On the meaning of unconventional

A new kind of approach to tackle new kinds of problems

If you go to Manas.Tech, you can find an easter egg by hovering on the word ‘unconventional’. That word is a big influence on everything we do, including but not limited to, a hidden wink to curious visitors.

Unconventional /ʌnkənˈvɛnʃ(ə)n(ə)l/ adj. not based on or conforming to what is generally believed.

The dictionary definition of the term unconventional is as illustrative as its counterpart:

Conventional /kənˈvɛnʃ(ə)n(ə)l/ adj. based on or conforming to what is generally believed.

The true meaning, however, does not lay in the definitions. What’s behind this is the fact that all the easy problems are already solved. Humans have learned to solve most of their easy, straightforward problems, and have done a pretty good job at it. The remaining things to be fixed, solved and improved are the tough ones. The wicked problems.

But it is often difficult to see this. In fact, many along the years have claimed the end of History, only to be shortly after disclaimed by, well… History.

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” –Charles H. Duell, 1899, U.S. Commissioner of Patents

Read that quote again, but this time, take a look at the year. Right at the end of the 19th century, a man in charge of patenting inventions, claimed his job was about to disappear. Mind you, some of the inventions that have become an integral part of our daily lives hadn’t been patented yet when Mr. Duell uttered these words: both Tesla and Marconi applied for patents on radio in 1900, air conditioning systems were patented in 1902, the airplane would be patented in 1906, and television wasn’t around until 1930.

So, what led Mr. Duell to believe that everything had already been invented?

Wicked Problems

Well, the thing is, in a complex world where simple, straightforward problems have already been solved, the only way you can create value is by taking a shot at solving the hard problems. The complex problems that arise from complex systems.

These are what we call wicked problems: social or cultural problems that are difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Sounds oddly familiar, doesn’t it?

There is another substantial difficulty that comes with complexity: it is hard for us humans to wrap our minds around it.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” –Arthur C. Clarke

It’s fair to say that any sufficiently complex problem is indistinguishable from an impossible to solve enigma. And that is why, when the solution is presented to us, it seems magical.

However, as impossible as these kinds of problems may seem, they can be mitigated through the process of design, which is an intellectual approach that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning, and rapid prototyping.

Putting the solution ahead of the problem

In 2001, almost exactly a century after Duell, Steve Jobs introduced the iPod to the world, and everything about that tiny device seemed absolutely magical. If I had been the Commissioner of Patents at the time, the very next day I would have said that everything that can be invented had been invented. That’s what it felt like at the time.

But fast forward to 2007, only 6 years later than the iPod, and not that long ago, Steve Jobs did it again: he introduced the iPhone, and everything about it seemed even more magical than the iPod. If I had been the Commissioner of Patents in 2007, the very next day I would have published a retraction on my 2001 statement because now, oh yeah, now everything that can be invented has been invented. But I would also have been wrong, wouldn’t I?

When these magical innovations are first presented to us, they truly are the closest thing to magic. They solve a problem that we didn’t even realize we had, in a way that is just mesmerizing. We didn’t even know that there was a problem with our phones having a physical keyboard, or that there was a void in our lives that had to be filled with apps.

But then, after a short time goes by, the shine starts to fade, and it seems like that magic was there the whole time. Not only the solution seems obvious, the problem does too. And yet, the majority of us didn’t see it before, exactly like Mr. Duell believed everything had already been invented back in 1899.

This brings a lot of headaches because, next time we face a complex problem, we will be tempted to believe that the solution should be the obvious one. Just as the last great solution seemed obvious once we became familiar with it. But that problem wasn’t obvious, and neither was the solution.

Conventional problems are just as imaginable as conventional solutions. That is why –and how– humans have learned how to solve most of them.

But the unconventional, which spans beyond the border of the familiar and into the unknown, presents problems that can’t yet be completely understood, and thus can’t be solved in a predictable, straightforward way. Paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw,

“Conventional people adapt themselves to the world. Unconventional people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unconventional people”.

Unconventional problems can’t be solved with a conventional approach. Anything you can successfully predict is not the outcome of a complex system. And anything you can’t successfully predict is not a conventional problem to be dealt with in a conventional way.

Things like a global pandemic put this in perspective with a clarity that is rare in our human experience. Dealing with it required understanding a complex system, with complex elements such as the behavior of a deadly virus, human behavior, and human behavior when faced with a deadly virus. There are too many variables, behaving too erratically.

Most of the approaches we saw in the early days of the outbreak approached it too simplistically. And they simply failed. We weren’t realizing that there was incomplete or contradictory knowledge, a lot of people and opinions involved, a large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. The recipe for a wicked problem was right before our eyes, yet we were suffering from Duell’s nearsightedness syndrome. Things started to shift when we started addressing this problem seriously. When we understood that this was a wicked, unconventional problem, in dire need of unconventional solutions.

So this is where we stand: at the border, and headed for uncharted territory. From this point on, the kinds of problems that humanity will face, will increasingly look more and more like handling a pandemic: a lot of different variables, interacting in a complex system, with a degree of uncertainty that makes any linear prediction both laughable and dangerous.

All we can rely on, if we want to innovate successfully, is going to be found on the fringes. Seth Godin said it almost 20 years ago, but it still rings true today:

“Safe is risky. Risky is safe.” –Purple Cow, 2003.

That is the true meaning of unconventional. For us, at least. It’s about doing the hard, irregular, dynamic work that goes into designing possible solutions for problems that are currently difficult to imagine, with empathy, abductive reasoning, and rapid prototyping.

It’s about knowing how to go to the fringes, and how to come back. The work that we need to learn consists of a systematic approach to complexity and the skill to craft that which is not based on, or conforming to, what is generally believed.