The ambiguity of real work

All ambiguity is resolved by actions of practitioners at the sharp end of the system.

Dr. Richard I. Cook, How Complex Systems Fail

There’s a wonderful book by the late urban planning professor Donald Schön called The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. In the first chapter, he discusses the “rigor or relevance” dilemma that faces educators in professional degree programs. In the case of a university program aimed at preparing students for a career in software development, this is the “should we teach topological sort or React?” question.

Schön argues that the dilemma itself is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of professional work. What it misses is the ambiguity and uncertainty inherent in the work of professional life. The “rigor vs relevance” debate is an argument over the best way to get from the problem to the solution: do you teach the students first principles, or do you teach them how to use the current set of tools? Schön observes that a more significant challenge for professionals is defining the problems to solve in the first place, since an ill-defined problem admits no technical solution at all.

In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is a swampy lowland where situations are confusing “messes” incapable of technical solution. The difficulty is that the problems of the high ground, however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant to clients or to the larger society, while in the swamp are the problems of greatest human concern.

His use of the term “messes” evokes Russell Ackoff’s use of the term in his paper The Future of Operational Research is Past:

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and chairs. We experience messes, tables, and chairs; not problems and atoms

To take another example from the software domain. Imagine that you’re doing quarterly planning, and there’s a collection of reliability work that you’d like to do, and you’re trying to figure out how to prioritize it. You could apply a rigorous approach, where you quantify some values in order to do the prioritization work, and so you try to estimate information like:

  • the probability of hitting a problem if the work isn’t done
  • the cost to the organization if the problem is encountered
  • the amount of effort involved in doing the reliability work

But you’re soon going to discover the enormous uncertainty involved in trying to put a number on any of those things. And, in fact, doing any reliability work can actually introduce new failure modes.

Over and over, I’ve seen the theme of ambiguity and uncertainty appear in ethnographic research that looks at professional work in action. In Designing Engineers, the aerospace engineering professor Louis Bucciarelli did an ethnographic study of engineers in a design firm, and discovered that the engineers all had partial understanding of the problem and solution space, and that their understandings also overlapped only partially. As a consequence, a lot of the engineering work that was done actually involved engineers resolving their incomplete understanding through various forms of communication, often informal. Remarkably, the engineers were not themselves aware of this process of negotiating understandings of the problems and solutions.

The famous Common Ground and Coordination in Joint Activity paper by Gary Klein, Paul Feltovich, and David Woods, makes explicit the role that ambiguity plays in human coordination and communication.

You’ll sometimes hear researchers who study work talk about the process of sensemaking. For example, there’s a paper by Sana Albolino, Richard Cook, and Micahel O’Connor called Sensemaking, safety, and cooperative work in the intensive care unit that describes this type of work in an intensive care unit. I think of sensemaking as an activity that professionals perform to try to resolve ambiguity and uncertainty.

(Ambiguity isn’t always bad. In the book On Line and On Paper, the sociologist Kathryn Henderson describes how engineers use engineering drawings as boundary objects. These are artifacts are that are understood differently by the different stakeholders: two engineers looking at the same drawing will have different mental models of the artifact based on their own domain expertise(!). However, there is also overlap in their mental models, and it is this combination of overlap and the fact that individuals can use the same artifact for different purposes that makes it useful. Here the ambiguity has actual value! In fact, her research shows that computer models, which eliminate the ambiguity, were less useful for this sort of work).

As practitioners, we have no choice: we always have to deal with ambiguity. As noted by Richard Cook in the quote that opens this blog post, we are the ones, at the sharp end, that are forced to resolve it.

3 thoughts on “The ambiguity of real work

  1. Thanks for the great post. I have been working through my own thoughts on “ambiguity” as a concept and the different perspectives which may evoke its relation to the real world.

    The reference to Ackoff, where even the problem definition itself is ambiguous and is pulled out of the “mess” is great. I’m currently making my way through Strategic Ambiguities by Eisenberg, which seems to have more to do with your Henderson reference. Utilizing and embracing multiple interpretations of the same artifact. Just in a more general sense.

    Do you have any suggested readings or other references if I’m interested in the topic of ambiguity? I’ve read a decent amount on joint cognitive systems and sensemaking, but I’m always looking to dig out other perspectives.

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