This is an essay I wrote for my Strategic Design Thinking class. It is a reflection on four assignments that we did that I will post as soon as I get them scanned. The first assignment that we did is described pretty well in the essay, but the second assignment is somewhat glossed over. Basically, the second assignment was to take four recently completed projects, describe them, give them a success rating from 1 to 5, with 5 being the best, analyze our motivations for doing the project, and then analyze what we could have done to make it more successful. The third assignment was to plot a knowledge, network, and skill development strategy to attain a goal in 2012. The fourth assignment was to map our project process. And without further ado…
“It’s… a bit hippy-dippy for my tastes,” I wrote home after my first Strategic Design class. “We were given these big sheets of paper and told to write our definition of “ethnography”, what an ethnographic perspective is, and the ten key skills of an ethnographer. Then we hung our sheets up on the walls and talked about them. Like show and tell, only I’m paying thirty grand for it.” My skepticism dissolved, however, as soon as I began to read the other papers hanging on the walls. My first impulse was to envy the works posted around me. Two of my fellow design ethnographers had included “fearlessness” on their lists of key skills and I wished that I had thought to incorporate that in my own list. As I continued reading, though, even the envy dropped away. After all, the purpose of the exercise seemed to be to learn from each other’s perceptions. I could pick and choose my favorite viewpoints and presentations from my classmates’ papers and fold them into my own, a variation of the theft that Picasso attributed to great artists.
I had come to Dundee having only the vaguest of notions what an ethnographer was, and an even vaguer perception of what a design ethnographer did. It was the topic of discussion in our first Design Ethnography lecture of the semester, held the day before we wrote our definitions. My own increased clarity was apparent in my definitions, and the similarity of our papers spoke volumes about the information relayed the day before. As I walked around the room, moving from ethnographers to designers, the interaction between ethnography and design became much more apparent to me. I was stunned by how similar the definitions were. Design, it seems, is for a purpose. It solves a particular problem. Ethnography, by contrast, is about locating purpose from the environment. Designers see the world as it should be–ethnographers see the world as it is. Design is beautiful, but ethnography is real–and it is at the intersection of those two, this place where design ethnographers sit, that a particular kind of magic can happen.
But while the definitions exercise provided me with clarity, it was the Drivers exercise that impacted me the most. I had chosen my most recent projects, which were completed under a great deal of stress. In fact, the period of their completion was among the most miserable in my entire life. While I wonder if there is a correlation between my perception of the success of a project and the motivation for that project, it was the drivers themselves that gave me most pause. Often I take up projects to prove that I can do them, or to prove that they can be accomplished at all. I will do projects simply because I think I can do them better than they have been done. I will do projects because no one else is willing to take them on.
These motivations, I have concluded, are not a good reason to do anything. What am I trying to prove, after all, and to whom? This is clearly a problem in my project adoption process, which was further illuminated by my process diagram. When presented with a new project possibility, I am often inundated with ideas–each more exciting and promising than the last–that tumble over each other in a hurry to get out and implemented. This excitement often cools some short while later, when the realities of the workload of a project sink in. It is generally at this point that I realize that I have taken on a project that I have no real interest in beyond that I wanted to prove something.
This insight has led me to implement a few new measures in my life. The first of these measures is a time management data collection system, so that I can develop an idea of how much time I am presently devoting to specific tasks and therefore how much time I have available to adopt new projects. The second is a mandatory project incubation period of at least 24 hours, in which I assess my motivations for taking on a project as well as the necessary resources that project completion will require. Those factors will be balanced against the benefits of successful project completion before a project is accepted. Hopefully, this process will prevent me from over-committing myself and will allow me to devote myself to projects that truly resonate with me.