In a recent client project, I provided a design phase to fix some responsive website layout issues. After choosing and building the revisions, the client decided to revert back to their current design and not use the work they paid for, despite my objective (ha!) design explanations. I can’t say why they chose not to, because there was no reason given, but I’d politely speculate that it was too much effort to understand and decide on the proposed solutions. These things happen. It’s part of consulting. My point today is how they happen.
Problem definitions and the problem of human communication
Communication between human beings is difficult. Unlike every other animal on Earth, we use language to transmit more than behaviour cues: we transmit meaning. We feel like it’s an automatic part of the natural universe, but it is not. And this hides that fact that all objective truths are each arrived at subjectively.
What you say something to me, I have to a) pay attention to it along some spectrum of care and b) decode what I understand to be the intention of your words. That is, we guess at meaning. No transmission of knowledge between humans is perfect. We cannot yet download and execute the “fly a helicopter” program. When I receive your speech as information I decode it in a way which is naturally unique to me. This is both a feature—because it is the start of creativity—and a bug—because when we wish to collaborate together to solve a problem, we can’t be sure we have the same problem in our minds.
The point is that problem definitions and their solutions require clear and specific language—what David Deutsch calls hard-to-vary explanations—in the hope of fostering shared understanding. Yet the process of creative thought—the iceberg in-between understanding the problem definition and proposing solutions—needs rich, unrestricted thinking, a process that begins by doing away with the rigours of explanatory language and instead playing with possibilities, which includes swimming with the words themselves.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
The truth must dazzle gradually because genuine insight is always surprisingly counterintuitive, and so our beliefs sometimes need time to catch up. It is, ironically, only with the richness of language available within each of us—an internal world created according to our individual whims—that we can think through these seemingly bizarre propositions. When you attempt richer language, you are creatively reinterpreting and discovering the boundaries of your thinking. It is this practise that can open you up to understanding the counterintuitive explanations that can solve your problems.
What does “objective” mean? It means that you look very hard at those things which you choose to look at.
Meeting minds: consultancy and problem definitions
Geometry is not true, it is advantageous
Let me go back to my client project story that I began with. When it comes to collaborating with clients on projects that involve complex systems, like websites, the chances of miscommunication are a function of what language they have to talk about what they see as the problem—which includes all their tacit understanding of web systems—combined with how I meet them at the point of decoding the information they share, using the language I have to listen, understand and re-explain their problem, both to myself and back to them. And this process of mine also includes all my tacit knowledge of web systems. Miscommunication is bound to happen.
Mostly this is because I am fallible and I will underestimate the background knowledge I have and overestimate the background knowledge my clients have. And vice versa from the client’s point of view of what I do and again from an understanding of their business domain! So while in the first instance I present myself as a consultant with specific skills—for me, that’s to design web stuff and then build it—the most important thing in consulting for clients is to meet them where they think their problem is.
Science, like art, religion, commerce, warfare, and even sleep, is based on presuppositions.
Trying to figure out what presupposes the problem in the minds of your client is the primary obstacle to any solution a consultant might present. Because I have clear (ha!) that every sentient mind has its own internal models, where client and consultant meet in a mutual understanding of the problem is a measure of how well the solution will work. Yes, clients already have their attention spread and they wish to simply buy solutions. The paradox is that until clients can find the attention required to understand the problem in collaboration with the consultant, the consultant is constrained in the solution they can offer.
Symmathesy: collective problem solving in music, art, science, and software
If anything at all has resonated in my rambles on problem definitions and consultancy above, I highly recommend you read Jessica Kerr’s The Origins of Opera and the Future of Programming which proposes new ways of thinking about software as scenius. That is, people working in the medium of software need a shared understanding of the software system in question before they can affect change within that system. Sound familiar?
…it’s easier to build a system from scratch, constructing the mental model as you go along, than to form an understanding of how an already-built system works.
[…until they] have a mental model of this system … they can’t change the system because they don’t understand it
Generativity is about growing the team’s output over time, and each member of the team grows at the same time.
Software is not Art. Software is the next thing after art. It is something new, that we’ve never been able to do before.
I want to practice symmathesy, to grow as part of a growing system, a system with people of many different skills.
Two words struck me. Jessica uses the word “camerata”—as in the Florentine Camerata—instead of “scenius”, which is a new angle on the same meaning. And the word “symmathesy” which means “a learning system made of learning parts”, and was coined by Nora Bateson, Gregory Bateson’s daughter (which really circled out my week, thoroughly enriched!).
Reading: I figured I’d start reading some Gregory Bateson alongside McGilchrist’s The Master & His Emissary. But no Kindle editions and some fine Twitter rabbit-holes lead me to two excellent articles on software systems instead: the Jessica Kerr article above and a James Somers article that’s on repeat (another of his is also linked above). Read: The Coming Software Apocalypse.
Watching: Test Cricket is alive and well. Ben Stokes is a superhero and that we (Australia) lost the unloseable Test was a damn salty thing to accept, and yet last night’s crab-epic Steve Smith innings seems to have nullified England, perhaps entirely? [Update 190909: yes]. And just so you’re confirmed in your presupposition, no, my Wife doesn’t watch it with me.
Music: All-time favourite Express Rising is back on the platter. And the seriously-good-yet-counterintuitively-outrageously-rare Ithaca — no I don’t own an original. If you do, send it on over thxbye.
Work: The writing app progresses. It’s going well because we’ve had the time and space to properly listen and explain to each other our thoughts and understanding of what the app might constitute. Looking to get a working app live in the next month, because that’s where the true learning will occur.
That’s a wrap. This one has been longer than I intended. It took 4 hours to wrestle into words what was so clear to me in this morning’s shower. Expect less next week.
As always, your thoughts, tweets, tangents, criticism and breakbeats are welcome.