Learning to think about the process instead of the outcome

By | June 9, 2021

As a practitioner of long standing, I have been accustomed to emphasizing the focus of my analysis and synthesis on the content generated by my application of the design methods and process rather than on the process and tools themselves beyond the adaptation to better fit for purpose in relatively more complex and challenging contexts such as the informal economic system of East Africa.

That is, while internally the team might indeed spend a lot of time and effort upfront in the preparation and planning of the fieldwork, rarely does the client care about the nuances of the process and its implications. They are purchasing the outcomes.

Now, in academia, I am challenged to think about the process in great depth and detail, and how it relates to the body of literature on methodology.

Today, it feels like a daunting task.

How do I step back from the results of my work and distance myself from the outcomes, accustomed as I am to generating novel knowledge in little known contexts?

How do I distance myself from what I have long been accustomed to immersing myself in – the commercial practices of informal economic systems, for example – and pivot not only away from it in terms of distance but also step back at an angle to reflect on what I did, why I did it, and for what purpose?

Its not a linear pivot but one that must occur on two planes.

I’ve got to step back from the work far enough to see the process and at the same time I have to move away a little to side to discern the reasons for doing what I did to the process to make it work better in contexts it was not designed for in the first place.

The last time I tried a multi-scalar application of the design process was for the Dutch Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Economic Affairs (as it was known back then) in September 2012. I applied the human centered design research approach to map their implicit design process for implementing public private partnerships for sustainable agricultural value chains, and then used the same process as the evaluation metric by which to evaluate the gaps in the current approach in order to improve its human-centeredness (see Bhan and Doorneweert, 2013).

I felt the same way I am doing now. Daunted by the challenge. What had I gone and promised? On paper?

By jeroen meijer of jam visueldenken amsterdam

It took Jeroen Meijer, who had studied Industrial Design at TU Delft and now practiced as a visual sensemaker, to point out to me in the throes of anxious panic that what I was experiencing was normal to every designer who ever took up a new and challenging project. Of course we had no idea what we were doing, it was innovation, goddammit!

He taught me to trust the process. And the process, I have now learnt, if its going right, includes a momentary attack of panic stricken self flagellation – “what was I thinking?” “what am I doing?” “I have no idea what I’m doing here and how I’m going to get from A to B?” “Oh god, I’m lost, I’ve promised B and I’m lost between A and some dark and dangerous forest of inexperienced ignorance.”

I’m writing this out to remind myself that even if I have no idea what I’m doing, I’ll work it out somehow and then blog triumphantly from point B, going “Oh look at what we managed to do when we had no idea how on earth we were going to do it somewhere in the middle of the process”.

Trusting the process can be more important in the experience of the moment that remaining focused only on the outcome. This is one situation where keeping an eye on the goalposts while your feet are fumbling to dribble the ball can trip you up. This is counter-intuitive to the most popular bits of advice on never losing sight of your goals.

If you’re experienced in the process and the outcomes of the process are each and every time very different from each other, then trust your muscle memory of your hands on practical knowledge of implementing the process and the tools so familiar in your grasp that you barely acknowledge their existence.


Schon, D. A. (1984). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action (Vol. 5126). Basic books.

Bhan, N., & Doorneweert, R.B. (2013, December). Using the methods designers use as aids to thinking: The case of public-private partnerships in sustainable agricultural value chain development. In 2013 IEEE Tsinghua International Design Management Symposium (pp. 277-283). IEEE.

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