When experience isn't always a good thing…

For our final presentation in theory class, we read through an interesting array of authors from various fields:

Herb Simon’s artificial intelligence paper on problem solving, ‘The Structure of Ill Structured Problems’.

Chris Pacione’s design thinking paper, ‘Evolution of the Mind, A Case for Design Literacy’.

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s science paper, ‘Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases’

Philip Johnson-Laird’s psychological paper, ‘The Shape of Problems’.

Taken on their own, each paper carries fantastic views into problem solving, mental processes, and the value of experience.

I’ve plotted my take on their view of experience on the following graph:

Working from top to bottom, I’d like to dive into the placement of each author.

Herb Simon, in the role of programmer, would appreciate experience. In this particular case, I consider experience to be input of information and its interaction on internal models for the General Problem Solver.  I find this quote in particular to be most telling, “Perhaps beginning in an ill structured state, soon converts itself through evocation from memory into a well structured problem.”  In this view, it is our experience which allows us the ability to eventually transform Ill Structured Problems in Well Structured Problems.

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman view experience as a potentially dangerous thing. As a person experiences more things, they tend to form heuristics as a shorthand for the complexity of everyday life. In their own words, “These heuristics are highly economical and usually effective, but they lead to systematic and predictable errors.” Thankfully they also dissect many of these heuristics to help make us all aware of where are brains naturally go wrong. Ultimately though, I do not think they condemn experience, “A better understanding of these heuristics and the biases to which they lead could improve judgements and decisions in situations of uncertainty.”

Likewise, Philip Johnson-Laird lays out a pretty clear argument that experience isn’t always a good thing, “Individuals become fixated on inappropriate methods based on their prior experience…”. Much like Tversky and Kahneman he also does not wholly condemn experience. He provides a manner in which experience can help un-fixate an individual, “but a period of ‘incubation’ in which they think about other matters allows the misleading cues to become less accessible with a consequent greater chance of recovering the correct clues.” Why is he placed between Ill Structured Problems and Wicked Problems you ask? Because of his delivery of a process to game the likelihood of an insight via manipulation of constraints. He provides a simple 4-step routine which allows anyone to eventually arrive at an insight:

1. The current strategy fails to yield a solution.
2. There is a tacit consideration of the constraints in the strategy.
3. The constraints are relaxed in a new way.
4. Many changes in constraints lead nowhere, but, with perseverance, a change may be made that leads at once to the solution of the problem.

Chris Pacione does not speak directly of experience, but he does provide a view on mastery versus virtuoso ability. He makes sure there is room at the table for everyone. Since the majority of his paper was espousing the liberation of design from designers and particularly making everyone more design literate, I take it to mean that he is ultimately rather experience agnostic.

Lastly, I am the lone cowboy in the corner of Inexperience and Wicked Problems. The very definition of a Wicked Problem means that you do not get to have experience.  I’m increasingly comfortable with that fact as the last 8 weeks have been reinforcing a process which embraces ambiguity and generates insight.