10,000 foot view

The spew below might be a plan for a talk.

Lately I’ve been reflecting on what strikes me as the most difficult and interesting challenge I’ve faced adjusting to service design after decades of practicing other flavors of human-centered design — namely the problem of altitude and granularity appropriate to solving service design problems.

If strategy flies at 30,000 feet (where the ground is so distant it looks like a map) and we agree most design flies at 3 feet (where the ground is so close and so chaotic it is hard to survey), service design flies at 10,000 feet, approximately the height a single-engine prop plane flies.

10,000 feet is a very useful altitude that bridges 30,000 foot and ground, but it does introduce some difficulties.

First, there is the issue of clouds. At 30,000 feet, the clouds are below you. Standing on the ground, the clouds are above you. But at 10,000 feet you are flying in and out of clouds, which can become very disorienting, in the most literal sense. It can be a challenge to know which way is up. And the view is neither clear nor continuous.  One moment you can see a bit of ground, the next you see nothing but your instruments, and you have to use your memory, imagination and your recording and data-gathering tools to form a sense of the whole. But that whole you finally grok has far more structural clarity than you can get from the ground, and more human richness than you can pick up from up in the cold, thin air of the stratosphere.

Second, you are dealing with some odd scales of meaning. Looking down at a town, everything looks miniaturized but still human, maybe even exaggeratedly human because the tedium of life is abstracted away and we relate to it like kids playing with toys. Some homes are big, some are small, some are complexes or towers. Some are arranged in grids, some along windy branches of street bulbing in cul-de-sacs, and some cluster along the edges of lakesides or hills. Some homes have trees or yards, pools, trampolines or gardens, driveways or parking lots. You can imagine what life in the neighborhood might be like. But you can also see the layout of the city, and get a sense of how parts of the town connect up. You can see where the schools, the stores, the churches and the sports fields are. You can see where things have been built up, what has been left in a wild state, and where development is happening.

Now imagine trying to tell a story about the life you see below, doing justice both to the individual lives taking place in the tiny buildings below but showing how it all connects in a living system… this is not the usual storytelling scale. It is neither intimate nor epic. It must generalize, but without blurring key particularities or averaging individuality into bland average anonymity. But if you wish to tell the story of how a town works, or if you want to propose significant structural modifications to the town, this is the narrative scale required. Telling such a story requires judicious zooming in and zooming out to show connections between whole and part, connecting fine grain details of breakfasts, meetings and bills with broad generalities like demographic trends, commerce and traffic patterns.

Finally, intervening at this height is strange. The proposals for changes are unnervingly between strategic and tactical. They anticipate details of implementation, but without overspecifying them. Specifications are suggestive and provisional and intended more to clarify a problem than provide a solution. Many people find the interpretive latitude confusing: what in the recommendation is fixed and what is variable? If everything is open-ended what use is the recommendation at all? It can all seem vague and insubstantial, yet there is a thrust and lasting momentum in the work that carries initiatives forward and in a direction that benefits both the organization as a whole, its employees and the people it serves. Somehow the recommendations made from this altitude are capable of creating continuity between the grand plans of strategists and the intricacies of implementers on the ground.

The 10,000 view manages to refract the grand plans and sweeping aspirations of the 30,000 foot view into actions on the ground that actualize it and prevent it from remaining mere aspiration and plan. And the 10,000 foot view provides individual actors on the ground a way to relate and connect their efforts to tangible, relatable and realistic goals that connect up with the purpose of the organization.


Recently it occurred to me that this 10,000 foot theme is closely related to an idea I hatched years ago, which I called bullshit-chickenshit.

Bullshit – Meaningful, inspiring ideas that that seem to promise practical action but never fulfill that promise and never find application.

Chickenshit – Practical actions that seem like they ought to serve some meaningful purpose, but in fact is meaningless and done for no reason.

Bullshit is meaning without application. Chickenshit is application without meaning.

The 10,000 foot view prevents strategy from dissociating from everyday application and devolving into bullshit. And the 10,000 foot view provides some meaningful, relatable context for people working on or near the front lines to help them to remember how what they do connects up with organizational goals so the operational minutia supports the organizational goals and prevents it from devolving into bureaucratic chickenshit.

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