeting, everyone started with set opinions. And no opinion was the same by the end of the process.”

Article By: Katherine Emmons

Leave a Reply

blog comments powered by Disqus