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Design versus planning: what to do when you don’t know what to do


The scientific method has been responsible for the most extraordinary improvement in mankind’s standard of living. Since the Enlightenment and the Renaissance, it has been responsible for every major advance in human understanding and technology.

The scientific method relies on a positivists worldview, which can be said to value certainty, control, objective reality, and planning. Positivism asserts that the objective world exists independent of our senses and that we can reliably understand it through the action of our senses.

The scientific method and the rational analytical outlook on life has been so successful that it seems absurd to question it. In the last couple decades however, there have developed problems of such complexity that the normal response of planning and the scientific method have proven ineffective in solving.

This has given rise to entire new branches of science, such as chaos theory and complexity theory. These kinds of problems have become known as”wicked problems” in the academic literature. For these kinds of problems conventional planning is insufficient for achieving effective results. This is almost always a result of and improper identification of the problem prior to formal planning beginning.

Without the proper problem identification, it is as if planning cannot gain traction.

Another way to say this is that you plan when you already have a good idea about what to do.

But what do you do when you don’t know what to do?

This is where the idea of design comes into play. In the academic literature design is considered to be a pretty planning exercise in which problem identification is postponed until a deeper understanding of the situation in the context can be developed. Design would normally include multiple perspectives on the situation, with little regard paid yet to boundaries and outcomes. Both of these are normally found early in the planning process and design it would be premature.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the two processes of design and planning is this:

Planning proceeds from understanding to visualization to solution, while design begins with solution and proceeds through visualization to understanding. They are perfectly backwards.

Because we explicitly do not understand the situation and our normal means of understanding it has failed, design must proceed backwards. It starts with tentative solutions which are then compared to a situation to see if we can visualize how it might fit. From this visualization we find one of two things: if it seems like it might work than we can say we have begun to understand the complexity because of a solution which seems to fit. But if it doesn’t seem like it would work, we also understand more about the situation by ruling out possibilities.

In this way we can say that the solution comes prior to the problem identification. It seems like an anomaly but it turns out to be a routine part of design. Solutions in search of problems: the essential idea of design.

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  1. August 16, 2009 at 6:39 am

    I read somewhere that “Problem solving is what you do when you don’t know what to do” but I can’t recall who said that. Do you happen to know?

  2. August 16, 2009 at 8:06 am

    Fred: thnx for the question, you have a great site and some brilliant articles at http://skullworks.com

    i found a short discussion with that quote in http://dbweb.liv.ac.uk/ltsnpsc/swrevs/pdfs/journ1_1.pdf Physical Sciences
    Educational Reviews: The journal of the LTSN Physical Sciences Subject Centre. The quote is on page 6, and is followed by a ncie discussion of problem-solving within a time constrained, educational context

    the search led me to a nice research paper on the efficacy of problem-solving in the IS domain @ http://www.allbusiness.com/technology/computer-software-management/1069470-1.html

    Li, W., Zhang, H., & Li, P. (2004). Assessing the knowledge structure of information systems learners in experience-based learning. Journal of Information Systems Education. (Vol 15, No 2, Summer 2004, pp. 205-216)

    both discussions are useful to my ongoing windmill tilt concerning educating leaders for uncertainty

  3. August 17, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Ken: If you’re poking around my articles site the notion of working backward to design a solution is an integral part of the papers on Solution Engineering.

    Fred Nickols

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