Viewing entries tagged
organizational design

Impact Any Problem Like a Designer


This morning I was asked if I approach design management (the emergent term for the application of design to organizations to engage complex problems) as an architect or as a communications designer. It was a little hard to answer is because the answer squarely falls into the domain of neither and both. While I believe whole heartedly in a non-disciplinary approach to design, if it is necessary to specify a form of design practice and theory, it is important to recognize that these fields exist on a gradient. Over the last 15 years of research and practice in design and urban planning, I have developed a systematic approach to structure problems and interventions across this gradient and have developed a simplified conceptual model in response to demands.

Illustrated above, I look at all problems as fitting somewhere within the above structure - wherein a problem might be defined by thought and language (sign), by tangible products and interfaces (object), by spatial context (environment) or by large scale invisible systems such as formal law and culture (culture can be considered another expression of law).  So for example, if you are attempting to solve a big problem like poverty, it exists in all sections because poverty is contextual, has artifacts, and there are many existing specific words and images that are used to communicate the idea of poverty. Whereas a problem that is very well defined, like the design of a toaster, will most likely sit squarely in the domain of objects.

At Carnegie Mellon University, I was introduced to Richard Buchanon's theory on the Four Orders of Design, which was very similar to my own model, but we maintain very different objectives and I found his model is harder to operationalize.  Buchanon does have other variations,  and additional work on operationalization has been pursued by Golsby-Smith.  There are additional models out there and while I find it validating and interesting to look at their models, my own approach emerged from the field. It is not informed by these other works, I point them out merely because they exist, and I find these other frameworks are missing a critical component, the people.

Within my framework, the most important characteristic is the recognition of dispositions held by people who occupy each conceptual frame. Without people - there is no framework.  There are no objects or contexts without people - there is also no design or strategy - people are the scaffolding of everything.  Consequently, I do not consider this framework as universal, but is thus far, a model that has arisen organically through various design interactions with people, technologies, and spaces.

Yet people are highly complex. I cannot manage to engage all people in every project on every level, and therefore I have created over the years a simple heuristic to note critical attributes of people within a project which will determine the project outcome.  All stakeholders in a project have, want, or lack resources (for their interest or mine), they likewise all hold a unique vision for their lives and the project outcome, along with specific objectives, beliefs, expectations, and baggage from prior experiences. I cannot juggle all these balls for every person at one time, but I do attempt to establish an sense of organizational structure between different actors and their unique attributes.

The Difference of Design in Organizations
Lets imagine an international company hires me with a big problem phrased as a simple request, "how do we become the leader in our industry?"  When companies have approached me before, they have already conducted many of the preliminary SWOT assessments and strategy planning sessions. Perhaps they have utilized a more traditional business management strategy, but found the problem too sprawling to meet the discrete demands... for example, it is impossible to identify and validate appropriate benchmarks if the problem itself is poorly defined. Driven by market research, they believe they should offer the same technologies or assets as their competitors. Yet it makes no logical sense to mirror competitor if you want to be the industry leader. It is important to do something new - but what and how?

Using the Framework to Generate the Big Picture
As a complex problem, I will work at all levels of the framework. In the case of robotics, I will take this problem and build a detailed understanding of their robots (the object).  I will look at all documentation, branding, communications, and language used in relation to their robots (sign). I will go into the facilities where the robots are used and spend time understanding the relationship between the robots and the Environment. I will also look at sales trends, labor laws, social movements, international trade agreements, and latent technology trends (perhaps also concerning language, objects, environments) to capture a big picture understanding of the robots in relation to some invisible systems that shape the future of the company.

Digging Deep into the Social Terrain
In this process, however, I have left out the most important component: the people.  Who is talking about the robots? Who is listening? Where are they? When customers purchase the robots, what are they saying? How do they represent their needs?  In the environmental context, who works with the robots and how?  How do those people exchange information about the robot in that context?  More importantly, how does the robot relate (or not) to the resources, objectives, histories and so on, of every person at every level?  If I go to the capital and talk to the people shaping policies that inform the outcome of robotics markets - congressmen and lobbyists for example - what can I learn from them?

Insight by Emergence
Working through this framework to understand the problem is only the first step. Yet the more I can build knowledge at each level of interaction, the more flexibility I have to craft and test interventions. Perhaps the corporate strategy is something simple like a branding campaign or promoting a national policy - yet perhaps it also requires manipulation to the technology to better facilitate how other companies train their employees? If that is the case, what language should be used and by what device should it be communicated? By means of this approach, the key insights and opportunities will emerge and do not need to be invented - nor can they be predicted.

Impact by Design
The final outcome of such a problem will rarely consist of one single action.  Rather, it will require many small interventions choreographed across the system.  Some interventions are more important than others. To describe the processes on design for wicked problems deserves more attention than I can provide right, yet with this framework, one is equipped to better understand any kind of problem to get going in the right direction by doing the following:
  1. Get away from the tunnel vision of a personal discipline or expertise
  2. Build an integrated and fluid systems understanding of a problem 
  3. Identify many points of intervention across scale/scope and points of view
  4. Leverage the most powerful yet high-risk asset of any problem, the people.
  5. Uncover new opportunities for exploration and testing

How to Build Something from Nothing

Trying to explain my day job to the American Geographical Society at Geo2050. November 2015.
Everyday I have to give someone a 15 second summary of what I do for a living.  I often have to say it about 3 or 4 times a day, and depending on who I am talking to, the language shifts a little. Also, every year this task gets more difficult because its isn't always clear if I should describe what I've done, what I am doing now, or what I would like to do in the near future. 

