The Art of Consulting – Designing (Pragmatism)

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You can design the most beautiful building in the world but it’s no good if it’s too difficult to build. Think of the Sydney Opera House. It was imaginatively and brilliantly conceived with little regard for how it might be built, and the final cost of construction was astronomically higher than the original budget allowed.

You can design a software system that reflects a set of business requirements completely, and as simply as logic permits, but it’s no good if you need a doctorate in mathematical logic to use it.

Perhaps you can even build a sophisticated legal argument too brilliant for a jury to grasp. And I’m sure a surgeon can design a surgical procedure that’s far too difficult for most surgeons to execute.

Theory can enable you to design something as perfect and as simple as it might possibly be, but only experience can tell you whether you need to simplify still further to make it usable. Consulting is an art, and although the best artists are often young iconoclasts with the most up-to-date knowledge of technology, consultants generally get better with experience, and it’s often the grey-haired veterans who are the best at designing something workable. They’ve come to know what is possible in the real world.

I remember the frightening years of the Dot.Com boom when those of us who possessed even a few grey hairs were thought of as past it. The IT world suddenly belonged to the young dotcommers who thought up brilliant things that our minds, dulled by too much experience, were incapable of. If you were over thirty, you probably couldn’t raise a penny in investment capital.

One of these brilliant things was a website called boo.com which was designed to sell clothes through the internet and which would be driven by software so brilliant that users would see what clothes might look like on their own bodies by entering their vital statistics and then rotating a graphical ‘model’. It doesn’t sound so difficult now, but back then, more than fifteen years ago, it was impossible. Bandwidth wouldn’t allow it and there wasn’t enough time to write good enough software. Boo.com got through its 135 million dollars of venture capital and failed spectacularly. The real world wasn’t good enough for the entrepreneurs’ ideas.  Read about it in BooHoo.

Of all my own failings as a systems design consultant none is worse than my always attempting to build something that can do everything a client wants or needs. I’ve probably got wiser over the years, but I still try too hard to design some logic for every eventuality. It’s not that the logic I design isn’t right, but rather it’s sometimes too complex. It’s a general rule that as the logic of systems becomes more complicated, so the users’ understanding of it becomes weaker.

When something is more complicated there is not only more of it that can go wrong (software is never perfect) but more importantly, more user mistakes can be made with it, and such mistakes get ever harder to correct. Given that a consultant must eventually do a disappearing act, it’s better to leave a client with something simple and manageable.

Along with this wisdom of experience comes the skill of convincing a client that ‘keep it simple’ is a good guiding principle and that although you CAN do what the client wants, it wouldn’t be wise.

Think also of the Kalashnikov rifle – simple and pragmatic. In a life or death moment you want something that can’t go wrong in too many ways.

Kalashnikov

In the film, Lord of War, arms dealer Yuri Orlov comments:

Of all the weapons in the vast Soviet arsenal, nothing was more profitable than Avtomat Kalashnikova…. more commonly known as the AK-47, or Kalashnikov. It’s the world’s most popular assault rifle, a weapon all fighters love. An elegantly simple, 9 pound amalgamation of forged steel and plywood. It doesn’t break, jam, or overheat. It’ll shoot whether it’s covered in mud or filled with sand. It’s so easy, even a child can use it – and they do.

So, one of the secrets of good design is to design something that can actually work, can actually be used. Don’t let theoretical fancy lead you into the realms of the impossible, however complete, however beautiful your idea.

See also:

The Art of Consulting

The Art of Consulting – What’s the Role of the Consultant?

The Art of Consulting – Impartial, Honest and Independent

The Art of Consulting – The Essential Skills

The Art of Consulting – Listening

The Art of Consulting – What’s a Good Question?

The Art of Consulting – Representation and Analysis

The Art of Consulting – Writing Simply

The Art of Consulting – Designing (Completeness & Simplicity)

Oradea – City Under Wraps

Oradea, since 1945 a Romanian city, is a city that’s under wraps, still recovering from the depredations  of the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War that followed. It must get back to where it was before it can become something more. Over the last hundred years it’s been Hungarian twice (as Nagyvarad), and Romanian twice, and you can still hear both languages used interchangeably in the street, though sadly you can no longer hear the Yiddish or German that the large Jewish community spoke before the Holocaust.

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The cities of Hungary,to the West, such as Debrecen, and Miskolc, have recovered from history, and gone further. They have renovated and inhabited the shabby, rundown, sometimes bullet-scarred buildings of the Habsburg era. But many of Oradea’s wonderful Jugendstil apartment blocks and institutional buildings are still vacant, shrouded to protect pedestrians from the crumbling, falling stucco. It’s a sorry sight and no doubt a matter of money, not intent or confidence. But underneath the wrappings are architectural wonders waiting to be restored and used again.

There are, of course, some delightful exceptions, such as this restored hotel.

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Another exception is the splendid theatre, designed by the astonishingly productive architectural partnership of Fellner and Helmer, who were to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its theatres what Mimar Sinan was to the Ottoman Empire some centuries earlier, though Sinan generally stuck to mosques, madrasas and the occasional bridge. I don’t believe he ever built a theatre.

Wrappings put me in mind of Christo (and Jeanne-Claude), the Bulgarian wrapper-up of the Reichstag in Berlin, and the Pont-Neuf in Paris.

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pont neuf

Christo and Jeanne-Claude don’t claim to mean anything by their art beyond the immediate impression they elicit, but it’s hard to explain the strong emotional reaction we feel on seeing these powerful symbols tamed by drapes. It’s certainly not the melancholy induced by Oradea’s buildings. Wikipedia quotes art critic David Bourdon, who says it’s all about “revelation through concealment.” But I think it’s simpler than that (art critics so rarely write sentences that means anything).

Wrapping up means presents, generosity and pleasure (think of My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music – ‘brown paper packages wrapped up in string’). Wrapping up implies manageability and control. Wrapping reminds us that we can encompass the mechanical, the monstrous, the powerful, the irrational. We can defuse these things if we care to. It’s telling that the Reichstag was wrapped (and thereby disarmed) just five years after the reunification of Germany. Indeed I’d like to see Christo go further. He could wrap up a nuclear bomb, a tank, a Kalashnikov, Vladimir Putin, or even this revolting dish (Women’s Fancy) that I foolishly ordered in Oradea for my dinner (looks like vomit on a plate).

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