In any of our client engagements, the first thing we talk about is using affordances in capacity building.
The design thinkers among you may recognise the term. In simple terms, perceiving an affordance is knowing what something ‘is for’. It is an opportunity for action.
The affordance of a light switch, for example, is something that you perceive and most likely have the ability to act upon. The opportunity for action you have been afforded is to turn on a light.
A Simple Affordance Example
Bear with me here, but it is worth further surfacing ways of using affordances in capacity building in another example.
If you look at a teapot, you will see a handle and a spout. Framing it in terms of challenge and strategy, the challenge to overcome is that the tea is in the teapot and you want it in the tea cup.
So, if you want a cuppa, you must perceive what elements of the teapot ‘are for’ and be able to deploy some physical and/or cognitive capacity to realise the teapot’s potential utility.
Getting A Handle On Things
The handle has an affordance of ‘grip-ability’, and if you can in fact grip it (that is, have gripping capacity), then once gripped the entire teapot then affords ‘pour-ability’.
With the requisite capacity, the person can now begin to pour tea into the cup.
Importantly, however, to begin pouring, the pourer must also perceive that the spout afforded ‘flow-ability’, which is, for the pourer, a purely cognitive affordance. That is, he must perceive that tipping the teapot toward the spout would allow the tea to flow into the cup, even though the flow is caused indirectly (by gravity).
The simple challenge of getting tea from a teapot into a teacup required a minimal level of actual capacity to execute the strategy, but there’s a lot going on there.
To get a cuppa you must perceive all three affordances mentioned.
It’s easy to dismiss this as a pointless and unnecessarily prolix example, but there was a time in all our lives that what a teapot ‘was for’, and what the spout and handle ‘did’, was an abject mystery.
Fisher-Price likely helped lift that veil of ignorance, but the key point is that the teapot always had grip-ability and pour-ability even when you didn’t perceive it.
Years later, of course, whenever you now see a handle, whether it be on a cup, a tea pot, a watering can or a cupboard, you immediately know that it has grip-ability.
Beyond that grip-ability, however, you know that there is a potential action fused to the grip-ability. Depending on context, the handle can facilitate pour-ability or open-ability. Perceiving the affordance of handles is, then, a key element of functional capacity in your day-to-day existence.
So, what do we do with this idea of affordances? Our approach to capacity development involves the creation of spaces that we can learn to control.
As with all development projects, the need to truly understand current levels of understanding of that space is paramount.
At its most basic level, here is simply no better approach to taking stock of your environment than viewing the world around you in terms of the affordances you perceive.
Thoreau famously said ‘It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see’. That really encapsulates the core benefit of affordances. You immediately begin to see and perceive new opportunities for action.
The real breakthrough comes when clients make the leap from habitually looking at the affordances of physical objects to that of cognitive objects. So, using the teapot example, they begin to see both the handle’s grip-ability and the spout’s flow-ability.
An affordance-led review is tremendously effective as a way of rooting out what you really know about a space and what its component objects ‘are for’. More compellingly, the exercise forces you to face what parts of the environment in the space you have no grasp of.
Using affordances is also key in reducing the capacity-sapping complex environments by stripping the space down to its working parts. This reduction in complexity then dismantles what we call the Solution Paradox.
As capacity development continues, the number of affordances that are perceived increases. We find that the affordance habit never goes away, because the search for affordances is almost a proxy for a capacity scoreboard.
Simply put, you cannot afford to not use affordances. If you are not using affordances in capacity building efforts, then who knows what you are not perceiving.