Design Sciences Experience

Risk of Ideas and Sciences

Experimenting to Stay Ahead of Uncertainty

T. S. Eliot once said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” It’s as true in life as it is in creativity and design. Like in any great story, we only find out who we really are when we’re put to the test. The catch is, as filmmakers, designers – scientists, engineers, artists, etc. – often have to put themselves to the test. Designers are often recognized as natural entrepreneurs, due to their creative skills and competences in the idea-generation and product development processes. Designers create a new system, bearing most of the risks and enjoying most of the rewards.

Risk. Failure. Reward.

A designer’s incredible creation is also about a willingness to find ‘product-market’ fit and test ideas outside of the boundaries of conventional wisdom, and to acknowledge that what you think you know may be wrong. You’re testing. You’re doing things that may be dangerous, and that may break something that you’ve created.  To really experiment is to do something completely outside of the scope of the way we’re thinking about a problem. Beyond embracing uncertainty, that process brings the risk of an unwanted outcome or even outright failure.

Scientists, engineers, designers and artists are entrepreneurs build on engineering culture – as every business will eventually need to build software in-house – where the risk is that doing so will be approached from a functional, task-driven perspective – that things will stay as they largely are. Embracing the messiness that often accompanies great creative output, sending subtle signals, taking smart risks, experimenting to stay ahead of uncertainty, counteracting fear, and taking charge in a new environment.

In developing next generation digital products, services and functions, to avoid becoming creatively bankrupt, we have to do things that are high risk. This affects the entire culture – everybody keeps raising the bar, upping the ante in terms of what goes on the computer screen. This raises costs, so we have a continual struggle to reduce our costs. Participants learn to consciously decide what risks they want to take – from formulating an idea to forming a new and experienced team. And, then formally work out the consequences of those choices; this can be fairly time consuming. And, then when they do not intentionally add new risk. The trick is to make sure you do stage one – doing something that has risk as part of it.

Embrace Failures In Your Journey

A physicist, for example, never loses that sense of wonder, that drive to understand something that, for now, might remain a mystery. Their study of design sciences has always been about a quest for answers.

Your belief is that you should be running experiments, many of which will not lead anywhere. If we knew how this was going to end up, we’d just go ahead and do it. This is a tricky issue – people don’t want to fail. They put a greater burden on themselves than we intend to put on them. It’s natural because they never want to fail. One of the things about failure is that it’s asymmetrical with respect to time. When you look back and see failure, you say, “it made me what I am!” But looking forward, you think, “I don’t know what is going to happen and I don’t want to fail.”

The difficulty is that when you’re running an experiment, it’s forward looking. We have to try extra hard to make it safe to fail.

This is why participant research – at every level – is at the heart of the School’s operating strategy.

As an entrepreneur and a designer, much of the life is a series of experiments. We try, we fail, we make changes and try again, and again, until we finally find the cause of our failure.

A Lifelong Curiosity

At the end of the day, an entrepreneurial designer is more than design published and prizes won. It is someone who has developed a mindset of solving problems that will shape the rest of his or her life. Most entrepreneurs, in contrast, are actually not amazing at any one thing. People may see them that way, especially given the media narrative of how we depict entrepreneurs and start-ups, but founders are typically just “good enough” at a slew of things: fundraising, product, partnerships, etc. Good enough to get things rolling and curious until they make it — that is, hire people that are better than them in most areas. Because they see amazing things happening in the world around them and continue to develop new interests and explore novel curiosities.

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