The Paradox of Design

INSPIRATION

In a recent moment of transition in my professional life, after spening the past four years working with large organizations in the private and public sectors to design change at scale, I took some time to reflect back on past experiences while anticipating upcoming ones. It turns out that most organizations I have been working with are seemingly asking the same question: How do we become a more innovative organization to serve our “customers” and stay relevant in a rapidly changing world? So, I started sketching…(click on mind map to enlarge image).

Over the past decade, many organizations have embraced Design Thinking as a key approach to innovation. Design Thinking puts customers at the center of a highly iterative process to create new offerings that people need and desire. In the process of adopting this approach, organizations have learned two things: 1) Design Thinking is more than a process — it’s also a mindset and a craft — and cannot be codified to death, and 2) most organizations are not structured to deliver on offerings that deviate from existing innovation portfolios. Although many organizations have been relying on more nimble design firms to boost their innovation portfolios over the years, many have taken more significant steps towards building internal capabilities to make Design Thinking a core organizational capability. What better way to change large human systems (i.e. organizations) than to use the tools and principles of Design Thinking! Indeed, it is a very exciting time to be a design thinker (and more importantly a design doer).

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The mind map above reflects my thinking process as I spontaneously mapped the various dimensions of organizational change through the lens of human-centered design. The point of the exercise was not to be thorough (or even correct), but rather to visually acknowledge the complexity of designing change. Here are my 3 key takeaways from this exercise.

1. LEAD WITH OPPORTUNITY

As complex as this mind map looks, it barely scratches the surface of the deeply rooted dynamics of an organization. It is easy to fall into a problem-solving mindset and think of these system nodes as a laundry list of problems to solve for. It is in our DNA, as designers, to be optimistic about the possibilities of change…and optimistic we should be, to a measured degree. That said, there is no such thing as a perfect organization and we need to embrace imperfection over idealism. Don’t lose perspective; constantly challenge your assumptions for how you think the organization “should” behave; and lead with opportunities, not problems.

Linear problem-solving will not take you far in changing complex human systems: that’s where Design Thinking comes in.

“Don’t lose perspective; constantly challenge your assumptions for how you think the organization “should” behave; and lead with opportunities, not problems.”

2. DESIGN FOR THE JOURNEY

Organizations tend to think of change as a destination – as a series of initiatives that add up to a desired vision (i.e. a strategy). I strongly believe in the value of setting a clear vision and crafting a strategy to move the organization from point A to point B, but only in that these create a shared language for how an organization might want to change. When it comes to shifting large systems, I’m sorry to say that we actually have little control over the destination, point B, since 1) things will never work as planned (i.e. there will be unintended consequences along the way, whether positive or negative), and 2) the world is dynamically asking different things from the organization as it’s trying to change itself. Thus, the best thing designers can do is to learn from the implementation journey and constantly evolve the strategy to keep change relevant. Designing change is not about defining point B, it’s ultimately about recognizing that the journey between A and B might lead you to C. And that leads me to my third provocation…

“Designing change is not about defining point B, it’s ultimately about recognizing that the journey between A and B might lead you to C.”

3. EMBRACE THE PARADOX

Driving organizational change is ultimately about scaling new types of behaviors to the service of an organization’s aspirations and purpose. The mechanics of scaling change are seemingly structured (training, new incentives, structural changes, etc.) – giving designers a misleading sense of control. Systemic change is much more chaotic and complex than designers (or anyone else for that matter) can predict. Change is ultimately about emergence, a sequence of seemingly random and unpredictable events and behaviors that come to life over time, sometimes as part of the system’s natural evolution and sometimes in response to the designer’s interventions. Unfortunately, emergent change requires time and patience, so traditional, short-term metric won’t do when trying to evaluate the impact of your designs. Start a bunch of small fires and see which ones grow over time; measure what matters when it matters; and always track the pulse of the system while being open to surprises. As the name of this blog suggests, designers can only design for change, and not change itself. The paradox of using change and design in the same sentence is one that we, designers and change agents, need to acknowledge and embrace at all times when experimenting with different levers in an organization.

“Start a bunch of small fires and see which ones grow over time; measure what matters when it matters; and always track the pulse of the system and be open to surprises.”

ACTION

Thanks for reading my first blog! I hope that this initial post helps frames the intent of my blog: D4change is a platform for “organizational doers” to share, reflect, learn and push the boundaries of Design Thinking. I have intentionally allowed comments on my blog because I truly believe that it will take a village to change large, complex organizations in our rapidly shifting environment. In the spirit of this mission, I would love to hear from YOU!

  • Have you personally experienced the paradox of design?
  • What does emergence mean in your organization? How is it fostered? How is it prevented?
  • What are examples of metrics you have used to “measure” emergence?
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5 thoughts on “The Paradox of Design

  1. I was happy to find this web-site.I wantedI am often to blogging and i really appreciate your content. The article has really peaks my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and keep checking for new information.

    • Thanks, Aaron! I first sketched it by hand on a piece of paper, and then redid it on Illustrator. Happy to show you next time I see you.

      Don’t forget to follow me @d4change 🙂

  2. Love the blog…the name, the orientation, the perspective and cutting to the chase around what it takes to create conditions for change…it’s a journey not a “one-off” event. It’s an investment over time to embed a new way of thinking, being, acting that becomes the vital DNA.

    I’m forwarding on to a number of colleagues!

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