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The Tao of Design


Or: Why should I bother as a manager?

As argued in our premier post, you as a manager should care about design. Not because it’s fun and rewarding (which it is) or because is builds a positive and optimistic culture (very true) but because it will create tangible results. As a manager, you are supposed to get results, right? And there is a lot of evidence that design-aware companies create more value for their stakeholders. A lot more value.

The Design Management Institute (DMI), an independent organization promoting design management and education, has developed a design value index. This shows that over a period of ten years, companies that meet the DMI criteria for design orientation have outperformed the S&P index by 228%. Similar findings, e.g. from Forrester, confirms this research. In their book ‘Outside In’, Forrester provides strong evidence that a design focus is strongly correlated to sustainable growth and profitability.

Design Value Index, Source: DMI.org

Design Value Index, Source: DMI.org

One reason for this is rather obvious; a human-centered and evidence-based approach to innovation will create product- and service offerings that address real needs, in a way that delight users. And happy users are good for business.

What may be less obvious is that a design focus also tends to affect the management processes in general, and you as a manager; not just related to product- or service development. You may not be aware of it, but you already design today! If not consciously, you do design by default. Your organization is designed and re-designed. Every business process has been designed at one point in time; and have been iterated since then.

However, even in organizations with a lot of highly visible design activities, it is not very common for managers to be actively involved in the design activities. And this is quite natural - hands-on design is a special competence and requires both aptitude and experience to do well. We will not argue that managers need to create wireframes or design service experiences. But we definitely argue that managers need to be aware of the importance of design, need to learn some basic design techniques, be present in select design activities and - perhaps most importantly - build a design-aware organization.

And it goes both ways - designers also need to be aware of business dynamics; on a deep level, not just via a design brief but by working closely together with business owners.

This may sounds confusing - managers should not do design, but should be involved in design?

The confusion can partly be blamed on language limitations. The traditional use of the word design, i.e. as in graphic design or service design, is not at all the same as what we mean when we say design thinking or design management. Since there are so many angles, ideally our language should have the same number of words for design as the Inuits of Greenland are said to have expressions for snow (which is not quite true, but that’s a different story).

We should be careful of mixing roles here. Even if we work cross-functionally, there will always be a need for specialized roles. Designers have special skills that most managers –  at least in their role as managers – typically don’t. And managers should have business savvy and experiences that most designers don’t have.

Graphical designers have aesthetic skills, interaction designers know how to help people solve problems in a pleasing and efficient way, service designers have a deep understanding of ethnography and pattern recognition. They are the 'Yings' of the design-oriented organization.

Managers, as the 'Yangs' of the organization, add tremendous value by being able to design business systems and organizations, and by leading and synchronizing the service- and product design processes. As resource owners, managers also can ensure that enough power and
resources are allocated. It’s the combination of design skills, a design-aware management, and an organization committed to delight their customers, that makes a very powerful difference.

When you start to use Design Thinking on a more conscious level, you will probably start to notice flaws in your company’s decision making processes. Just as the designers will challenge assumptions regarding problem definitions and solutions, you will start to notice situations where you tend to jump to conclusions in your decision making, mistaking bias for facts.

You will start to really wanting to know, and avoid guesswork. You will improve your feedback loops, and you will want to prototype, validate and maybe re-iterate before you make any changes permanent. By noticing how a cross-functional approach to decision-making improves quality, you will be more open for input from more diverse sources than before. All of this will be an energy boost both for your company and you as a manager. So the conclusion is - go for it!

To get there, there will for sure be a number of hurdles to get over, which we will get back to in upcoming posts.

/Mats Weidmar

Mats Weidmar