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A conversation on the new role of Designer

I recently had a conversation with Marv Adams, a colleague I have known for some years.  It was very insightful.

Mike: Before we start right in Marv, perhaps you could share a bit of your career background so our readers can understand the context of your perspective to the conversation we will be having.

Marv: My degree was in Electrical Engineering and I came out of school just as the PC market was taking off.  After working in various dimensions of computer & OS design, I did systems engineering work, project management, IT management in various functions and then CIO.  I’ve been a CIO in financial services and manufacturing.

Mike: Thanks Marv.  As you know I have been working on the subject of business excellence by design, with a focus on how to better design business and its products and services to cope with the increasing degree of change, unpredictability, and competition of today.  What thoughts would you have to start off?

Marv: The role, competence and collaborative nature of a designer in today’s highly interconnected world is more important than ever.  Excellence in design starts with the designer having a deep appreciation of the context for their product.  Depending on the type of product, the designer must design for variation in user capabilities, variation in the physical environment the product will operate in, variation in the integration requirements for the product (i.e. is it likely to be a component in other emergent systems), variation in the amount of change required to the product over its life time (i.e. a fork will experience no change requirements and an OS will experience many changes), etc.   The designer must also think about how the product is disposed of at end of life for environmental reasons.

Mike: Seems that the respect of the role of designers exists in some industries (fashion? art? maybe industrial design like Herman Miller).  How well do you think this role is well understood, respected, well staffed, and empowered/enabled in most Business and/or IT organizations?  Is this an opportunity that needs focus for senior management?  A critical success factor?

Marv: GREAT POINT!  It is not understood well at all, and that is a growing problem & opportunity in my opinion. More than ever, questions of design are highly interconnected with questions of business strategy.  Business strategy is nothing more than designing what markets, what customers, what products and what business models can be most successful.  Michael Porter, in his work on business strategy, talks about the importance of having clarity in your business:  are you trying to serve few needs of many customers;  broad needs of few customers,  broad needs of many customers in a niche / narrow market?   To effectively design products & services, a designer must have influence on business strategy.  A designer or design group must have influence on how the business delivers on its promise as well. Think about Apple, and the role Steve Jobs plays. He is involved in the design of the business system in addition to the product.  This involves what competencies are required in their support staff, stores, etc.  It involves what is done inside the firm versus sourced.   Business leadership must be stronger designers in today’s world AND must pay for / respect product & service designers more than ever!

Mike: You mention Steve Jobs, which raises the example of Apple’s product and services evolution through the iPod, iTunes and iPhone.  Compared to what manufacturers of basic audio players and cell phones did, Apple seems to have a far more holistic design in many ways.  Certainly interconnected, agile to new uses (iPhone Apps!).  While the industry seems to be waking up now…is this a good example of how design (holistic, integrative, business strategy design) gave Apple a huge advantage over the competition?

Marv: Yes, I love this example because it illustrates so many important aspects of great design. One aspect is innovation.  Innovation in nature occurs when there are re-combinations or unexpected mutations.  In today’s world, where so much is densely interconnected, innovation is largely defined by recombining things that already exist into whole new value propositions. Apple did this in the way they revolutionized music distribution and did it again in how they revolutionized the basic cell phone and made it a compute platform.   I believe that Apple operated from a design vision that is rooted in a deep understanding of interconnectedness. When you operate from this perspective, you can have basic success if your product is a successful component, and wild success if you trigger an emergent market. Apple has done both, but the wild success I suspect has come from things that emerged, that they didn’t fully expect.  Having said that, they made products which were highly adaptive and able to change with the ideas of the many users who fell in love with their products.

Mike: A last question and back to role of designer. What about staffing such a role? Seems like the role of designer as you describe it is, unfortunately, rare to find, and still an art.  While there are plenty of people (in general business or in IT) who do something in the area of requirements or analysis, it is not a competency that is very mature, or has strong educational opportunities (like say, marketing, or finance, or becoming a certified project manager).  We have mentioned understanding and influencing business strategy, designing for variation, having a holistic, integrative view of the products and services, designing an ecosystem, having products that enable emergent and unexpected uses, and being mature and skilled enough to wield a significant influence in the Business.  Seems like this role would be best served by top talent, until it evolves to something easily practiced.  What action might you recommend as a Senior Executive in terms of staffing such a role?  Use many people? Few? Use Consultants? Do in-House?  High level manager or more of a propeller head (sorry!)? Create a small team to focus on this and grow the competency?

Marv: The billion dollar question!!  I’m going to give some thoughts, but I will openly acknowledge that I am personally grappling with this, so my answers are definitely a ‘work-in-process’.  There is a new, technical book, entitled “The Master & His Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist.  It goes into depth on the role of the left and right hemisphere’s of our brains and makes an observation that the western world has become dangerously imbalanced towards the left.  The strengths of both sides are important, but the right side’s strengths are under represented in most institutions.  Left side bias looks something like this:  mechanistic, sales process / quarterly focus, finance / controllers measuring costs of irrelevant items WAY out of context of anything, IT people placing technology in the way of relationships (think VRU’s), etc.  It looks bureaucratic often / short term thinking / solve the next issue but ignore the systemic perspective.   To solve this problem requires a deep and healthy appreciation for the strength of the right hemisphere:  thinking holistically, seeing systems, visualizing the time dimension, appreciating a multitude of capabilities and perspectives that are essential in today’s interconnected world.   Getting more right bias into key positions is critical, and they come from all educational backgrounds.  This is going to be really hard!  However, institutions who don’t see this will fail in a world that is producing change at a staggering pace.  Only those institutions that understand the concepts of complex systems, how to design their firms, products and people to adapt will stand the test of time.  The others will be flashes in the pan and then be gone!   Again, this spells opportunity!

Mike: Great perspective.  Seems that most of todays organizations don’t reward these skills.  That is a tough issue not only for the organizations but for those who may aspire to be designers….will the rewards occur, or go to those more left brained, so to speak?  Any final thoughts before we close?

Marv: Most of today’s organizations don’t have meaningful, effective or inspiring goals & metrics that matter.  They are stuffed with left brain generated metrics.  How often have we been in operations, financial or sales reviews where people’s heads are buried in 1 inch binders filled with red/yellow/green colored metrics.  One of the realities of the world is that evolution doesn’t think, it simply selects winners from losers.  Those who don’t get this right will lose in ‘natural selection’.  Our economy has seen extreme examples of this process in action as times have gotten tough.  We have also seen new players emerge, who have capitalized on change!   Good conversation, thanks for including me!

Mike: This has been a great discussion on the critical role of business Excellence by Design(ers)!.  Much appreciated and frankly a lot to think about for our readers, as they consider the role, its potential impact, and actions to build, empower, and reward competency in.  You have given us some great things to think about.  Thanks again.

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