Innovation and design exist to meet unmet needs of people. As designers and design researchers we pursue understanding how to define problems that illuminate unmet needs and how to effectively align resources in order to best meet those needs within constraints. Uncovering unmet needs can be delicate time consuming research through careful conversations, or unmet needs can come straight to your face in the shape of the slap of bad customer feedback. Defining what problems (unmet needs) you might approach solving, in what manner, with what time pressure, with which resources, to achieve which outcome is the beauty of being human and critical in the art of doing anything, especially business.
I am on a professional and personal journey to shore up my fundamental foundations and redesign my values. In this exploration I found that my belief in Macgvyering as a core approach needed broadening and exploration because I was putting myself into situation after situation where I over committed and became harried. I was determined to do everything “I had to do” and everything “I wanted to do.” Also everything always felt, to me, like it was on fire. I couldn’t figure out how to make space and hold space. I did this at home, at work, on the field, and in life. I would solidly pursue meeting one need to the neglect of the others. I wanted to play to my strengths, and through over feeding those strengths I saw them become my weaknesses. I wanted to do what felt good while still reaping the rewards of doing the hard work to learn the lessons and work through the challenges. You know what happened? I did it, I am doing it, but I can see what price I am paying to do it. I am tired. I am choosing to be harried and playing too many roles. Macgvyering is a strength of mine, but any strength can become a weakness over time.
One lesson I learned is that when it gets cold, the answer isn’t always to throw more wood on the fire. I can throw on a sweater, or find a cuddle buddy, or move to Aruba. So when it gets cold and Macgvyering more isn’t going to meet my needs, I’ve pulled together a spectrum of strategies to consider depending on the design challenge and resources before me.
Here are my first thoughts on Macgvyering our way to Danish design, from opportunism to conscious curation:
Survival ⇒ Thrival ⇒ Design ⇒ Sustainability
Survival: pursuit to survive / escape the immediate threat / pain / death by unmet need
Thrival (thriving): pursuit to not only survive but do so in a manner that meets another need i.e. doing it in a clever manner / without or with help / “Ah-ha look at how they did that with so little, aren’t they clever” (meets supporting need of admiration / stroking)
Design: pursuit to create a solution that satisfies multiple needs of one or many stakeholders i.e. designing a cup so that the drinker enjoys drinking from it and the factory can easily produce them cost-effectively
Sustainability: pursuit to create a solution that satisfies multiple needs over time, satisfies changing needs, or creates a dynamic self-sustaining / self-iterating system that can grow and morph to meet changing needs over time
Pressure of unmet needs (time pressure) VS. Resources obtainable (prioritization of investment)
The inverse relationship between the pressure of unmet needs and the resources obtainable is a product of the march of time. If I had more time then the pressure of the unmet need would not be so great. If the pressure of the unmet need was less then I would have more time to solve for it. If I had more time I could find more resources. Many of the questions we ask in business and strategy worlds lie along this spectrum, with the added kicker of how will we make money? If we consider money as simply an account of value then, this one is just an addendum to the entire spectrum because it is a part of the whole lot: from survival to sustainability.
Questions for understanding the pressure of the unmet need:
- How much pain does the unmet need cause me? (desirability to fix)
- How long can I stand for the need to be unmet? (viability)
- i.e. How much time do I have until BOOM? (when the response is ‘I don’t know’ our adrenaline, lizard brain kicks in and moves it up in the ‘on fire’ queue)
Questions for understanding the resources obtainable / prioritization of investment:
- How much do we care about solving it? (pain / opportunity / viability)
- How important is this problem? (values / purpose)
- How often do we see it? (frequency)
- How long does its impact last? / How many people / communities does it affect? (scale)
- What do we have to work upon this problem? (feasibility)
Each of the approaches below builds on the approach preceding it. This is a process of building the space to carve more time out to create and innovate. Maslow captured this same mechanism in his pyramid of the hierarchy of needs. Author Jared Diamond chronicles it on a civilization level in his books Guns, Germs, & Steel and Collapse. He writes about how civilizations had to satisfy the basics before they could create things to satisfy complex needs that stand the test of time such as guns, steel, Moai idols, pyramids, and other monolithic builds. ‘You gotta walk before you can run.’ or in my fire analogy ‘You gotta gather wood, light the fire, get warm, so that you can spin the wool to weave the sweater, so you can warmly attract a cuddle buddy, so you can both make the journey to warm Aruba.’
