NYC Design
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NYC Design

How to Not-Build the Right Thing

Methodologies such as Design Thinking, Agile, and Lean Startup all try to answer the question of how to build the right thing in the right way at the right time. They work by interleaving customer observation, creative problem solving, prototyping, feedback, and progressive adaptation. But is there something else that needs to happen before any of those techniques can work properly? In order to be able to look, make, listen, and respond, do we need to do something else first?

I recently attended the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s “Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty” exhibition. It consisted of pieces from the museum’s Qing Dynasty collection, staged by Robert Wilson, the postmodern theater and performance art director. The show was a sumptuous sensory feast. Wilson placed beautiful statues, furniture, sculpture, and royal clothing in a series of rooms that engaged nearly all the senses. Each room featured music, incense, and walls that were in some cases richly painted, and in others covered with tactile materials such as mirrors or straw or crumpled silver paper.

What made the show truly remarkable, though, was the entrance. Attendees were not permitted to merely walk into the show on their own. Instead, they were escorted in small groups into a nearly pitch-black entry room, where they were asked to sit in silence for 5 minutes. Only then were they released into the rest of the installation.

Beginning with an absence of sensation, or interpretation, or action made the subsequent experience all the more compelling. One’s sense of sight, hearing, smell, and touch were all heightened. One’s experience of beauty and power were amplified. The feeling of being in a different world was deepened.

The show made me wonder about the value of beginning by not beginning. What would happen if employees started their work day by sitting in silence for 5 minutes? What would happen if every Agile standup also started with a few minutes of silence? What would happen if, before starting a user observation session, designers sat quietly or went for a walk first? What would happen if teams meeting to solve difficult problems listened to each other speak without making any comments, asking any questions, or even taking any notes?

Building the right thing in the right way at the right time requires creativity, inspiration, receptivity, freshness. Robert Wilson seems to be saying that before we can understand, or imagine, or create, or validate, we first need to not-understand, not-imagine, not-create, and not-validate. How might that work? What kinds of not-activities might we create to open our minds so that we can truly see, understand, invent, and serve? Most importantly, could not-building help us build things that are truly useful, valuable, and desirable?

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