Some collaborative reflections by Arran Rees and Helen Graham, with some helpful thoughts from Asa Calow, John Stack and Tim Boon.
The Congruence Engine is made up of a large team of people who are bringing a diverse range of different modes of working to the project. A key feature of the project is the flexible participatory methodology that is planned to ensure close dialogue and work planning between all project participants. As part of beginning the project therefore, we need to set aside time to feel our way into it, to learn from each other and understand the qualities, methods, and ways of working we all bring with us from previous life experiences. The Congruence Engine formally began on 14 November 2021, and twelve days later a group of us – those involved in shaping the digital design, digital humanities and action research strands – met up to share specific methods we think could be useful.
The three methods we explored together were: Design Double Diamond; Agile software development tools including Canvas, User Stories and Kanban boards; and Systemic Action Research (SAR).
Design Double Diamond – Asa Calow
Double Diamond is a design and implementation method devised by the Design Council. It starts with a roughly defined challenge and opens to accept a wide range of possible solutions during the ‘discover’ phase. This multitude of options are then converged during the ‘define’ stage where a scope is developed and decided upon. At this point the scope can either be considered worth developing, or the challenge is reassessed and the ‘discover’ phase begins again.
If the scope is to be developed, then a wide range of possible development solutions are considered. This multitude of options are then brought together in order to develop the solution. At this point, any number of the possible development solutions can be reconsidered to help deliver the solution. At the delivery point, the solution is either successful and the desired outcome is achieved, or the process can start again.
Canvas, User Stories and Kanban boards – John Stack
A canvas is a tool used to help specify services or products. It usually uses relatively well understood project management terms (like Purpose, Scope, Success Criteria, Milestones, Actions, Results, Team, Stakeholders, Users, Resources, Constraints and Risks) to help structure a project and establish its scope.
User Stories and Kanban boards are tools that are used within Agile software development. Agile is an Iterative, incremental and evolutionary approach to the development of software. Each iteration or development ‘sprint’ within Agile development involves a team working across different functions including planning, analysis, design, coding and testing. At the end of each iteration, a working product is demonstrated to a wider team, and this may lead to further sprints or iterations.
User Stories is a development tool used to sketch out the needs of different users. It often focuses on what people need or want to achieve when using a tool or product, rather than on the tool’s specific features. This allows for more creative discussions about how to meet user needs, rather being held to specific technologies and features.
Kanban boards support the management of tasks throughout a project. Individual tasks are recorded on Post-It notes (either digitally or on a physical board) and travel left to right through columns that indicate the task’s status on the way to completion. Kanban boards also have sections to flag where a task is blocked and further help is needed.
Systemic Action Research – Helen Graham and Arran Rees
Action research has traditionally been enacted through a cycle of plan, act, observe and reflect. Systemic Action Research (SAR) – which has been pioneered by Danny Burns in the context of Development Studies (2007) – is a form of action research that deploys this same cycle but with an active recognition that linear cause and effect is often difficult or even impossible to discern in complex social situations.
There are some key principles of Action Research and Systemic Action Research that we think will usefully inform our research design:
- Expanded epistemology: Meaning is created through action, feelings and social relationships.
- Multiperspectival: People feel energised because they are directly involved in questions that matter to them. The diversity of experience and capacities ‘in the room’ enables and enriches the research process because we know different things and we know how to do different things. Communication between people with different perspectives enables what we are doing – the inquiry – to grow and develop meaning and significance.
- Interactions across inquires of varying scope and scales: Action Research cycles can operate at many different speeds and sizes. This frees up possibilities for different people to be involved in different ways at different times and to come and go from the inquiry as it makes sense to them.
- Seek resonance and make room for divergence: Rather than force consensus and agreement, we might think more about seeking moments of resonant connection between different people, who are situated differently and with different motivations. Alongside this, System Action Research also sensitises us to the value of divergence as well, the insights we can gain by activities that do not immediately cohere or narrow to a specific design brief.
As part of the project, we plan to use blogs to facilitate dialogue between different parts of the team to enable us to chew over specific issues. Here Arran Rees kicks off the reflections and Helen Graham responds, followed by Asa Calow.
As we shared our approaches to working, it was apparent that there is a range of synergies in our orientations towards working with other people. I found myself making notes on these, but also the divergences and reflecting on how these can work productively together. Below are just a few of the synergies, as well as the tensions that are emerging that provide us with useful and interesting challenges in the construction and running of a large, complex and exciting project like The Congruence Engine.