These days it comes out something like "I specialize in designing technologies and processes that shift deeply entrenched problems" and then a rambling line with "...  cities...wars... robots... digital ethnography... machine learning... geospatial technology." 

This is clearly a terrible introduction.

In general terms, I solve really hard problems for others, but it is hard to explain everything in 7 seconds because while the problems are constant, their workings change, and in response my skills change at a rapid pace.  In 2010 I was entirely focussed on postwar reconstruction. A year ago I founded a fast-growing technology company that mobilizes breakthroughs in robotics for processing unstructured data.  Today I work with the White House Innovation Fellows as an innovation specialist, ripping through complex public problems from veterans services to cybersecurity with big transformative leaps.

So rather than stumble through a lackluster introduction on skills, these days I tend to summarize all of my work with a single line.

"I specialize in the ability to build something from nothing."


This is not mere urban planning, management, or entrepreneurship. It is a specific skill to create complex entities that thrive from zero or near-zero resources.  More importantly, the things I build do not require my ongoing participation to continue and flourish.  Initiatives I created years ago still exist in far away places, overseen and operated by people who have never heard of me.  Of course doing this isn't easy. Its a carefully considered and honed expertise founded on some core concepts.
  • No Ego. Any given person cannot be central or necessary to the operation of the entity or its continuation.  If you design an entity according to the objectives, emotions, and expectations of one or two people - including yourself- then it will fail to succeed over time because it will forever be limited by the constraints that you alone carry or will carry. You can be a stakeholder in your own work but it should not be about or for you. It should not be designed to serve you (especially if this is to be a profitable business). For successful startups, this is often phrased in an epic mission statement... but it doesn't have to be so bold. It simply must serve others more than it serves yourself.  If it cannot be justified as such, then it is not likely a worthwhile pursuit.
  • Build Psychological Scaffolding. The components of the entity exist as a suspension - not a mixture -so that the tensions are just as critical to the success as the harmonies.  For example, if building a business, you cannot expect everyone to get along, so your odds of success improve if the business is designed to leverage hostilities between people. You cannot expect to like all your employees. You cannot expect to always be pleased by performance or to hire excellent people. So what is the plan?  You can rotate through a constant stream of people, but nothing will grow from this except your own frustration. To build something, you must expect have a range of personalities and capabilities, and many will conflict so build for that conflict, not to avoid it.  Certainly there are times you need to ditch people, but typically, as long as they are reliable enough to show up, you can design the work in relation to their strengths and ask little of their weaknesses while leveraging the internal conflicts into new opportunities for the organization.
  • Resources are Flux. You cannot plan to rely upon any given resource pools, but must draw from finite resources that shift as distributions, compiled from diverse locations, and all resources have expiration dates. If you design and build an entity to rely upon a specific person, idea, model, or finance strategy, and these variables are orchestrated to come together with the expectation of a particular timing, you might succeed once or twice but then it will fail. Don't bother with that. You are wasting resources.  It is at least a great place to start as people are forever the greatest resource. According to "Lean Startup" you should design your product for a specific person with a specific problem - and I agree - that sensibility must drive the initial design. But people change, and you should expect that user to change as your solution is introduced, so you need to design for change over time, and not just for clients but also for investors, partners, and employees.
  • Embrace Suffering.  Do not build an entity with the intention that "all will come together and it will be great."  Instead, design and build it for the  bad times. Imagine the worst possible scenario - what and who do you want by your side to manage that bad time? .If you created pathways for people to manage projects in different ways, to embrace different communication styles, and to maximize agility then you will be in a better position (see psychological scaffolding). But more importantly, seize the pain - its only temporary when it happens but those are the most important moments.  Ben Horowitz likes to talk about "CEOs in times of war and peace." The times of war - budget cuts, lost contracts, massive layoffs - are profound human experiences and it is those moments that define the future of the organization. Build to suffer.
  • Generative Action-Thoughts Win. Often a new risky idea is proposed and someone (sadly the boss) will shut down these new ideas, usually because they fail to understand one of the above principals. Many people also want to talk about a given idea or possibility for a long period of time.  A better tactic - always - is to support a very small and rapid physical experiment on that idea.  A pencil drawing on a piece of paper, a quick survey on the street, or a couple phone calls will typically pull in new information and ways of thinking about the problem. Physical things and processes change the conversation and stupid ideas become radical insights. Always veer toward physical things - not ideas.
These principals appear abstract but there is a clear underlying thread throughout. Maintain a constant respect for others, do more and think less, and care less about the importance of yourself, your ideas, or your values.  Work for the bigger picture and mobilize the assets that come to you.  Obsessing about the right idea, the right execution, or the right result will only waste time and energy. Ultimately, if you want to build something bigger than yourself then you need to remove yourself from it, and it needs to be tangible. Everyday.