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The importance of initial conditions in design

A very interesting article appeared in the press a few weeks ago concerning the emergence of a ‘new’ approach or strategy for making computers and the web less vulnerable to threats of disruption. The ‘new ‘strategy is a design strategy, which consists of returning to the initial design assumptions and first intentions from which the whole complex, almost incomprehensible system of web connected computers emerged. The design strategy is to start over—to ‘redesign’—rather than ‘fix’ the existing mess.

Returning to the initial conditions of designed systems or assemblies is essential for any intentional change intervention to be efficiently effective. Too often clients, decision makers or stakeholders are not willing to spend the time and effort to begin at the beginning where it counts. As David Kelley of Stanford’s D School and IDEO fame has stated in an interview:

It took Kelley a while to appreciate the power of stepping back before forging ahead. In the mid-1980s, he says, he used to write proposals with the various phases of the process -- understanding, observation, brainstorming, prototyping -- priced separately. Clients invariably would say, "Don't do that early fooling around. Start with phase three." Kelley realized that the early phases were where the big ideas came from -- and what separated his firm from a bunch of management consultants. "That moment was really big for me," he says. "After that, I'd say, 'No way, I won't take the job if you scrap those phases. That's where the value is.' "

Fast Co. interview
Ideo's David Kelley on "Design Thinking"

The unfolding paths and emergent forms that dynamically appear—the organizational structures and jobs created, the vested interests established—are conditional on a set of less complicated initial circumstances that spawned the present reality in the first place (Chaos theory is a formalization of this idea). The forms that emerge—no matter the complexity or scale—are essentially determined by the initial conditions of the design situations.

A systemic design process animates a set of dynamics that cause the appearance of ever more complex and complicated forms of interactive systemic behavior to take shape over time. As a design initiated process unfolds, things become ever more interrelated and interconnected and people become ever more tied financially and emotionally to the existing state of affairs they find themselves in. It may have become an unmanageable mess but they defend it because it is their familiar mess versus some unknown situation that may come with a 'do over'.

Jumping into messy situations requires checking back to determine what the initial conditions were to determine if they need to be challenged and changed—before assuming the task is confined to fixing or refining. Making such assumptions leads to the situation best characterized in Russell Ackoff ‘s often repeated statement: “The righter you do the wrong thing the wronger you get.”

Millions of dollars and countless hours are spent fixing or improving complex systems in education, health, government and business without real improvement occurring. Improvements are more likely to be secured by going back to challenge, or determine anew, the initial conditions leading up to the resulting mess at hand.  Checking, challenging and changing the initial conditions from which any complex system has grown is the most effective intervention strategy for assuring that desired outcomes are secured. 

However it is also the most difficult strategy to implement because of all the vested interests that have accreted to the form the system has taken over time.


  1. Very true. The current financial mess that the world is going through may best be solved by redesigning 'money' itself. The problem seems to be there more than anywhere else. The measure has become the commodity - instead of creating real wealth we are running around to find ways of making more money!

    Dinesh Korjan


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