Image vs Substance, and how Design and Systems thinking helps
I’d come off working two great jobs, one in South Africa and another in the UK as something called a videojournalist. It’s 1996, that’s me in the photo and I’m badly in need of a job.
Provenance in the media I was gradually learning cut little sway unless you had connections and I sadly did not. However over the past two years I’d been admitted into one of the most revered think tanks in the UK and the world, and the director of studies whom I knew for several years took a keen interest in my work.
He would write this reference for me as I applied to CNN to be their West Africa correspondent. I had a contact at CNN who was a senior figure and was hopeful I’d get a look in. Today he’s an ambassador.
I didn’t get the job, let alone be interviewed. There were many reasons, I suppose. My CNN contact, I remember met me for lunch and chuckled. “What!” I asked. “They kept asking me why is his hair so short”, he told me. We both chuckled. Substance vs Image — we both smiled.
Two years earlier having wrapped up reporting from South Africa culminating in Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, Prof Spence saw in me a representation of the next generation of members. I was extremely excited, and really humbled at the reference from an organisation seen as a the gold standard of international think tanks. Its US equivalent is the Council for Foreign Relations.
Substance vs image is the duel that like an errant mosquito continues to buzz annoyingly around the ears. Other jobs would follow, but 26 years on, there are occasions in settings where people you expect might know better still question one’s substance. I guess many people have encountered this. How do you address it? I’ve used this as an example in lectures in my previous job.
Why? The age of the image (Instagram et al). The imprint of stereotype. A default illusion of inadequacies if you don’t frame your successes. And then the positioning managers as bosses, rather than leaders. The difference is one listens the other doesn’t.
Years later from that application and reviewing my own goals as an educator I learnt an important lesson in reception and ‘designed and system thinking’. I was running a course in principles of journalism and realised how easily cohorts engaged in heuristics. It’s the shorthand in thinking that Psychologist Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Slow and Fast refers to as system 1 — an impulsive, automatic thought processes.
Each year we’d realise students were stumbling more or less over the same area. The students had a fixed idea about how they might solve a problem, except in a new institutional setting beset too with new cultures, they were using their short hand approach to problem solve.
Behavioural scientist posit terms like “wicked environment” to explain how conditions in one environment are not the same — when you might perceive they are. Analogical thinking would suggest students were capable of mental leaps from one problem to another because they’d problem-solved all the lives, but the delivery of modules to them, in a new environment, presented an unforeseen problem.
This issue occurs across several subjects, and is primarily met face-on in design and computational, or Economics courses, but I’ll choose dissertation projects, which more or less align with creating a product in a start-up style flow.
Dissertations can be a beast of a project, and often its elements are delivered as entities e.g the Lit and Background research, and then methodology. Any student taking these on has to learn new knowledge and how it’s executed in service of the product. This can be problematic if they can’t visualise or rapid prototype the product, which could be findings from their research question in the shape of text, documentary or say a website with new content.
This is something a professional TV/ radio researcher or producer you have to learn. For instance if you’re making a documentary on teenage drug abuse, it would be of huge values to scour the length and breadth of other networks and archive to see who else has made a similar doc. It’ll give you ideas and you’ll be able to identify your own unique angle.
Hence this is where design thinking can help. Default thinking tends to work like this below.
- You’re curious about your problem, say writing the Lit Review.
- You have a stab at it based on existing knowledge or poorly received knowledge from a new source. “Poorly received” is a failure to translate that knowledge by being passive or that the information isn’t satisfactory.
- You’re frustrated it’s not working and fall into a gloom.
- You’re either encouraged or you set about looking for new knowledge and in the process recycle stages 1–4, which can be testing over a period of time.
- At some point in this trial process you may get the break in result.
If we were to introduce design thinking into the problem of, say again, writing a Lit Review. This simplified graphic at the top would look more like this below.
The introduction of collaboration with colleagues (2) and rapid user/ audience testing (which includes customers and execs e.g. lecturer) (3) helps create the simplest viable product ( for a Lit Review, that’s a draft or bullet points). This has huge value for overcoming any failures (4) and reframing the problem when acquiring new knowledge.
That’s design thinking. Systems thinking offers something else and equally important. Again using the dissertation model, how does the Lit and Background Review work together in service of the output? What is the connecting tissue? And how when writing each separate section do you pull on threads that tie the two together? Mapping the two helps see the bigger picture, before pulling them apart.
When I re-read Prof Spencers brilliantly crafted reference I could see something. What if CNN could see a direct link between them and Chatham House. Several Chatham House experts regularly appear on broadcast networks as pundits? What if the “interesting documentaries” I made were displayed and I’d found an analogous programme related to CNN for the letter’s recipient? What if my pleasantness was aligned with the name of my CNN contact who I’d worked with creating a programme called the United States of Africa?
Of course none of these could guarantee an interview, let alone a job; I’m merely reflecting on a process of thinking, and also how my mentor set out to help me. This is not a criticism of my mentor. What! am I mad? No. It’s merely using a situation I’ve been in to share and learn.
On the question of substance vs image, I’m reminded of this by organisational psychologist @AdamMGrant wrote this, below. He’s right, and there’s an onus on the sharer to bind that information in a systems thinking manner.
Twenty six years on, if knowledge, one’s knowledge is being questioned, sometimes that can’t be helped.
Sometime’s don’t wait for the train, seek to board that which gets you to your journey as exemplified by Denzel Washington, no less, who’s taken to contacting the best directors for jobs. Life, is but too short.