Business Can Use Designer Discipline for More Than Buildings Alone

January 15, 2003 · by Doug Parker

In order for business leaders to recognize the value of the design process, it is incumbent on the design profession to redefine design in a much broader context.

Design is perhaps one of the most underemployed process tools available for business. In fact most would not consider it a tool at all. Business leaders would recognize the value of a well-designed environment or product. While they can appreciate the end product or result they have little understanding or place little value on the process.

In order for business leaders to recognize the value of the design process, it is incumbent on the design profession to redefine design in a much broader context. Design is at its core a problem-seeking and a problem-solving process. It also integrates.

Design thinking can be communicated using a funnel as a metaphor. When you look through a funnel you can see the end result. In a similar sense a designer can see the end result but won’t jump to end product without going through a rational or integrated process that enriches the result. Each step works toward a refined result, just as an object going through a funnel gets richer and more concentrated as it works it way down the side of the funnel.

This process of integrated problem solving is either a gift that a designer has or it is a learned behavior, or both. Regardless of its origin it is unique and sets designers apart from other professionals. While there are many different problem-solving methods there are two worth discussing. Linear thinking, the predominate process of engineering, solves problems with a series of equations or processes one after another, following a prescribed formula. Reactionary thinking, the predominate process of sales, solves each problem as a series of events or issues while considering the whole.

The other distinguishing factor of the design process is its ability to define the problem. Just as it solves the problem in an integrated fashion, design seeks to define the problem with multiple dimensions. The basis of great design is rooted in a deep understanding of the problem, through examining all of its dimensions and factors.

To leverage the power of design into a more mainstream business tool requires two fundamental shifts in practice. First more emphasis must be placed on defining the problem in a more comprehensive way, in terms that resonate and link to the client’s critical business issues. Secondly, the problem-solving and integration process of design needs to be broader and more inclusive. Design should not try to replace business process or business consulting in terms of content, but rather serve as an added dimension.

In order for design to reach the potential as a business tool the following tenets need to be considered.

Innovation Rules

Regardless of the company most business leaders want to be known as innovators. Tom Kelley in The Art of Innovations notes, “the biggest single trend we’ve observed is the growing acknowledgment of innovation as the centerpiece of corporate strategy and initiatives.” Innovation can be focused on process improvement, change in procedure or methods, or on a total redefinition of the company. It ranges from being evolutionary, to taking small steps, to being revolutionary—leading a total transformation across the enterprise. The degree of innovation and the risk that is associated with it is the key to understanding the client. Understanding innovation requires employment of applied research methods beyond traditional design processes.

Understand and Leverage Human Capital

If people are the engine that drive the knowledge economy, new methods need to be introduced into traditional design process to understand users’ needs at a deeper level. As smart as knowledge workers are, they can’t always tell what they need. Borrowing from the social sciences, there are several techniques that designer can use to get at “tacit” and “latent” needs of individuals and teams. These observation techniques give the designer and the client deeper insights into the culture of the company. Understanding the culture is another component of leveraging the innovation temperament of the enterprise.

Define the Boundaries of Effectiveness and Efficiency

Measurement of design is perhaps one of the most sought after concepts within the profession. There are two distinct categories of measurements, both defined by Peter Drucker. Efficiency is doing things the right way and effectiveness is doing the right things. In design terms, efficiency deals with harder numbers e.g., time, cost (first and life cycle) process improvement e.g., the metrics of a project. Effectiveness measures the softer side dealing with human capital, ideas, brand value etc. The reality is that both are important and run parallel throughout a project. The key is to gain alignment with all the stakeholders and have the design reflect the value of each and their uniqueness.

Relentlessly Gain Alignment with All Stakeholders

Without true alignment understood by everyone, the project will never reach its potential. The single greatest issue in measuring success of a project is aligning critical success factors. This goes beyond head nodding to deep understanding and commitment to common goals. The design mind and skills can uniquely accomplish this.

Integrate Big Ideas
Some might say good design is in the details, which may be true. However, great design is in the big ideas and how they are integrated. Design awards are given for projects that have exquisite architectural details and a holistic design statement. Without minimizing the importance of details and design awards, the value of integrating big ideas to positively affect the client’s critical business issues has even greater rewards. The challenge is to use the same care and thought to integrate work process, technology and human performance that coincides with great architectural details.

Blur the Boundaries

If design seeks to understand the problem and solve it through an integrated method, architects and designers must reconsider who should be at the table during the process. Other professions, e.g., anthropologists, industrial designers, financial modelers, contractors, and manufacturers are useful, with a designer as integrator. Other professions can share in the risk and rewards of the project outcome.

Enable Innovation

If you believe the client is seeking innovation through the workplace, they need to experience the possibilities in some tangible way that helps them move along a continuum of change. In his book The Experience Economy, Joe Pine notes that “you can’t get to transformation without an experience.” Likewise Michael Schrage notes, “the inescapable conclusion: in business today you can’t have a culture of innovation without having a culture of prototyping and simulation.” Evidence suggests many projects don’t reach their innovation potential because the client does not allow time to create the experience, learn from it and gain before they implement a large project. The use of rapid prototypes and visualizing the experience is key to cultivating innovation. This is best done early, as the project is defined. The further gelled the project is before the architect or designer is hired, the less chance there is for innovation.

Platform Design

Architectural and interior design has evolved as the construction of “one-offs,” with most projects emerging as an assembly of elements and details that are only built one time. This process is both costly and high-risk. The design profession needs to learn from other industries like the automotive and electronics. Many components, even in “high design” automobiles, are pre-assembled and shared between models. The electronics industry has reduced cost and increased speed through mass customization and platform architecture. The end result: almost unlimited choice by the user. The challenge is to think in these terms and produce well-designed products while giving the design team choice.

Design for Change

There is life after the open house and the record photograph is taken. The fluidity of business today and the uncertain business climate requires design to not be thought of as a point-in-time or end product. In recent roundtable with facility managers from large firms, their No. 2 issue was flexibility in design and space. It is not uncommon for mergers and acquisitions, major strategy changes and restructuring to take place during the design phase. The challenge becomes making the design specific to the strategy, despite strategy constantly changing. While not easily solved, the challenge is at the forefront of the client’s mind and needs to be embraced by the design team.

Speed at Every Juncture

No one would question the need for speed from a project’s design phase through implementation. The question is how can projects move at record speed and not be compromised in terms of quality of design and results. The answer lies in changing processes, blurring boundaries, eliminating hand-offs, re-work, e.g., value change analysis. The building process is fraught with silos and unnecessary re-work from design phase through construction. The challenge is not necessarily to try to work faster, but to work differently. In every project every process needs to be evaluated to determine if there is a more efficient way to accomplish the task or output. Boundaries between design, contractor, manufacturer and client need to be removed if they add time, but don’t add value.

None of these ideas can or should stand alone. They are integral to each other. Speed will not be accomplished without alignment nor can innovation become reality without understanding how to leverage human capital. Just as each project and client has different critical success factors, each project will require a different integration of these concepts.

The power of the design mind and discipline is a great tool for business leaders and should not be limited to the design of things. Its value will become even greater as the potential of the design business embraces the design of business.

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