In our latest Ideas blog, Professor John Dyson, co-author of our Design to Value book, shares his thoughts on The power of uncertainty: The challenging path from purpose to project.

We like things in neat boxes, we like the tangible; things we can sense, see and touch. In times where there is a lack of clarity it can feel chaotic and unnerving. In these times we tend to grasp onto something, anything that relieves the feelings of being lost. Like being swept away in a river, we feel the need to grab hold of the nearest branch or rock. These feelings are called by psychologists Ontological Insecurity. The irony is that in these times and moments we can develop the best ideas, breakthrough arbitrary boundaries and find amazing solutions.

This is often the situation at the start of a design project. Often called pre-project, this could be a time for exploration, broad thinking, analysis and imagination, however often it’s a time for reductive thinking. I have been in design meetings at these early stages where discussions are happening about what might be on the first, second or third floor of a building. This is before the requirement for a building, let alone a building of a number of stories, has been established. Although, there is a good chance some sort of building will be required, the speed with which the teams grasp onto the physical and the detail is astounding. In tandem with the physicalisation of a building is the push to attach a capital cost to this now crystalised construction. What has disappeared and often is lost forever is the purpose and value of the project. If we could live with not-knowing, if we can weather uncertainty then we can find better outcomes.

The horrific experiences of two people in the 20th Century formed the foundation of an abiding philosophy. Victor Frankl, who survived a concentration camp in WW2 and went on to write “Man’s search for meaning” and General Stockdale, who was captured in Vietnam and survived brutal imprisonment, both concluded that living with the uncertainty in those times was key to survival. The artificiality of grasping for certainty was a flawed survival strategy. Facing and accepting where you are today, with hope and certainty that you will find a solution, a way out at some point equipped people advantageously.

Both gripping stories and afar from the project world, and yet they can tell us something about the human condition and how the intuitive response to find certainty, something to hold onto, is very unhelpful at times.

So what does this mean in the world of projects? It means ensuring that the purpose, aspiration and hope for the project is kept alive. In practical terms a problem statement and value drivers help this. In hospitals, these should be about health improvement, in pharmaceuticals about patients treated or lives saved, in housing about thriving people.

It means visualising in a way which communicates both something aspirational while at the same time something with a playful vagueness about it. We used to block units of operations out in bright colours, using pink to designate an area that was only loosely defined.

It means a culture of inclusivity; anybody can have an idea, in fact, those not constrained by having been involved in a subject for many years, often ask the best questions and come up with more innovative ideas. Matching this creativity with open-minded expert knowledge can be very powerful.

Above all it means jointly resisting, as long as is responsibly possible, narrowing to a defined solution and only then when it is very clear it matches up to the fundamental purpose and the highest aspirations. In the discomfort of this process, new ideas will shoot and grow.

Professor John Dyson spent more than 25 years at GlaxoSmithKline, eventually ending his career as VP, Head of Capital Strategy and Design, where he focussed on developing a long-term strategic approach to asset management.
While there, he engaged Bryden Wood and together they developed the Front End Factory, a collaborative endeavour to explore how to turn purpose and strategy into the right projects – which paved the way for Design to Value. He is committed to the betterment of lives through individual and collective endeavours.
As well as his business and pharmaceutical experience, Dyson is Professor of Human Enterprise at the University of Birmingham, focussing on project management, business strategy and collaboration.
Additionally, he is a qualified counsellor with a private practice and looks to bring the understanding of human behaviour into business and projects.
To learn more about our Design to Value philosophy, read Design to Value: The architecture of holistic design and creative technology by Professor John Dyson, Mark Bryden, Jaimie Johnston MBE and Martin Wood. Available to purchase at RIBA Books here.