Management by Design: Exploiting the Neglected Power of Form

September 15, 2003 · by Dr. Richard Farson

Designers have often been encouraged to learn about management, but equally true, managers need to learn about design. As a broad-ranging discipline with centuries of history, design adds to the professionalism of management.

Designers have often been encouraged to learn about management, but equally true, managers need to learn about design. As a broad-ranging discipline with centuries of history, design adds to the professionalism of management.

It provides a substantial antidote to the disenchantment that is beginning to set in among top managers with respect to the dominant management approaches of the past few decades—approaches that at first seem to work, but over time, don’t. Performance reviews, extrinsic incentives, accountability pressures, motivational pep talks and leadership skill training are discredited, as are simplistic management fads that continue to seduce, and then disappoint. Remember Quality Circles, Management by Objectives, Total Quality Management, Zero Defects, Six Sigmas, etc.? Design, because it represents not a technique but a more fundamental posture, looms as a powerful alternative.

To fulfill the high calling of leadership, managers need to move away from dependence upon the welter of quick-fix techniques heaped upon them by most management books and articles. Such a technique-oriented approach to leadership development demeans management. Too many managers already fail to regard management as a profession. After all, aren’t managers are made overnight when they are promoted from being workers? And don’t most succeed? It’s easy to see why managers assume there must be nothing in the role that amounts to a substantial profession.

Just the opposite is true. Management is exceedingly complex, and carries major responsibility. There is a vast amount to learn, but we tend not to realize that new managers already know most of it. They have been on the receiving end of those roles long enough to learn them thoroughly. Long experience has taught them how to be managerial. Although we are not aware of it, we all have a mastery of roles we may never play.

Nevertheless, the understandable insecurity that comes from taking on the most complex role in society, that of leadership, makes managers vulnerable to bromides (not unlike new parents, another complex and difficult role). Paradoxically, the more complicated the role, the more simplistically society treats it.

Exploring perspectives garnered from the disciplined field of design would help managers develop a more professional stance, less buffeted about by fads. Other professionals—physicians, lawyers, professors, architects—are far less likely to be entranced by trends and fashion because they have a strong professional perspective that guides them through challenges. Leaders and managers need to acquire that strength of professional perspective. The discipline of design can help provide it.

The Power of Design

Design achieves its power because it can create situations and situations are more determining of what people will actually do than personality, character, habit, genetics, unconscious motives or any other aspect of our individual makeup. Nobody smokes in church, no matter how addicted.

Design has always had great influence on personal experience and the course of human affairs. We all recognize the inspiration that comes from the architecture of a great cathedral. Stage sets and costume designs enrich the drama of theater. Industrial design of accessories and tools augments our powers and makes our lives safer and more comfortable. Interior design can improve sociability. Landscaped green belts contribute to the civility of neighborhoods. Graphic design can shape our thinking and motivate our behavior.

Because it is so powerful, design also has a dark underside. If mindlessly conceived or corrupted, design can produce depressing consequences. Cities that plan giant shopping centers can erode traditional communities by forcing neighborhood businesses to close. Massive highway construction can divide and rupture neighborhoods. Kafkaesque office designs of row after row of monitored employees are dehumanizing. Graphic designs in advertising can be dangerously misleading, promoting unhealthy products or unworthy candidates. Some designers think bad designs greatly outnumber the good.

More than one organization has moved into newly designed quarters only to discover that the new designs fail to provide for the kind of human interaction it had come to depend upon. Business author Fran Hawthorne cites the design of pharmaceutical giant Merck’s new headquarters as contributing to its current difficulties in getting new products approved. When all the research, manufacturing and executive offices were in one place people interacted more, walked around and ate at the same cafeteria. The CEO would sit at lunch and talk with anyone, blue-collar workers or scientists, increasing cross-fertilization. “When they moved,” she says, “they lost some of the water cooler talk.”

In general, however, news is encouraging. Recently the design disciplines have received research attention indicating that the physical environments designers create may have positive effects never before realized, potentially reducing all of the measures of despair. For example, studies show that if children grow up in a home designed to permit a view of greenery, they are less likely to turn to addiction and crime and more likely to achieve in school. Thoughtfully designed environments could reduce the frequency of divorce and other signs of family dysfunction. It is no longer far-fetched to predict that intelligent design will help prevent mental and physical illness, child abuse and suicide.

A Design Perspective

It is a given that managers need to work with employees one-on-one, becoming continuously and intensively involved with their work. Equally important is dealing with constellations of people, such as project teams. From there, consciousness grows. The better managers see that these small groups are embedded in larger systems—organizations, industries and communities. These in turn are part of even larger social, cultural, political and physical systems—corporations, cities, and international systems. As they look closer at these environments that so determine human events, the distinction between social and physical systems blurs. They are interdependent and each has something important to contribute to the other. The ability to expand one’s view and appreciate the forces at work in the larger context serves as the basis for developing a design perspective.

Few leaders at the top, however, have seen the incorporation of design as central to their management of human relations. There are exceptions—including management’s early recognition of the oppressive problems of scale—coping with overwhelming numbers of people. When eliciting creativity is crucial, executives redesign their huge organizations to create smaller, semi-autonomous units. Consider Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works, where the stealth fighter was developed, or Xerox PARC, the research center in Palo Alto responsible for many advances in computer technology. Criminologists have long known that rehabilitating criminals is virtually impossible while they are incarcerated in the giant prisons that dominate our current criminal justice system. But when the inmate population is housed separately in units of no more than 18 or 20, rehabilitation is more likely.

Other examples exist where managers rely on altering form to improve organizational functioning. They take a project team or a board of directors to a resort setting for an intensive, uninterrupted meeting on long-term strategic issues. They establish a ground rule in brainstorming that no judgmental comments can be made, so as not to shut down further development of an idea. They flatten an organization chart to eliminate unnecessary reporting levels. All these actions qualify as social architecture.

Manager as Social Architect

Because changing situations is much easier than changing individuals, managers who adopt a design mentality think first of how structure can elicit desired behavior. Rather than starting with the most difficult way of operating, i.e. working with the differing personalities and proclivities of their people, they start with the larger environment and work back, if necessary, dealing with more stubborn personality issues last.

(Ed. note: This article is a segment of our next “Focus on the Future” scheduled for release this fall.)

Dr. Richard Farson is a psychologist, writer, educator, and president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI). A senior fellow of the Design Futures Council, he is author ofManagement of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership.This year Farson received the first place Harvard Business Review McKinsey Award (the year’s best article) for“The Failure-Tolerant Leader” along with co-author Ralph Keyes.

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