- Solely opportunistic (flailing for survival) ⇒ outcome is survival
- Selectively opportunistic (Macgvyering) ⇒ outcome is thrival (meets more than 1 need)
- Partial curation (prototyping & iteration) ⇒ outcome is design (meets multiple / complex needs)
- Conscious curation (Danish design: fit for purpose design to meet complex needs over time) ⇒ result is sustainability, meeting multiple needs over time / a dynamic system
I survive and learn through flailing, which can be a painful process, but this gives me the creativity and skill to know how to Macgvyer. Once I am Macgvyering and solving things in clever one-hit-wonder solutions meeting a couple of my needs, I can start to know my capabilities and materials enough to begin to play with design. I play with design through prototyping and iterating on how to meet multiple complex needs and begin to see the opportunity to carve out some space. With this newly carved space I can begin to think about how to solve the need with a system or a fancy dynamic system meeting multiple needs of multiple people over a long period of time.
For example: once I am fed and rested, I can begin to solve today’s immediate issues. In solving those problems I learn about my world through the failures and successes. These failures and successes I can now weather because I am surviving. I now have time to invest in prototyping and iterating to solve things well enough to meet my need for more space and time. Now my solutions are a bit more fit for meeting more unmet needs and I can earn myself even more time to properly ponder the conscious curation of a Danish design system built to stand the test of time and meet needs for many people for years to come. Example: foraging ⇒ hunting ⇒ agriculture ⇒ science + art & space food
Solely opportunistic (flailing for survival) ⇒ outcome is survival
This is when survival is paramount, time is short, pressure of unmet needs is high, resources are scarce, and you just ‘have to do something.’ I will take any kind of help offered to me. This is the space of literally shriveling up from unmet needs and provides very little space for choice, creativity, or invention. AND yet the human spirit is so inventive and resilient that in this space we still see remarkable solely opportunistic solutions throughout the world. Desperation can be at times the mother of invention. In this space the thing I do may not be the right thing. I will flail for help and flounder in how to use the scarce resources I have to survive. I will find creativity in the in the pressure and the pain, but if I am successful I will learn and come back again.
Supporting strategies for the solely opportunistic approach:
- satisfy the base physiological needs if you can: breathe, drink water, eat, sleep
- change your location / space / anything
- begin any self-talk / anti-panic / anti-anxiety rituals you have i.e. meditation / emergency procedures etc.
- reach out and ask for help
- re-frame the problem
- reconsider if the time pressure is real or a cognitive burden induced state due to your own unmet needs
- prepare yourself for not achieving optimal solutions / forgive yourself / set expectations of the community and stakeholders appropriately
- prepare to capture learning for next time
Selectively opportunistic (Macgvyering) ⇒ outcome is thrival (meets more than 1 need)
I define Macgyvering as selectively opportunistic because Macgvyer still has a choice in how he approaches problems and he has some resources i.e. chewing gum, his brains, and a little bit of time. In these situations there actually IS something to work with and some capabilities from which to begin. This space is the difference between people literally starving from unmet needs (survival) who need welfare and aid immediately and those who are creatively crafting a path forward with the materials at hand. For me this approach has become my powerhouse, my safe harbor, how I defined my value (dangerous at times). This is where the adaptable, flexible folk live. A place of easing into collaboration and crafting consensus in a community, but one that can over time become unfit for purpose, require lots of energy, and transform beautifully flexible people into harried haunted shells of their former selves. Beware hanging out in this space solely. One person / team cannot be endlessly adaptable or perform too many roles indefinitely. Being a constant burning platform fire fighter can create addictive, unhealthy, unsustainable games with unpredictable payoffs that can diminish over time as the team tires, makes mistakes, or worse sending you back into survival mode.
