My wife and I have had a running argument for some time. When I say sometime what I really mean is that this particular disagreement stated the day we met. It continues on through the current day after nearly two decades of knowing each other. The argument is one of form vs function.
What do I mean by form vs function? When I look at the world, it’s from the perspective of first considering what things can and should do. My wife is completely different, when she considers any decision, the aesthetics of how that decision applies are the primary consideration. I think this is one of the reasons why we are a fit fit to each other. If you plot us out on a bell curve she would be in the 20% of the people highly concerned with appearances in any decision making. I would be in the 20% on the other side of people whose primary focus is how something operates and what functions it brings. I would have little concern for what it looks like. By necessity of being married, when working through any decision making process, the conversation brings us both closer to the center. I guess that’s why people say opposites attract, it makes up for the extremes we have as part of the human condition. I have a couple of recent examples including car purchases and our home layout which can really help describe this better.
When it came to our most recent vehicle purchase I was thinking older toyota minivan. The reason why is because they can reasonably be expected to run for three hundred thousand miles with regular maintenance. More importantly minivans are not very popular right now. Not very popular equals lower prices and great value! I was hoping to find one that was the least popular color of all, maybe something like lime green or possibly puce to get even a better deal.
My wife on the other hand believes minivans are frumpy and convey the appearance of an old woman. Simply put, it’s what her mother would drive when my wife was four years old and not with a young hip and with-it Mom of today would drive. She wanted a sporty SUV. She’s obviously not alone because there is a fairly significant price premium on SUVs in the market which does not correlate to manufacturing costs.
The next example includes our house. At the time we were building I had a five year old who was six when we moved in. My office shares a bathroom with the children and I thought it wise to put in a urinal in addition to the regular toilet. My thinking was my preteen boy has bad aim and I’m lazy. I know that would have hindered resale value but I calculated that removing the urinal would be minor in addition to everything else that usually has to be done when one prepares their home to sell it. My wife was adamantly against the urinal in that she just thought it would look horrible. I’m sure every single person reading this or listening to the audio version thinks I’m insane and thinks my wife is the sensible one in that argument. Over two years and uncounted toilet seat cleanings later I am more convinced than ever that my idea is the ultimate application of proper function in family bathroom design.
This form versus function argument happens continually to this day. The most recent example was this morning. In the Summers my child goes to the Boys & Girls Club a few days a week. On Fridays they always take the children bowling. This means the children need to wear socks when they put on the bowling shoes. My son came downstairs like usual dressed in his Summer sandals. My wife reminded our son to go get socks because it was a bowling day. When my son came down he was wearing the socks and the sandals together. My wife immediately told him to take off the socks and put them in his bag until bowling because it looked so bad. My son, who thinks a lot like me, said “why take them off if I’m just going to put them back on? I’ll just keep them on.” The three of us had a quick exchange where my wife reiterated her position, and my son and I reiterated the sensibility of his. My son and I argued that it didn’t matter how it looked. We prioritized minimizing the work of putting on and taking off socks as well as having to track them when they’re not on his feet. It was, for possibly the millionth time, a reiteration of our form versus function argument. This particular time the conversation got me thinking. My wife was concerned about what other people would think if they saw the odd-looking combination of summer sandals and black socks. I don’t think it would be a big deal in that young children are known to wear unique clothing combinations as they develop their own sense of style. But the questions that popped into my head at that moment remained and rolled around again and again: When should you actually care what other people think? When should form be the emphasis and when should it be function?
Form Vs. Function: When is it important to care about what other people think when you make decisions?
In business mostly function rules the roost. The only thing investors care about is profits, and profits mostly come from efficient function. All you have to do is go into any sort of manufacturing environment to see this. Unless the process calls for tight environmental controls, the large building with all the assembly probably has limited aesthetic appeal built into it’s design. Almost everything in most lean manufacturing is built around quality and process, nothing is designed for visual appeal. This isn’t to say that aesthetics aren’t sometimes built in to workfloor design. This can be the case if the plant has a public or customer facing role to fill in addition to its mission of manufacturing but I find these types of plants are few and far between. Stepping away from manufacturing, look at most convention hotels. Specifically the areas that are only tread by the staff. Koi ponds, luxurious fabrics, and polished brass accents gives way to dull steel and unpainted block walls just by passing a single doorway into the service hallway.
