Incommensurability and the Design-Engineering Gap

Those who conceptualize products – particularly software – often have the unpleasant task of explaining their conceptual gems to unimaginative, sanctimonious engineers entrenched in the analytic mire of in-the-box thinking. This communication directs the engineers to do some plumbing and flip a few switches that get the concept to its intended audience or market… Or, at least, this is how many engineers think they are viewed by designers.

Truth is, engineers and creative designers really don’t speak the same language. This is more than just a joke. Many posts here involve philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s idea of incommensurability between scientific paradigms also fits the design-engineering gap well. Those who claim the label, designers, believe design to be a highly creative, open-ended process with no right answer. Many engineers, conversely, understand design – at least within their discipline – to mean a systematic selection of components progressively integrated into an overall system, guided by business constraints and the laws of nature and reason. Disagreement on the meaning of design is just the start of the conflict.

Kuhn concluded that the lexicon of a discipline constrains the problem space and conceptual universe of that discipline. I.e., there is no fundamental theory of meaning that applies across paradigms. The meaning of expressions inside a paradigm comply only with the rules of that paradigm.  Says Kuhn, “Conceptually, the world is our representation of our niche, the residence of the particular human community with whose members we are currently interacting” (The Road Since Structure, 1993, p. 103). Kuhn was criticized for exaggerating the extent to which a community’s vocabulary and word usage constrains the thoughts they are able to think. Kuhn saw this condition as self-perpetuating, since the discipline’s constrained thoughts then eliminate any need for expansion of its lexicon. Kuhn may have overplayed his hand on incommensurability, but you wouldn’t know it from some software-project kickoff meetings I’ve attended.

This short sketch, The Expert, written and directed by Lauris Beinerts, portrays design-engineering incommensurability from the perspective of the sole engineer in a preliminary design meeting.

See also: Debbie Downer Doesn’t Do Design

A Helicopter Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

flowerpower“Fail early and often.” This war cry du jour of speakers on entrepreneurial innovation addresses several aspects of what big companies need to learn from little ones about market dynamics at the speed of the internet. The shelf life of a product idea is pretty short these days. If you don’t cannibalize your own line, a nimble competitor will eat your lunch. Failure is a necessary step on the path to innovative solutions. Short-cycle failure is much cheaper than the long-cycle variety. Innovation entails new ideas, and the idea generation phase is not the time for Negative Nelly, the devil’s advocate, to demoralize your design team. A lot of bad ideas beget new insights that spawn good ideas.

My favorite story about letting crazy ideas fly deals with Pacific Power and Light, who supplies electricity to some remote spots in the Cascades. As the story goes, storms left thick ice on their power transmission lines. Linemen were sent out into the field, who climbed the icy towers and used long hooks to knock down the ice. The process was slow, expensive and dangerous.

PP&L’s brainstorming sessions initially yielded no clever solutions. They again attacked the issue, this time ensuring cognitive diversity by including linemen, accountants, secretaries, and the mail guy.

As a joke, a lineman suggested training bears to climb the poles and shake them. Someone else added that by putting honey pots on top of the poles, the bears would go for the honey without training, and perhaps shake the poles sufficiently to knock the ice off the lines. Continuing the silliness, someone suggested using helicopters to periodically fill the honey pots.

Bingo.  A secretary, formerly a nurse’s aide in Vietnam, recalled the fury of the down-wash from the helicopter blades and asked if flying a helicopter near the power lines would be sufficient to shake the lines and knock the ice off. In fact, it is! By valuing cognitive diversity and by encouraging crazy thinking, the team found a solution. As the story goes, PP&L now uses helicopters to fly over the power transmission lines after ice storms and it works fabulously.

As is probably apparent to any student of mythology, literary form criticism or biblical criticism, the story is pure fiction. It appears in many tellings on the web, some dating back several decades. Veracity strike one: manuscript (version) differences indicate multiple independent secondary sources. Strike two: earlier versions have less textural detail than later versions (e.g., the lineman is named Bill in later tellings). Strike three: the setups for the convergence of a diverse group are strained and get more detailed over time (compare the aphorism setups in Gospel Mark vs. Matthew).

Sure, the story is fiction – but what of it? The tale itself is aphoristic – an adage. It does not rely on the credibility of its source or the accuracy of the details to be valid; it’s validity is self evident. Or as Jack Nicholson (R.P. McMurphy) is often quoted as saying in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “Just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

But as any movie fan with access to web-based movie scripts can attest, that quote never happened either. But just because McMurphy never said that just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true doesn’t mean that that isn’t true. (That last sentence contains a level-two embedded phrase, by the way.)

Further, just because Nicholson didn’t say it doesn’t mean it wasn’t said. It turns out a few others are cited as sources for this saying as well. The earliest one I could find. oddly enough, is Marcus Borg, theologian and New Testament scholar who found himself in the odd position of trying to defend Christianity while denying that Jesus said the things attributed to him. Borg’s tools are the same ones I used on the helicopter scriptures above.

Quote attribution is a tricky matter, especially when a more famous guy repeats a line from a less famous guy. Everyone knows the one about Oscar Wilde saying to James Whistler, “I wish I had said that.” To which, Whistler replied, “You will Oscar, you will.” I love this one, because it’s a quote about a quote. And none the worse when we discover, as you might expect, that it never happened – which, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

The exchange between Whistler and Wilde is cited in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. They give the source as page 67 of Leonard Cresswell Ingleby’s 1907 book, Oscar Wilde. As you might expect from my mentioning it here, Inglesby’s book contains no such quote on page 67 or anywhere else in the book. However, the 1973 Monty Python skit, Oscar Wilde, does include this exchange between Whistler and Wilde. Inclusion by the Monty Python crew, who tend to research history better than most textbook authors, is reason enough to dig a bit further for a source. Oscar Wilde researcher Peter Raby would be the guy to check on this trivia. I did. Raby traces the quote back to rumors in the early 1900s. He finds that some time after Wilde’s death Herbert Vivien, Douglas Sladen and Frank Harris all recalled the quote but disagreed on whether Wilde or Whistler or neither were involved.

I will never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good.  – Seneca

Mix a little foolishness with your prudence: It’s good to be silly at the right moment.  – Horace

In a world of crowdsourcing and open innovation, it barely matters – beyond frivolous patents of course – where an idea originates or if its pedigree is respectable. Fables about bears, helicopters and Jack Nicholson are fair game. Let a thousand flowers bloom.