Clean theory, messy practice

A few years ago, Eric Zimmerman wrote a great post about his experience teaching game design. My favourite line from it is this: theory is clean, practice is messy.

The goal of game design is not to apply theory perfectly — it is to create successful games — however it is that you decide to define success. We should never get hung up in the “correct” application of theory — truth is utility, after all.

The cleanliness of theory may be one reason people get hung up on it. It’s safer to be opining about how things could or should be, than to be in the more uncertain business of making something actually happen.

This is especially the case when stakes are high, for example when contemplating a tricky conversation with your boss, or dealing with an aggressive colleague in a meeting. You can find lots of books full of excellent theory and advice on these subjects, but actually having those conversations never seems to quite follow the plan.

The same thing can happen when you’re following your favourite design or facilitation process: when people aren’t sticking to your rules, it’s tempting to try to nudge them into line. But it’s better to be interested in what’s actually happening, which may be real life intruding on our tidy worldview.

I’m increasingly inclined to follow or encourage the messiness rather than debate the theory or stick to the rules. For example, when I’m getting groups to practice challenging conversations, I will leap in and try slightly crazy things that won’t work to support some messy experimentation and reduce the pressure to get it right. In breakout discussions, if groups are over-running I’ll often let the agenda shift to accommodate the groups rather than get stuck in the role of rigid timekeeper.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I avoid using that facilitator mantra of “trusting the process”. Processes are basically designs averaged out from previous experience. Messy reality is where the life is. So I tend to trust the participants rather than the process. And much of the art of facilitation is being able to change processes in response to what participants are saying and doing, rather than the other way round.

(I explore ideas like this in the workshops Viv McWaters and I run in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. The next ones are in Auckland on May 1st Cambridge on May 8th-9th.)

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.