Here's the setup. Author Mickey McManus is a visiting research fellow with Autodesk. He wrote an article for Autodesk's internal newsletter called the POV Dispatch. For more background, see POV Dispatch: Mickey McManus: There Be Dragons (Let's Go Over and Pet Them). Mickey's article is being shared in 3 parts. Here is part 3.
I've just gotten my feet on the ground on the shores of Autodesk Island. Every day seems to be a chance for something to pop out of a bush or fly overhead to surprise me as I explore this new place. But soon I'd like to set sail towards the undiscovered territory that is forming at the intersection of advanced research inside Autodesk and the future of design, technology, and business emerging in the outside world. So I thought I'd use my third POV Dispatch article to play out a mini essay around a topic that seems to be resolving itself as a "wicked problem" to be addressed in the near future.
For this essay, I'll setup the parameters, talk about my current thinking, and end with the big questions I've got at the moment. Just like the explorers of old, I'm grappling with how to draw a map for this new frontier and puzzling out where dragons might be lurking over the horizon. I'm just starting out so if this topic strikes your interest or you have a different perspective or insight you'd like to share, I'd love some help with navigation.
Wicked Topic #3: Collaboration Is Hard (or Scarce Resources In A Time Of Technological Abundance)
I recently watched students in San Francisco and Boston talk about their team project, and as it turns out, it seems like each of these students basically did their own thing. They were all on "teams," but only in some superficial sense: each of them was so powerful on their own, due to newfound tools like Fusion 360 and 3D printing, that they didn't really have to collaborate all that much. They were afraid to say who was the leader, or if there even was a leader — as if leadership was an evil they had overcome in their generation. When pressed to name a leader, they mostly said that whoever did something first on a given challenge was (maybe) the leader. Perhaps not surprisingly, such "leadership" (maybe we should actually call it "startership," in the interest of accuracy?) only lasted for a brief flicker of time, because it collapsed when things got hard and the "team" had to decide on a direction.
To address matters like this, there is an emerging science of collaboration, but the value and understanding of when leadership matters, or when collaboration is the right approach, or when competition is a better way to solve a problem, is still often completely missing from design education. When asked about how the team worked, the students claimed it was pretty easy, which set off some serious alarm bells in my ears. I've spent a long time working on collaborating with people that were very different than me. I've run a collaborative culture of interdisciplinary practitioners for decades — and nobody that was truly engaged in the hard work would have claimed it was easy or that it ever got any easier.
For example, working on a team, we often think things like, "Why is that person defending that font so much, or that layout, or that approach to coding, or that business model? It makes no sense. If it was so important I'd have been taught it in school, or my friends would know about it and would have told me about it already. What those guys do is easy. I can practically do all the design myself. Using these new tools anyone can be a designer!"
If we hit "Peak Maker" and pay off the promise of "permission-less innovation" — where far more people will be able to create far more complex things — will true interdisciplinary collaboration be more abundant or more scarce? When we can all make just about everything by ourselves (or at least feel like we can) will it be harder or easier to work with people that believe different truths?
It might "feel" like the next generation is better at collaborating, but I'm not so sure that this actually holds true for hard things that require collaboration with people you literally can't [under]stand. For version 2.1 or 2.2 projects where there is little new invention, and the project team is making mostly incremental changes, I don't know if this is such a problem. But if the twentieth century was about getting to the point that we had climbed all the easy mountains of expertise in the areas of materials and manufacturing and building things, the twenty-first century feels like it will be more about finding and optimizing the intersections between those mountains. That is a different challenge entirely. The future may call for more deep, interdisciplinary, collaboration than ever before. Where we are going next, there are no easy solutions that fit nicely into a single, traditional discipline.
