This article was first published on designcriticalthinking.com

Change, which ultimately underlies any form of design and innovation, is something that resembles not a recipe –rather its antithesis. It requires navigating the unknown seas we discussed here. Indeed, in unknown contexts, change is unpredictable, but that does not mean you should navigate blindly.

Change is about potentials, energy allocation, and adjacent possibles, that increases the likelihood of certain outcomes. Unintended consequences are the default. As explorers, we want to grow the type of changes we want to see and this requires creating and maintaining the necessary structure that would support its growth, a scaffolding structure.

Processes as scaffolding

Here I propose that our design and innovation processes are, or at least should be, in fact, scaffolding to the very change we aim to generate.

A scaffolding is a structure that is not meant to last, and serves as a support to grow, build, or repair [something], usually the end-structure meant to last. The obvious example that comes to mind is in architecture & construction, but such structures can also be found in nature, as part of plants ecosystem for instance, and are used in medical application research. In other words, a scaffolding is an enabler. Furthermore, we should be able to remove the scaffold (or let it decay) and whatever we helped grow should sustain itself.

However, not all processes are equal in terms of their ability to sustain a scaffolding approach.

Layering vs. Funnelling processes

Many innovation and design processes exist as means to reduce options to a few that are the most suited to a certain problem. This engineering approach to innovation & design as “problem-solving” assumes that for a defined problem there is a set number of solutions, amongst which there is the best solution. Indeed, this works in rather clear, unambiguous, and static situations but not in a complex, ambiguous, and ever-evolving context.

The problem is not always “defined” nor is it “a problem”, rather it is an entanglement of patterns, processes, systems, (etc.) from which what is identified as “problematic” emerges. Here “root cause analysis” does not work because nothing is specifically the cause but the entangled interactions and any changes to one of these intertwined patterns will necessarily have unpredictable consequences. This ambiguity is what defines a complex context.

From “For Impact: Generate Snowballs, Don’t Select Snowflakes! – Funnelling vs Layering”, AXILO 2019

Funnelling processes seek to remove options to a specific set or subset suitable to address a specific problem or specific asperities of the problem. Funnelling processes look for causal relationships between the solution and predefined outcomes. This works well when ambiguity/uncertainty is low/marginal because consequences are known, knowable, isolated and localised. Most iterations of the Design Thinking process, the Design Sprint, Hackatons, etc. displays funnelling patterns.

Layering processes seek to increase options for an unspecified, unclear situation and/or challenge. Layering processes look for potentials, probabilities, and likelihoods, to “increase the things we want to see” and “decrease the things we don’t” –knowing that unintended consequences are the default in uncertain situations. Such a process is what is needed to sustain a scaffolding approach. It is done through a portfolio of strategies or a portfolio of innovation.

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