WSJ: Soft Skills and Hard Problems

Excerpt from Frank Rose' review of "The Fuzzy and the Techie" by Scott Hartley and "Sensemaking" by Christian Madsbjerg. Full review can be read online here at WSJ.com.

Where do ideas come from? A fashionable answer today is the one put forward by Stanford's "d.school" and the Palo Alto-based consulting firm IDEO: "Design thinking" is Silicon Valley's idea of fuzzy. It assumes that techniques long used by designers—interviewing people to get a sense of what they need and want from a product, for example—can be systematized to form a general-purpose template for generating creativity on demand. Mr. Hartley doesn't challenge this view, just as he doesn't resist the temptation to call people "users" or to label just about everyone he encounters as either a fuzzy or a techie—a practice that reinforces the very divide he seeks to eliminate. After a while, you start to wonder if the terminology itself isn't part of the problem.
 
Mr. Madsbjerg, by contrast, dismisses design thinking as vapid and superficial, the product of " 'drive-by' anthropology." Nor does he have anything good to say about management science, which seeks an algorithmic solution to business challenges. He acknowledges that big data can lead to startling insights. "But humans exist in worlds," he writes, "and the objects within those worlds are always context-dependent and layered with meaning." Context and meaning are necessarily factored out in number-crunching, but they are central to anthropology and ethnography, the favored tools at his consulting firm.
 
Mr. Madsbjerg has made his case before. The concept of "sensemaking"—drawing on experience and perspective to recognize underlying patterns—was central to his 2014 book, "The Moment of Clarity," written with his business partner, Mikkel Rasmussen. In his new book, Mr. Madsbjerg delves into their methodology's roots in the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, from whose impenetrable prose he manages to wrest the notion that social context is all.
 
To show how this works in practice, he introduces us to other people who rely on context and meaning. The celebrated Danish architect Bjarke Ingels spurns the signature style of, say, Frank Gehry or Mies van der Rohe in favor of a deep dive into whatever he's working on. Charged with designing a museum for Audemars Piguet's headquarters in Switzerland, he spoke with a watchmaker who showed him how a mainspring works, a revelation that inspired him to envision the building as a double spiral. When Chris Voss was the FBI's lead international kidnapping negotiator, he was able to win freedom for an American journalist being held in Iraq by putting aside his own cultural values and developing a form of empathy with the jihadists who were set to kill her.
 
There's a cultural bias in business, tech and otherwise, against any information that can't be quantified—that is "soft," subjective, fuzzy. Rigorous analysis supposedly requires that it be kept out. Mr. Madsbjerg maintains that this in fact is the easy route, that what he does is the hard stuff. One of his associates says that this makes him feel like he has knives in his stomach. But it is where good ideas come from—and while the data it relies on may not be reducible to numbers, there is actually nothing "fuzzy" about it.
 
Mr. Rose is the author of "The Art of Immersion" and a senior fellow at the Columbia University School of the Arts.

Full review can be read online here at WSJ.com.


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