Will the rise of powerful new tools — that encode expertise into algorithms so more people can play — lead to a celebration of amateurs or the rise of dilettantes? Or will it lead to some uncomfortable mix of both so that it's harder to cut through the noise? Knowing your blind spots (or at least that you have some even if you can't quite see them), understanding that design is about subverting yourself and taking on someone else's challenges in a humble way is hard enough when the tools take years to learn. What happens when they take minutes to learn, and through their sheer sophistication hide the fact that wisdom still comes from the years spent gaining fluency? In the book The Wisdom of the Crowds, James Surowiecki points out that research into how expert teams work often shows that experts self-reinforce in groups and believe they know more than they do. They also have a poor ability to accurately guess how right or wrong they are about their own predictions. Will the rise of smarter apps make us think we know more than we do?
Back to Topic #2 for a moment, could simulation help with this challenge? When we talk about simulation we usually mean creating a petri dish of sorts to play out "what if?" scenarios that are about materials, forms, lifecycles, or manufacturing processes. More recently with the combination of gaming engines into building design software we have the ability to simulate the flow of people within and around buildings. Seeing that kind of "what if?" made me wonder how far we could take simulations to help mitigate the challenges of high-performance collaboration.
Could we build tools to help identify areas we willfully ignore? If your hard won instincts feel true but are only the result of a runaway feedback loop with others that share your mindset (confirmation bias) can simulation flag our team-based blind spots? What about helping with truths we never learned in school or that come from a different frame of reference entirely? My sense is that simulations could support us in seeing the shape of our thinking. Could they give us a form of metacognition that jumps us out of our decision illusions?
When you work in high-performance interdisciplinary teams for a while, you realize that trust is the only way you end up working with someone that sees the world differently. Suspending disbelief, not trusting your instincts for some decisions but rather trusting the other person who has a different truth is often the answer. You aren't sure why they fight so much, but you trust that they have their reasons; and you trust that they will, in turn, support you when you sound like you're tilting at windmills. Sometimes trust lets you fight a better (or different or in some cases the right) fight as well. Could simulations help us accelerate trust or identify places to rebuild or anneal trust that has been lost? I wonder if we might find places to drive project success around deep collaboration over the lifetime of a high-performance team. I'm not sure there is an answer or if there are little baby steps we could take. In thinking about teams I always think of the creation of a team as the birthing of a new mind. It's not just a group of people, it's an emergent new entity that is born, needs direction, tests boundaries, experiences adolescence, and doubts its elders. It lives a rich life, ships something (high-performance teams ship, that's pretty important) and then ultimately the team dies and is remembered at reunions. Are there moments in the life of a team that we could impact with our tools in a more profound way? I suspect that there are dragons lurking here, as well. Like young teams being not willing to mix it up a bit, at least in the areas that no one person on the team really knows the right answer. Is there a quantum theory or collaboration genome for creativity, invention and collaboration particularly at the scale required to solve wicked problems? Could it be built right into our tools and tuned to the type and lifecycle of a project? Could it help us build not only the reality of a high performance team but the mythology that a team needs to tell itself when things look (or are) too bleak to go on?
Maybe collaboration won't be a scarce resource, maybe it'll be as prevalent as it is today, or maybe we'll all blend together into an easy going mix of people who all get along and share a common belief in little bits about a lot of things. I'm not sure I like that future. I need people that fight me at times, that push back, challenge my beliefs, and fill in my blind spots. Could our software, mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets work together to drive project success in new and profound ways?
As I think through this topic I wonder what other scarce resources we will find as we enter a world of permission-less innovation and abundance? Scarcity has been a good business model for a long time. How can we help our community conserve and build human resources that are suddenly in high demand and low supply?
I'm not sure I have any conclusions just yet. They are dragons I see on the horizon as we start to draw the map for the trip to the next frontier. I don't think they are a definitive list of challenges ahead, but I hope, at the very least, they've sparked a response that you'll want to discuss so we can get the hell off this island (I was promised a three hour tour.)
Thanks Mickey. You can reach Mickey at email@example.com.
Collaboration is alive in the lab.