The acceptance of divergence as well as congruence appeared to be a significant feature of all the methods, as they all seek multiple perspectives and provide opportunities to contribute to projects in different ways. However, as well as this divergence of thoughts and options encouraged at the beginning of projects using Double Diamond and Agile, there is a need for convergence at some point – where the multitude of perspectives gets narrowed down into a specific brief. In this instance, who does the power sit with? Who is allowed to contribute to these decisions to filter and narrow the initial multiplicity of ideas?
Cyclical and iterative movements were present in all the methods. Double Diamond has specific points that allow you to reflect, re-assess and reset your processes, and Agile uses the concept of sprints to develop projects in incremental and iterative ways. SAR, in its very design, is cyclical and calls for ongoing cycles of planning, action, observation and reflection to help create and enable change. It feels like there is space for these methods to work effectively together through their shared architectural features.
The importance of being able to change your mind is significant in SAR and is also accommodated in Double Diamond through the acceptance of reflection and reassessment at various points throughout the design process. Methods like the ones used as part of Agile are designed more to focus the mind and create stable briefs in order to avoid duplication of efforts. There are examples of action research and Agile coming together in software development (Starton, 2020), and I am looking forward to exploring further how they will come together for us in practice.
As we discussed these different methods, it became clear that they were not in conflict precisely, rather that each has been developed to achieve different things. As Arran says each method has in common opening up multiple perspectives and they all enable in different ways sense making, action and decision making. The differences seem to lie more in their implied theories of what the world is and their different theories of change. The three methods support different ways of being, they imagine sociality variously, they offer different cues to how it might feel to be part of these processes and propose different sorts of psychological satisfactions. It is precisely the different orientations to the world each method promises that makes me think we need to cultivate a research design that can benefit from all three methods and maybe others. This is because we need to collectively find ways of holding complexity in such a way that there can be a process of narrowing and focusing which will enable design work. This whilst also allowing other parts of what the project is – the individual motivations, the social connections, the places, and the insights from collections research – to not necessarily be so contained. Indeed, one resonant moment from this meeting was the realisation that we want The Congruence Engine to be all of this [see the ‘We are Congruence Engine’ blog]. We are not simply seeking a solution or a technical fix, but will be seeing our work as a social process which to activate all of our collective potential will benefit from enabling not only congruence but also divergence.
We’ve used the Double Diamond many times at MadLab, working on projects large and small, especially those which need to draw on many people, perspectives, and ideas to really shine.
What we especially like is that it brings a degree of certainty when starting out on a new challenge – allowing us to talk the challenge through and explore several different angles before focussing in to arrive at a better (and shared) understanding which we can then collectively respond to.
Another useful aspect is its flexibility. You might use it to structure a whole project from start to finish, but you can just as easily apply it during a single meeting. In this way, the Double Diamond fits very well into the Systemic Action Research process, and alongside the management methods which software engineers typically use – such as Agile – when considering what tools and features to build, how, and why.
This blog piece started out as a reflection on one of the first meetings of the project, but over the past few months we have really started to see the project use and live some of these methodologies and the reflections we had about them. We have seen the importance of Canvas in helping to define our first experiment with textiles data, we’re actively navigating the discovery phase of the Double Diamond process and we have lived the multiperspectival and resonance seeking aspects of SAR in our initial project conference, where we saw emergent issues rise up through our open and collaborative approach, helping to inform the next stages of the project.
1. Burns, D. 2007. Systemic action research: a strategy for whole system change. Policy Press.
2. Staron, M., 2020. Action research in software engineering. Springer International Publishing.
Arran is a post-doc Research Associate based at the University of Leeds. He is co-facilitating the action research on the Congruence Engine project alongside Helen Graham, and is interested in museum collections, digital practices and online remix cultures. He’s also really keen on participatory and action focused research methods.
Helen teaches museum and heritage studies at the University of Leeds and, with Arran Rees, co-facilitates the action research on the Congruence Engine.
Asa is a founder-director of grassroots digital innovation organisation MadLab, and responsible for its award-winning R&D programme – including the community-driven creative skills festival Make Stuff (“Best Tech for Good”, Big Chip Awards), and the Blockchain-powered micro-credentialing platform Incredible, amongst others. He is a US National Academies Djerassi art-science fellow (“Scientific Delirium. Madness.”)
John is Digital Director of the Science Museum Group. He joined in 2015 and is responsible for setting and delivering the Group’s digital strategy. He manages the Digital department which encompasses the museums’ websites, digitised collections, apps, games and on gallery digital media. Prior to joining the Science Museum Group, he was Head of Digital at Tate for ten years.