Design for the concrete, allow for the abstract

The best designed systems are made easy for the people who think in concrete, in the here-and-now to understand. Software system? Make things happen on-screen, not behind the scenes. Management system? Show people clearly the if-this-than-that rule.  Customer facing system? Instant response, instant gratification. Vendor-facing system? Immediate pay. Government system? Show voters that it makes a difference to vote. Over 70% of people are what the Myers-Briggs and Keirsey tests call “Sensory“, the people that are grounded in reality, the here and now. These are the ones that  use the mouse for everything they do on a computer, the ones that say “Show me the money, then we can dream for the future.” These are what I call Concrete Thinkers.

Business systems are a collection of individuals working towards a common goal. Both the constraints of this system and the rutted pathways are set by the owners, the managers, and the long-term employees. And you have a choice: Set it up to exclude the those who are Concrete Thinkers, and you may get a bunch of talented, creative abstract thinkers. But they aren’t the ones who see the fine detail, or take pleasure in getting it done. That Form 941 from the IRS? That’s details. Understanding the differences between three bad health-insurance plans? Details. Some of the most proficient artists I know are Concrete Thinkers, and I’m convinced that their talent has been amplified by them seeing and understanding the fine details.

But often the system is designed by somebody who thinks abstractly. The neck-beard that like his vim keyboard shortcuts, the manager that moves on to the next Strategic Direction before the first has had a chance to turn a profit. They think in the abstract, in the big picture. But they’re often frustrated by the people around them, wishing they could move past the variance in last month’s budget and start planning for next month. They see the raw intelligence in a Concrete Thinker, but are helpless to do anything with it for lack of understanding. Similarly, the Concrete thinkers wonder how the Abstract Thinker keeps her job: she comes in late, sits in brainstorming meetings, and rarely does any real work.

Where you have the latitude to design, you must design for the Concrete Thinkers, but allow for the Abstract Thinkers. If you’re building houses, enforce the rule that jobsite materials are organized for one day’s work at a time. But when Abstract Joe, the one who can’t organize the buttons on his shirt, wants to put in the gluelam from tomorrow’s stack to save time, listen to him. He might have a point. If you’re the manager of the Accounting Department, make sure the rules are clear about cutting checks for vendor discounts. But listen to Abstract Jane when she says that by dipping into the line of credit for one day, you can save 3,000 dollars.

And you do have the latitude to design, but you have to choose to.

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