You see the opposite effect in the social areas in life. A perfectly manicured lawn is a lot more work to maintain than a xeriscape with a few cacti in your front yard. How you dress at church has little to do with how you are perceived by an almighty god than it does your fellow church goers whom you have to interact with. If you keep a sanitized but messy house, the neat freak next door may not want her children to come over for a playdate. Form, or appearances, are clearly more valued in the world of human interactions.
The challenge, as always, comes from the conflict between work and life. We live in a complex and interconnected world. There are people who can make decisions about your life. When they make a decision that affects your life, even if it’s in business, form or appearances, becomes very important. One obvious example: It’s why you dress a certain way on interviews or while working on the job. An ill fitting $3 goodwill suit from the 1980’s may make perfect sense financially for when you are only going to wear the suite one time in three years, but unless the interviewer has a fixation on Don Johnson, will they appreciate your choice? What if it was a budget management position and you explained that your choice of interview attire was a wise management of financial resources thus showing how well you will do at the job? Even if this is true, they will still most likely make the decision that your not professional enough for the position and move on to the person who blew $400 at Men’s Warehouse.
This can happen on the job during your day to day activities. I’ve talked about the chess player personality at work. They are the ultimate incarnation of a professional focus on form. All of their decisions are made based around appearances and perception. The car they drive, the things they prioritize at work and even the words they use when they have casual conversations. I’ve made the case that they don’t really have to be effective at work because they jump positions quickly in their never ending drive to achieve their goals. If you have these people at work, especially up your chain of command where they usually are located, then you have to very careful about how you present yourself. Form will nearly always be king when dealing with them.
The professional conflict: When form gets in the way of function
The challenge with any job is that you are filling a function. I think this is why function generally takes precedence over form in the industrial world. There is no priority with emotions or feelings, the focus is just the mission and/or profits. Still, sometimes an emphasis on form, maybe in the form of politics or desired perceptions, will get in the way of function. One personal example comes from a situation i’ve cited numerous times. Specifically it was was when I was told to wear sports coats at work even though I’m not interfacing with people who ever come close to wearing suits. The rationale was that decision makers in the community would develop an opinion of our effectiveness with our personal presentation rather than the actual job that we were doing. The reality was that if I wore a tie, then I would be putting up a barrier with the people i’m interfacing with. By dressing too many steps over the clients I simply made my job harder.
In another position I was told to make sure I was on the road three days a week even though I could get more work done in the office. The rationale was that the appearance had to be that my organization was out in the community. If I followed those rules, a job that could be done in 20-30 hours took 60+ hours because of the wasted time in the field chasing down false starts and dead ends.
If you are trying to do a good job, an efficient job, then in both of the prior cases, form got in the way of function. Of course, sometimes the opposite is true, form and appearances in the professional world can be very important, actually critically important. Let’s say you have a job that can be done in 20 hours. Nobody is pressuring you to work 60+ hours but you know that showing up to work early and staying late will set a hugely positive reputation verses coming and going whenever you want, even if you do a killer job and exceed your goals. If you did this then not only do you not get fired, you may actually stick around long enough to get to whatever organizational position you truly desire. What if you are doing 60+ hours a week in the field but the decision makers aren’t realizing what a challenging position you have even with the reporting you are doing because the culture is ‘out of sight, out of mind’? You may not get any additional assistance, or worse someone may decide your not really even needed at the organization.
When deciding on form vs. function It’s all about the right balance at the right time!
The key of all of this commentary is that sometimes my wife is wrong, function should be the most important thing when making a decision on what to focus your energies on. Little boys will always be lazy, not lift the seat, and have bad aim. The urinal was definitely a better choice. Sometimes I’m dead wrong and her intense focus on appearances really are of primary importance. When my little boy is a teenager, we will most likely get a lot less attitude if he gets dropped off at, or drives up himself to, school in a cool SUV verses a minivan. I’ve found this to be especially true when it comes to nearly any social interactions. It’s also a good rule of thumb when it comes to human interactions in the professional world. Dressing and acting professionally as well as coming in early and staying late can really help mitigate some of the challenges in your workload or output.
Every situation is different and the need to make a decision that focuses more on appearances or one that focuses more on practical applications comes down to the nuances of the environment and the time. Urinals are a great addition to any home with boys unless you intend to sell your house within four our five years. Sporty SUV’s are awesome unless you are limited on funds and need to transport lots of people or have a teen who is embarrassed by mom’s old purple minivan and wants her to park three blocks from the school.
No matter if your decision making is professional or personal, if it’s on the job or in your life, your decision should never be just based on what looks great or what has the best feature set. Making a decision on form over function is like when you were first dating your spouse, finding the right fit will obviously be the most attractive solution.
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