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Design of Business

Recently I was fortunate enough to talk with a colleague at Doblin Group, an innovation consultancy I respect and a firm that seems to well grasp the nature of designing business to enable sustainable innovation.

Our conversation wandered into the the subject of design for business.  We ended up discussing Roger Martin, who is the Dean of the Rotman School of Management and author of several excellent books on design in business including Opposable Mind and the Design of Business.

Roger has made a real study of helping business enhance their strategy by better design. One of his beliefs (that I definitely concur with) is that there is tension between the desires of business to create and operate in predictable, reliable ways, and the need to add value in more unpredictable ways.  He calls this the tension between Reliability and Validity. An excellent video of Roger explaining this further is available here.  It’s worth the 30 minutes to anyone interested in better understanding the future of business, whether you are a by-the-numbers business person or a creative, innovative designer (The first 15 minutes especially so, if you have ADD).

Roger is absolutely right on as he describes that the nature of Reliability tends to drive narrower focus and emphasis on fewer metrics…after all it is easier to be reliable if there are limits to it.  There is certainly a place for this.  It is used all the time.  It is quantitative, measurable.  It’s like having a test with scores.  It does the job reliably.  IQ measures something.  But how much value do these reliable things provide?

On the other hand is Validity (as Roger calls it).  It is based more on future, on more variables, and is more uncertain.  Indeed, the challenge is that too much emphasis is placed on this at the expense of providing more dynamic and valued capabilities for business.

Roger says: Business people live in a world that rewards Reliability, while designers tend to live in the world of Validity.  Business people like items that are predictable, measurable, and thus achievable.  Designers tend to live in the future of new ideas, potential, and unpredictability.   While I am not sure the words Reliability and Validity capture the essence of the message for me, the message is right on.

Certainly a business must respect the need for and practice of Reliability. Techniques and competencies for this are well known (project management methodologies,  six sigma methods, software development techniques, Statistical process control, and many, many others).

In the video Roger positions Designers, in search of Validity, as taking on tough problems, seeking new innovations, and inventing.  Business people faced with ever more complex environments prefer algorithmic means to reliably achieve that which was planned.  So Roger then challenges Designers to ‘design a way of working with business people who are most interested in Relaibility’.

Roger then asks for methods (language, analogies, etc.) to help this dialogue. A good suggestion…and frankly something that he does not answer but…is the intent of Excellence by Design!  I consider Excellence by Design to support both Reliability and Validity and provide some principles to enable the productive blending and dialogue between them.

Roger suggests simply getting people together (those who are focused on Reliability and those focused on Validity) and dialogue on some small topic/problem/challenge.  I again agree.  I believe the Excellence by Design model can be used to facilitate this. Use any principle as a means to focus the discussion and investigate the tension between the Predictability and Validity points of view.

Feel free to call me if you need help.  😉

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 12, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    I’m impressed with your speed, Mike. We just talked a few hours ago!

    I agree that the language of reliability and validity seems academic (Roger IS a school Dean), but the concept is central to the challenge that so many leaders of organizations face today. Large organizations tend to struggle badly when they try to plan for, and create, their future. The preference for reliability at the expense of validity is often to blame.

    It’s a tough balance, one that often requires changes in an organization’s culture, processes, people systems, structure and leadership actions. That price is too high for typical organizations. It requires a level of confidence, and usually some skills, that are sorely lacking.

    I enjoyed our chat, as ever.

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