In the spirit of muddling through, designers can deal with complex systems by “dividing and conquering”, ie, working in modules, numerous small and incremental steps.
“Incrementalism as a strategy for dealing with large, complex systems has a respectable history. The major argument was put forward by the political scientist Charles Lindblom, made popular in his papers entitled “muddling through.”15 Incrementalism is the process of moving forward in small, considered steps, fitting the opportunities offered by each successive present, rather than by tackling the entire problem all at once with a single leap into an unknown future. Why? Because major projects involve so many cultural issues, changes in work practices, and changes in the division of work across different professional categories of workers, as well as strong contrasting viewpoints that make the political issues dominate, either leading to stalemate or requiring so many compromises that it is not feasible to make a solid prediction of the future state on the basis of current knowledge, so the future vision is extremely likely to overlook important emerging effects, and the project is slated for failure.
Muddling through” means acting opportunistically, taking whatever action is possible at the moment. Small steps do not ignite the passions as much as large ones, so they can often be approved. Moreover, success in small steps simplifies the approval process for future steps, whereas failure of a small step does not lead to failure of the entire effort. The operations don’t have to be perfect: they simply need to be approximations to the desired end result, to be “good enough,” or in Simon’s terms, they should “satisfice” rather than optimize.”
So. All in all, what can designers do?
- Attention to social, cultural and political issues