Wicked Messes and Non-Excel Thinking: False Precision in Designing Futures

[Original 2009; Edit 2024]

I joke that Excel is the cause of most of our woes and frustrations. Everything in the visual story seems so neat and tidy, with inputs and outputs clearly defined. Of course, this linear story must be true and valid. The cells underneath are not visible, though we oftentimes trust the data sourcing, tools, and relationships without poking at the formulas, cells, and underlying assumptions.

My own experience as a banker for ten years told me that projections are never right—of course they aren't. We know so little of the real inputs and outputs. But Excel, just as Lotus 1-2-3 did during the go-go '80s LBO craze, gives us an illusion of certainty and predictability. We quickly learned how to solve for the end result, changing the compounding growth rates to get the results needed to get the funding.

We seem to apply this to everyday life: financial projections, career planning, and even scheduling our families. We seem to expect that if we have the right tools that we can find order in the chaos and tides of change.

I'm enjoying reading and re-reading systems theory thinkers right now. I'm enjoying Bela Banathy's Designing Social Systems in a Changing World (1996), which, among many other things, looks at how design works. He framed science as examining the past, art as reexamining the present, and design as changing elements to create different futures. I do like that framework. Once you realize that change is a tide pulling outward on our societal structures with creative destruction for new creations, you can start realizing that change can be affected.

But the world of Excel seems to illustrate that change can be predicted and mandated into place. Public policy and corporate activities crank out spreadsheets, assuming that action A will create activity B and official actions will turn into official results.

Change happens, but it isn't clean, pretty, or Excel-like. Change really happens when the systems we create are so out of alignment with the swirling changes in the systems around them that they crack. They break. Then new systems congeal and swirl, addressing the changed needs that have pressured the systems for so long.

Educational institutions are mostly designed for Excel-like repetition, adding new trials and budgeted elements but not creative destruction. That definitely applies to US K-12 education, but also to many higher education institutes that I tinker with. Government? We budget versus prior year, with money driving the decisions instead of looser systems to reflect the needs of the community. Then we are surprised that we use the word "reform" around both of these systems, as they are built without their own reform processes within... and projected based on Excel spreadsheets to replicate the year before...

My mother used to tell the story of the newlywed woman and her first Christmas ham in her new home. Her new husband said, "Why are you cutting 3 inches off of the end of the ham?" She replied, "That's what my mother always did." She called her mother, who replied, "Well, that's what your grandmother always did." She then called Grandma, who thought for a minute before replying, "Dear, when I first got married, we had a very small stove..."

We have designed our banking and financial systems, based on Excel thinking, predictive modeling, and assuming more of the same.

How do we design our thinking without an Excel mentality? How frightening and awkward is that?

How does this free us to rethink our assumptions? Can we dwell in long moments of uncertainty and discomfort and design anew?