The Impact of a Formalized Mindset

Factory workers on an assembly line building the Model-T Ford in the 1930s

What were once spaces where everyone felt comfortable not knowing, disciplines and organizations have created formalized processes and approaches that have dramatically reduced communication while simultaneously dismissing creative endeavours.

There are many factors that have influenced this outcome. In searching for answers for clients and customers over the past two decades, I’ve often looked outside traditional design, technology, and business methodologies for answers.

Fields such as sociology, psychology, and even artists’ approaches to solving problems have been an inspiration to help get me out of formalized constructs that have built up over time in business.

From Unlimited Choice to Motion Blindness

For example, in the steps below, artist Robert Irwin outlines how we have made it more difficult to “forget the name of the thing seen” [read: innovate] by stepping from the initial perception of what’s possible to an almost concrete or formalized view of the irrefutable.

Irwin describes this process as sensemaking, or literally how we make sense of any object. This starts with a complete unknown, stepping towards subjective abstracts like up versus down, architecting and applying labels, and finally to an irrefutable (formalized) belief of good versus bad.

perception - conception - forming - forming - formful - formal - formalization
Illustrating Robert Irwin’s framework moving from unlimited possibility to the irrefutable idea or product

Identifying formalized processes of various team leads I can then make informed choices for when and how to position opportunities for innovation.

In turn, this approach allows me to chose from specific tools within various design disciplines to best illustrate opportunities and roadblocks.

This is no easy task. It takes a great deal of patience. One must consider where people are at in their desire to pivot and how such approaches will benefit of the company.

By the time teams become comfortable in the formalized state they demonstrate behaviour analogous to ‘Gross Akinetopsia’ – the rarest form of motion blindness. Metaphorically speaking, new ideas lose any fluid motion and only familiar and comfortable approaches are seen.

Most of what is known about this extremely rare condition [gross akinetopsia] was learned through the case study of one patient, LM. LM described pouring a cup of tea or coffee difficult “because the fluid appeared to be frozen, like a glacier”. She did not know when to stop pouring, because she could not perceive the movement of the fluid rising.  Movement is inferred by comparing the change in position of an object or person.

Akinetopisa from Wikipedia – 1.2 Gross Akinetopsia

Irwin’s approach ensures that one can’t step into the same process twice, nor can the stepping itself remain the same. While this may sound like chaos in a data driven world, I believe it’s an important consideration.

Organizations must learn to slow down to ensure the expectation of increasing possibilities by the customer are met in the short term, while exceeded over time.

Forgetting the Name of the Thing Seen

In order to ensure openness of ideas and iterating into new spaces, (see left side of the diagram below) the corporation must learn to slow down and become comfortable with a constant infusion of uncertainty.

Having the ability to consider what the corporation doesn’t know can be uncomfortable, but invariably leads to better questions that data alone cannot answer.

As teams step towards the Formful stage and begin architecting new ideas, specific “zones of focus” begin to take hold. As this occurs, abstractions that were open to every possibility begin to compound, making it more difficult to consider other ideas outside of what has been created.

Service Perspective Framework looking inside and outside the organization
Ensuring the corporation acknowledges areas of focus that require teams to slow down to think about ideas to increase possibility in the eyes of the customer How To Rethink Work – Jeff Parks Kina’ole Inc. 2015

This ability to slow down has a direct impact on the customer experience – illustrated on the right side of the diagram above.

Once a product has shipped – and with every subsequent update – technology and correlated services maintain a formalized state. The expectation of the customer, however, is a service that has a never ending potential of increasing possibility.

Taking this approach seriously we could subsequently make several changes to the way we work internally, including:

  • Strengthening the possibility that sensemaking and process perspectives are interdependent.
  • It would ground the start of process in the chaos of airy nothing.
  • It would assure that imagination is a necessary condition of organizing.
  • Make explicit that terminology evolves and must do so across the organization, regardless of discipline or title.

Sensemaking involves giving shape to imagined forms by locating and naming them. The temptation is often to reify the name and cling to its location, mindless that those shapes are impermanent without continuous re-accomplishment.

“Process, Sensemaking, and Organizing” BY TOR HERNES AND SALLY MAITLIS


Field Notes

In a world seemingly obsessed with getting to done faster, it is time to slow down and allow teams the space to consider new ideas.

I believe processes and best practices like Agile and Design Thinking have reached the Formalized state described by Irwin.

This should be seen as an opportunity to bring everyone together, leave titles at the door, and frequently consider new ideas with excitement and curiosity.

Studying approaches like this, I’ve learned not to make them explicit. Rather, I hold them in my mind and consider when to apply specific design or business strategies to help teams step forward.

It is in thinking, not championing any one specific discipline or process, that lead to better questions and outcomes. This includes, but isn’t limited to, building teams with the confidence to share unique ideas that don’t necessarily appear on any roadmap.

After all, an organization cannot claim to be innovating if they are following the same processes and practices over and over again without positively challenging the formalized expectations of employees.

As one Agile lead noted at a recent online MeetUp I attended, “Tell me what you measure and I’ll tell you how I behave.”

Arguing vehemently for one practice and/or process over others is what many organizations and disciplines demonstrate far too often.

Slow down.
Step forward (or back as required) together.