Sunday, September 9, 2007

If Managers Thought Like Designers: 10 Take-Aways

In the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of the Rotman “best of” magazine, an article written by Jeanne Liedtka, executive director of the Batten Institute at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business proposed that “design” is one of the most powerful, emerging tools for competing in the twenty-first century. 

She writes that The problems with traditional approaches to planning have long been recognized. They include the attempt to make a ‘science’ of planning, with its subsequent loss of creativity; the excessive emphasis on numbers; the drive for administrative efficiency at the expense of substance; and the dominance of single techniques, inappropriately applied. Yet, decades later, strategists continue to struggle to propose clear alternatives to traditional processes. . .Design offers a different approach and suggests processes that are more widely participative, more dialogue-based, issue-rather-than-calendar-driven, and conflict-using rather than conflict-avoiding, all aimed at invention and learning, rather than control.

If we took the design metaphor seriously, Liedtka says, these are 10 ideas we might take-away:
1. We would realize that designing business strategy is about invention.

For all their talk about the art and science of management, strategists, in the analytic search for ‘the one right strategy’, have mostly paid attention to the science. Taking the design metaphor seriously means acknowledging the difference between what scientists do and what designers do. Whereas scientists investigate today to discover explanations for what already is, designers invent tomorrow to create something that isn’t.

We all care about strategy because we want the future to be different from the present. But powerful futures are rarely discovered primarily through analytics. They are, as Walt Disney said, “created first in the mind and next in the activity.” This doesn’t deny analysis an important role, but it does subordinate analysis to the process of invention.

As an example of the tension between invention and analysis, take the Sydney Opera House, whose designer, Jørn Utzon, was awarded architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, in 2003. It’s hard now to imagine Australia without the Sydney Opera House, but it’s quite possible that it would never have been built if initial estimates for the project had been accurate. In 1957, when Utzon’s proposal was selected, accountants estimated that the project would take five years to complete and cost $7 million. In reality, it took 14 years and cost more than $100 million. John Lowe, who chronicled the story, quotes Ove Arup, an engineer who collaborated with Utzon on the project: “If the magnitude of the task had been fully appreciated… the Opera House would never have been built. And the fact that it wasn’t known…was one of the unusual circumstances that made the miracle possible.” Thank goodness the accountants got the analysis wrong.

2. We’d recognize the primacy of persuasion.

If strategy is indeed an invention – just one story about the future among many – then it is always contestable. Leaders must therefore persuade others of the compelling wisdom and superiority of the story they have chosen. They must, in fact, make the story seductive; in selling their strategy, they must, to put it bluntly, treat employees like ‘lovers’ instead of ‘prostitutes.’

Successful architects, for instance, know that to get their great buildings built, they must persuade clients to pay for them, and that requires helping clients visualize the end result. In fact, the more inventive the architect, the more critical the ability to conjure the image for the client and for what may be a very skeptical public.

3. We’d value simplicity.

Think of an object you love. Chances are that it is complex enough to perform its function well, but no more complex than it needs to be. In other words, it’s an elegant solution.

4. We’d aim to inspire.

One of the saddest facts about the state of business design is the extent to which we settle for mediocrity. We don’t even attempt to engage our audience at an emotional level, let alone to inspire. Yet the difference between great designs and those that are only ‘okay’ is the way the former call us to something greater.

Consider the differences between the San Francisco Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. The Bay Bridge offers a route across the water. The Golden Gate Bridge does that, too, but it also sweeps, symbolizes, and enthralls. It has, like the Sydney Opera House, become an icon of the land it occupies. How many of our business strategies are like the Golden Gate Bridge? Too few, I’m afraid.

5. We’d master the core skills first.

Even when designs are inventive, persuasive, elegant, and inspiring, they still rely on basics. The Sydney Opera House’s sail-shaped roof vaults required expert engineering. The Guggenheim Bilbao’s undulating titanium-clad exterior was possible only with the help of sophisticated computer modeling. And the little black dress worked because Chanel pioneered a synthetic fabric – jersey – that flowed instead of clinging.

6. We’d learn to experiment.

How does one move from mastery to brilliance? From technical competence to true innovation? By experimenting. Some design experiments take place in the mind – think of the strategic planning process, in which strategists imagine and test new futures – and some find their expression in physical prototypes. Some experiments are even conducted in the real world, and here I offer my only design story from the business world: IKEA. When the company’s visionary founder, Ingvar Kamprad, started out, he had only a general sense of what would become IKEA’s revolutionary approach to the furniture business. Nearly every element of its now-legendary business model – showrooms and catalogs in tandem, knockdown furniture in flat parcels, and customer pickup and assembly – emerged over time from experimental responses to urgent problems. Customer pickup, for instance, became a central element of IKEA’s strategy almost by chance, when frustrated customers rushed into the warehouse because there weren’t enough employees to help them.The store manager realized the advantages of the customers’ initiative and suggested that the idea become permanent.

7. We’d be more inclusive in our strategic conversations.

The image of the solitary genius at work in his atelier is as much a myth in art, architecture, and science as it is in business. Design teaches us about the value of including multiple perspectives in the design process – turning the process into a conversation.

8. We’d learn to talk differently.

Of course, simply putting a variety of people in a room together is not enough. To produce superior designs, we must change the way we talk to one another. Most of us have learned to talk in business settings as if we are in a debate, advocating a position. But within a diverse group, debate is more likely to lead to stalemate than to breakthroughs: breakthroughs come from asking new questions, not debating existing solutions; they come from reexamining what we take as given.

As a case in point, consider the design of Manhattan’s Central Park. In 1857, the country’s first public landscape design competition was held to select the plan for this park. Of all the submissions, only one – prepared by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux – fulfilled all of the design requirements.The most challenging requirement? That cross-town traffic be permitted without marring the pastoral feel of the park – had been considered impossible to meet by all the other designers. Olmsted and Vaux succeeded by eliminating the assumption that the park was a two-dimensional space. Instead, they imagined it in three dimensions, and sank four roads eight feet below its surface.

9. We’d work backwards.

Most managers are taught a straightforward problem-solving methodology: define a problem, identify various solutions, analyze each, and choose one. Designers begin at the end of this process, as Stephen Covey has famously admonished, by achieving clarity about the desired outcomes of the design and then working backwards.

10. We’d start the conversation with possibilities.

Great design, it has been said, occurs at the intersection of constraint, contingency, and possibility – elements that are central to creating innovative, elegant, and functional designs. But it matters greatly where you start. In business, we have tended to start strategic conversation with constraints: the constraints of budgets, of ease of implementation, of the quarterly earnings focus that Wall Street dictates. As a result, we get designs for tomorrow that merely tweak today’s. Great design inevitably starts with the question “What if anything were possible?”
After all, if strategy is an invention, a product of our imaginations, and our assumptions are bound only by what we can imagine, then removing the assumptions that arise from the belief in constraints is job number one.
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