Design management: Take the crooked path

We may currently have an unprecedented focus on using design methods to help create new products, services and business models. But what is the best way to manage successful design processes?

Close to my house, an old mill stream cuts through a wooded area. Runners or ramblers can choose between two different paths, not far apart but offering markedly different experiences. One path cuts a straight line through the area, and from start to finish, the algae-green waters of the mill stream are visible at the end of it. The other path, by contrast, twists and turns, and all one sees is birch trees and the dense undergrowth until one is just a few metres from the bank of the stream.

And what is the difference? The straight path feels much, much faster than the crooked path. Maybe even twice as fast, although in fact they are almost exactly the same length.

The straight path: when the design brief is given

Recently, it occurred to me that the markedly different experience of running on the two paths is reminiscent of the difference between a traditional development process and a design process.

A traditional development or innovation process typically has a clearly defined goal. When the project team sets out, they have a pretty good idea of what a successful outcome should look like. They also usually have a fairly clear understanding (often passed down from top management) of the problem at hand. They have a well-defined brief that suggests a particular type of solution. The company manager that the project team refers to can therefore rest assured that the team will be able to deliver. This type of process is linear in nature – like my local nature path – and even if it may not be without its challenges and difficulties, it is generally fairly predictable.

As a consequence, the management task is fairly standard: initiating the process, prioritising resources, establishing deadlines and milestones and eventually deciding whether the resulting solution proposal should be implemented. There is a clear and definite path that will take them out of the woods. But the process is not exactly exciting – or innovative.

The crooked path: navigating in uncharted territory

“Managers who wish to reap the full benefit from working with designers need to engage with them in ways that facilitate a fruitful design and innovation process. That is, however, more easily said than done.”

Design processes are markedly different from the scenario described above. Typically, one of the first things designers do when they are handed an assignment is to question it. This may involve challenging the underlying premises and assumptions behind the brief. Or it may involve going into the surrounding world to observe whether customers, clients or users actually behave as described in the brief. Or – and this is where the design approach is unique – it may involve coming up with preliminary solutions, prototypes, to be used as development tools. Deliberately influencing the practices of users, stakeholders and suppliers gives the designers access to early feedback, which helps them determine whether a prospective solution should be rejected or developed further.

Designers thrive when they challenge the problem space. That lets them take part in redefining the precise nature of the problem.

Designers also thrive when they create new visionary spaces of possibilities by insisting on creating something new. Kamil Michlewski, who recently published the excellent book ‘Design Attitude’ about the way professional designers work, says that designers thrive in situations characterised by ambiguity, uncertainty and disruption. The best designers are able to keep an open mind while working on a practical solution.

The catch is that this approach is extremely challenging for most company managers. Thus, managers who wish to reap the full benefit from working with designers need to engage with them in ways that facilitate a fruitful design and innovation process. That is, however, more easily said than done.

Design engagement is key

My curiosity about the leadership task associated with benefiting from design has led me to embark on a research project about this topic at the Copenhagen Business School. As part of this project, I have interviewed twenty company managers in five different countries about their experiences from working closely with service designers. Based on these interviews, I have identified six specific ways in which designers challenge company managers. This means that there are also (at least) six different behaviours that company managers might adopt if they wish to reap the maximum benefit from the designers’ contributions to innovation and strategic and business development. I call these six behaviours design engagements. Here is what I have found so far:

First: Challenge your own assumptions: The designers are going to do that anyway, so drop your defences and amp up your curiosity.

Second: Bring empathy into play. When the designers bring back insights into customer or user perceptions of your organisation, this invariably involves a challenge. These perceptions often call for a fundamental redefinition of the problem at hand. Design engagement means bringing your empathy into play as a means of involving your staff in the process of developing and changing the organisation and placing the customers/users centre stage. As a head of development in a municipal administration said after an in-house workshop where frontline staff had video-filmed each others’ meetings with homeless clients: ‘They looked rather perturbed. But that was probably because it was their own service they had been filming.’

Third: Make room for diversions and divergence. Designers are going to expand the solution space by bringing new ideas and possibilities into play – typically in cooperation with staff and management. Here, company managers need to make time and room in the organisation for the ideas to unfold and develop. It is crucial not to shut the process down too early. In a sense, you need to have the nerve to keep the organisation in a much more prolonged state of uncertainty than most people are used to. That can be a highly challenging experience, also for the manager.

Fourth: The company manager should help the staff and the organisation navigate in uncharted territory. At this stage, the problem definition is still under scrutiny, and several potential solutions remain in play. There has to be room for testing and learning from the prototypes that the designers come up with – without finalising any decisions yet. As a department head once said to me, ‘It’s a loss of control but in a positive sense.’

Fifth: Make the future specific. Engaging with the designers’ practice should always involve translating ideas, concepts and prototypes into actual solutions: products, services or new organisation and business models. In my research, I found that some company managers actually participate actively in the process, drafting ideas for new solutions. For example, a department head at a hospital drafted an outline of a new digital patient file tool for the patients. Another engaged in a brief role-playing process with the staff as a way of finding new methods for bringing about behavioural changes.

The sixth way of engaging with design processes is to insist that the solutions add value. The key here is, not least, to make sure that product and service changes aimed at benefiting the customers and users are translated into real changes in procedures, digital solutions and the organisation at large.

Changing the organisation and the way it works is the only way to create added value for the users.

“Although the straight path seems fast, it is also predictable and boring.”

As the manager of a successful digital design project put it, ‘Throughout the process, I insisted that the solution had to provide added value, both for our users and for our staff.’

Into the woods and out of the woods again

Clearly, design engagements are not straightforward. Like one of my local running paths, it is it is crooked, and the going may seem slow and perhaps even frustrating. Anyone who completes the process and makes it out of the woods, however, will almost always find that the goal was worth the effort. Personally, I have to admit that I tend to prefer the crooked path for another reason too: Although the straight path seems fast, it is also predictable and boring. When I take the crooked path, the experience is more intense: My senses are more alert, and I notice my natural surroundings more, probably because, on a subconscious level, I am curious to see what lies around the next bend. Here lies an unexpected benefit: Not only do design processes produce superior results; the experience is also, somehow, more magical.

First published on Mandag Morgen blog

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