My context is better than your context

I’m confused. And that’s actually a good thing because it means I’m working through something interesting. Maybe important, maybe not. But at least interesting.

I started thinking about context a few years ago during graduate studies when I kept reading and hearing things like “context matters” and “it depends on the context.” Of course it does. My own professional experience gave me a keen appreciation of context when working on technology design and adoption problems.

So ok. But exactly what do we mean by “context?” When you ask people to describe the context of some situation, they are clearly including some things while ignoring others. But how do we decide what to include or not include in “The Context” when you are looking at some situation? Whose definition of context are we using here?

So I did some reading and research on how people who think about context actually define it (which actually had a big influence on how I thought about my final graduate thesis work, and what I do and teach today). The result: We should appreciate “context” as a set of specific cues selected by a practitioner or researcher to analyze or understand a situation. Cues tend to fall in a few big buckets — social factors, physical factors (think architecture), time, desired outcomes, etc. But “selected” is the key here. It’s a hypothesis. A way of seeing. A way of creating a coherent story to explain some behavior or outcome. Change one or more of the selected cues and the context suddenly becomes different. (Think about time as one element in setting the context. We look at some organizational practice over a period of weeks. We look at that same practice over a 3-year period and now the context is changed).

I went down this context rabbit hole after listening to David Snowden’s talk this week at #change11 Change: Education, Learning and Technology MOOC. I also shared some thoughts in commentary to Jenny Mackness’s thoughtful blog posts about some of the more interesting bits Snowden shared during the talk, which emerge from his Cynefin framework and work in adapting complexity theory to improve decision making.

Anyone who has heard Snowden knows that he is as entertaining as he is innovative and thought provoking. And during the session he challenged us to question our belief that facilitation techniques can elicit a truly broad and diverse set of ideas. If you really want diversity of ideas you need a process — specifically a process that ritualizes dissent — rather than facilitation, which dampens dissent in favor of convergence.

I know I am oversimplifying the ideas discussed, but Snowden’s point put me in mind of a dialogue I heard at a panel discussion featuring expert practitioners from the design field. Someone in the audience asked the panel how they learned to ‘check their biases at the door’ when observing an environment in the early stages of some design project (trying to understand the context before coming up with potential solution design options). One panelist said they really didn’t/couldn’t check their biases – the solution was to make sure you had different-minded people on your team, doing the observation with you.

Now – that might be more of an interesting practice than a real process, but the idea (I think) is the same. Accept cognitive bias a part of the human condition and build some process work-around to deal with it in situations where you want diversity of ideas.

That lead to the comments/discussion on Mackness’ blog about context. Does the goal of ensuring ample dissent vary by context? For example: Are we talking about decision making, idea generation or some other outcome? (Different outcome goals create different contexts) Open networks or some other structure (my small-team of designers, for example)? And within the structure, what might be important underlying principles of the way we gather together (learner autonomy in MOOC’s, common professional practice in the case of designers)? Each of these questions – my view – is an example of trying to be more explicit about defining cues we look for to define context. Snowden’s Cynefin Framework could be viewed as another aspect of this context-defining: Are we talking about a complex or complicated environment? Chaotic or simple?

In the end, I’m confused. I am continually amazed by the subtleties that thoughtful practitioners pick up as cues that are very likely important to the situation being observed or analyzed — and in many cases, clearly important to the participants involved (my bias is to give higher weight to these). This capability is a really critical skill.

Perhaps what I’m landing on this. We need to agree on the attributes that help us define the context; and there we begin to have a shared framework for understanding. That practice should not change our efforts to continually consider new cues. But let’s define how we define context first.