Supporting strategies for the selectively opportunistic approach:
- include all the supporting strategies for the approach above
- change roles / wear different hats
- do more research if you can: interrogate the unmet needs / their sources
- question the definition of the problem / question the lenses, bias, approaches
- plan for variety / progression up the design approach spectrum
- create opportunities to specialize / focus deeply on a specific challenge i.e. move into the ‘design’ approach
- build in in contingency plans approaches wherever you can / hedge your bets
- provide different / obtain more resources
Partial curation (prototyping & iteration) ⇒ outcome is design (meets multiple / complex needs)
Partial curation I call the process of prototyping and iteration because it definitely takes more resources and time than Macgvyering but doesn’t provide sustainable systemic outcomes like conscious curation i.e. you’re probably going to have to do it again at some point. Most of innovation we see in businesses lives in the spectrum of these first 3 approaches and more and more businesses are aiming for the ‘Danish design to stand the test of time’ conscious curation approach. It is in this tier of approach the I can truly begin to feel the maturity of problem defining, solving and design take shape. This is like the lessons we learn from dozens of housemates or living in many cities before we decide to settle down. It is the serious dating phase of the design approach maturity journey.
Supporting strategies for the partial curation approach:
- include all the supporting strategies for the approaches above
- just because you have more resources doesn’t mean you can get precious, keep experimenting that’s what you worked so hard to create the space for
- forgive yourself because you are still not building a sustainable system, this is a model of the pyramids, not the real thing
- be prepared to spend more time / focus/ energy here, so take care of yourselves!
- fix one thing at a time, it is basic experimental design so you know what each variable does
- scenario test / war-gaming / love-gaming
- capture, capture, capture – you cannot iterate without a record of your data
- stop before you’ve exhausted all your resources because you’ll need some to deliver and communicate the final iteration
Conscious curation (Danish design: fit for purpose design to meet complex needs over time) ⇒ result is sustainability, meeting multiple needs over time / a dynamic system
The holy grail, at least until we use conscious curation to design an even more sustainable, dynamic, self- adapting, mind predicting, magical unmet needs meeting solution. That is if we can handle the happiness of having our needs met. See the movie the Matrix if you want to know what I mean or read The Big Leap by Gaye Hendricks which discusses how we have upper limiting behaviors to stop us staying content for long periods of time i.e. we might still design in some difficulty or variety because humans can’t handle it too easy for too long. Conscious curation is a globally renowned specialty of the Danish and their thoughtful life curating approach to all things design and need-meeting approach to life called hygge. The Danes are known to be content and have worked as a civilization to create a designed place where people’s unmet needs are met through all aspects of life: transport, social structure design, industrial design, community design. You name it the Danes have found a way to consciously curate it and begun to conquer the unmet needs of the people on a dynamic, cultural, systemic approach level.
Supporting strategies for the conscious curation approach:
- include all the supporting strategies for the approaches above
- diversity and inclusion of thinking is a non-negotiable input at this point to design across a spectrum of unmet needs across time and space
- map the network or ecosystem thoroughly, and then do it again, and again, and imagine multiple futures of how it could evolve
- start with thourough introspection / self-reflection / design research as to what the unmet needs are and where they start and end
- understand ecosystems and networks holistically and test the effects of the solution on all parts of the systems
- start with a systemic output in mind
- design for re-design / iteration / dynamic change / resilience
- double / triple / quadruple the budget or time required as systems need lots of space to be developed
- do not undertake the conscious curation lightly, aiming high is well and good but you might be less stressed with lofty goals if you are solid in your survival, macgvyering, and prototyping and iteration skills first.
In my own journey throughout childhood my family progressed from survival to ‘thrival’ (thriving). In my education I pursued the luxury jump from thrival to design, and now as I have some understanding of the need for space and how long life might be, I pursue sustainability. Each of these approaches is a crucible in its own right which I can use to refine my abilities and awareness. I can use these experiences along the journey to fortify me for the jump into the next hottest crucible which will meet my next new need for challenge. My final bit of advice is to curate your values, your purpose, you environment, your travelling companions, and most of all yourself on this journey as strongly as you would curate any set of tools you plan to use to survive, thrive, and sustain yourself for the long life journey ahead to a sustainable, dynamic, ‘Danish designed’ future.
Advice to my future self: Don’t run before you can walk, gather firewood, light a fire, spin yarn, weave a sweater, ask for a cuddle buddy, and run off to warm Aruba.