The world's wealthy economies are shifting from Knowledge Work to Complexity Work, and this can and should impact the way designers see their role.
Complexity work can be characterised, in very broad terms, by the need for workers to operate simultaneously across multiple, interdependent, dynamic contexts. Regardless of what flavour of Agile or Scrum you subscribe to, or even if you regard them as equally egregious, what is clear is that some change in the nature of work is driving the need to rethink operating models. My suggestion is that the shift from knowledge work to complexity work is a good way of describing that.
How is complexity work different from knowledge work?
Knowledge Work requires the integration of systems to provide a coherent, integrated, single view of information that is relevant to the worker.
In Complexity Work, however, such a coherent, integrated view is not only impossible; it is counterproductive
This is because
a) selecting a particular worker's perspective (eg a doctor's) and attempting to synthesize all the different teams and contexts they work within into a single system undermines the affordances and adaptability of each of them.
Example: defining all roles with respect to the doctor excludes the office manager from being able to provide ad hoc support, and presumes that the doctor can and should lead (rather than consult) in every scenario, diminishing the key roles of nurses
b) optimising for a particular collection of contexts, based on a temporal snapshot of behaviour, is insensitive to the need to reconfigure that collection in response to real situations - ad hoc teaming or "swarming" is a fundamental feature of complexity work
Example: It's impossible ahead of time to define a care team for a patient. The right care team depends on a view this specific patient's needs (and not just the diagnosis of the most critical issue, since chronic or pre-existing factors come into play), and will evolve depending on how the patient responds to treatment over time.
The alternative - defining a care team as any practitioner who could be needed, at any stage - creates bureaucratic overhead and information overload for every practitioner, and defeats the very purpose of a care team, which is to gather and enable efficient, effective collaboration between the relevant practitioners.
Finally, who to include on the patient's side depends not only on the cultural background of the patient, but their personal identity and relationship to the norms of their community.
What sort of design is needed to effectively enable Complexity Work?
Let's call the design posture appropriate to optimising for knowledge workers bureaucratic design - because it was focused on evaluating and improving the fulfilment of organisational roles. Even customer-centricity and service design attempt to centre processes and collaboration on the role a team or individual plays in delivering something of value to their customer. Service design still defines and coordinates roles, even if it decentres the meaning of roles by making them customer-centric.
The other feature of service design that makes it a part of the knowledge worker era is the idea of a linearly unfolding journey or experience.
In Complexity Work, the master design concepts are not Service or Role, but Posture and Place.
Instead of getting Right Information to the Right Person at the Right Time, designing for complexity involves enabling the Right Posture in the Right Place at the Right Time.
Because complexity work is inherently dynamic and ambiguous, the easiest way into this idea of designing for complexity is through negative description, moments when the current posture or place are questioned or contested. For example:
"We need to get her into emergency" → this is not the right place
"She's crashing" → we need to change our posture from surgical procedure to critical response
"I want to see how she responds to physiotherapy before opting for surgery" → it's not the right time to change posture
What do I mean by a posture?
I'll have a lot more to say about this in future posts, but for the moment, what I have in mind is a set of enabling or governing constraints on behaviour (rules and norms)
One reason why I like the term "posture" is that these rules and norms come in sets, and at different moments, teams can and should rapidly adjust the set they're working with.
Postures constrain both action and perception (through a kind of task blindness) and are inspired by Dave Snowden's conception of enabling constraints, and Daniel Dennett's notion of stances.
The other thing I'll borrow from Snowden and Dennett is the idea that there are different kinds of postures, and that the right kind of posture is one that does justice to the kind of situation or phenomenon you are dealing with. I want to extend Snowden's view that it requires fundamentally different techniques and strategies to manage chaotic, complex, complicated and clear domains or phenomena. Designers must recognize that every place requires norms that enable multiple postures, of at least these four kinds, in order not to become bureaucratic, and support a diverse range of situations, enabling different levels and kinds of improvisational freedom.
Why place and not team?
As I said above, a complex work environment is one where the right group of people to do the work changes dynamically with the work that needs to be done.
People do bring capabilities with them, when they join a team. But teams also rely on systems, and systems encode and afford certain sorts of collaboration and process, and not every place can afford every kind of collaboration and process.
We move between places to access different sorts of systems, teams and even norms of behaviour.
Hospitals exists because it's infeasible to have intensive care systems everywhere. Offices, comedy clubs and churches exist, because we recognise that having different places helps us more effectively and more safely shift between moral postures.
One of the main problems with the rise of digital technologies is also its great strength - its ability to dissolve perceived distances and barriers between places.
With that dissolution of boundaries, it's become tempting to encode one ideal posture for everyone everywhere. In a complex world, this is simply a mistake. I think this is what Dave Snowden is railing against when he laments the rise of design thinking and "vision setting". I think Dave's probably right about this. However, I also think that, if they can avoid this kind of fundamentalism about place or posture, that designers can and do enable people to adopt postures that are more effective in and responsive to their context.