Human energy

In recent decades, both private and public organisations have focused on a varying range of management methods and trends. But what is it that separates the truly effective from those that only produce short-term benefits?

Recently, I noticed a message on the social medium Twitter, which may be slightly trite, but which nevertheless struck a chord. A sustainability consultant wrote that even if it’s all about ‘people, planet and profit’, nothing works without a healthy dose of ‘passion’.

The brief tweet reminded me of a comment from a head nurse in a project I was involved in some years ago. The case concerned a hospital ward that had carried out a series of rationalisation processes and cutbacks, including the use of Lean methods. However, they felt that they had now reached the limits of what could be achieved with this type of approach and had instead embarked on a design-driven project. An approach that involves spending considerable time observing and listening to users (patients and family members); involving staff and management (doctors, nurses, assistants, orderlies) in generating insights into challenges and opportunities; providing them with powerful tools for creative idea and concept development; and quickly translating the most promising ideas into prototypes that could be tested directly with the users.

How was this different from working with Lean? The head nurse told me, ‘This process has so much more energy.’

More than ownership

It may seem slightly odd that she would say that, given the many similarities between design methods and Lean as means of improved efficiency: In either case, the staff is closely involved in the process (in fact, they are central to it); both methods employ a strong focus on visual mapping of working processes; and they both aim to improve value creation.

So what’s the difference?

In the given case, I think that at least two specific features led to this experience by management and staff that design methods produced more energy and superior results.

First, designers always begin with the users, the customers, the patients. That usually provides a profoundly meaningful point of departure, as it almost inevitably goes to the organisation’s core task. Even if it may be difficult to come to terms with the insight that one’s efforts do not make the difference in the users’ lives that one had hoped for, it is ultimately the most meaningful perspective one can apply to an organisation. That in itself releases positive energy.

Second, design processes invite the staff to use their imagination and creativity to create real divergence – developing wild and crazy ideas, even tentatively taking them seriously. Often, the methods invite multiple segments and levels of the organisation, external stakeholders, users and experts to contribute simultaneously. Few other management methods allow for that.

The difference lies in value creation

The key difference between a design-oriented approach to change work and most other management technologies, however, is that management and staff are encouraged to question their fundamental model for value creation. In a private company, this would be the business model; in a public sector organisation, it would be the performance management model.

Design contributes to the exploration and (re)invention of new business and performance management models that managers and staff can take a long-term responsibility for implementing.

In fact, design does that in ways that are radically more value-creating than other approaches. The results from the hospital ward I mention here are extremely promising, but since the documentation is pending, let me point to two other examples from healthcare sector. In a British hospital that had in fact won several quality awards, a design team helped to identify no less than forty areas where the patients’ service experience could be improved while efficiency was enhanced. And a Swedish hospital recently reduced the waiting time for breast cancer patients by ninety per cent, using a design process.

Now, that is value creation with lots of human energy. Both for the staff and for the people that it is ultimately all about.

First published on Mandag Morgen blog