Some Highlights from the DMI Re-Thinking Design Conference

Here are some synopses from the sessions I most enjoyed. Re-Thinking and Re-Designing Business Strategy It’s probably my own particular bias that I thought that the panel with Jeanne Liedtka and Tony Golsby-Smith, moderated by Roger Martin, was the highlight of the conference. But the session really stood out for me as one of the most spirited and serious conversations of the two days. All three of them put forth a thesis and then used the conversation to back up their claims. While Tony, Roger and Jeanne were pretty much on the same page about the centrality of design thinking to strategy, each of them had a unique perspective on why that is, and how design can begin to play a stronger role in the strategy space.

Jeanne Liedtka: “Strategy is the most important thing a leader can be doing.” “But if you’re not trying to make tomorrow better than today, why bother doing strategy?” Jeanne talked about her frustration with business managers who are not looking at strategy as an opportunity to invent the future of their organizations. The problem is that the customary strategic processes involve spreadsheets and numeric projections and organizational culture is programmed to seek out certainty over possibility; visionary leadership must step outside that mindset to look for opportunity.

In her research, Jeanne has observed that there are innovative managers out there who grow their businesses despite their organizations’ tendency to crush creative thinking. It’s the entrepreneurial spirit of design that links it so strongly to strategy. Designers excel at finding ways to create new value. But, Jeanne also cautioned us that invention and value creation is not end game. She noted that value itself is an inconsistent principle, because value creation and value capture are two distinct components, and successful innovation requires both. It is not enough simply to create value; we must also invent the business models that allow us to capture that value.

Tony Golsby-Smith: Strategy is about thinking and conversation; not timetables and templates. In the business world, strategy is routinely suffocated under the budgetary process, and organizations fail to create space for vision. The thinking process is shrouded in analytics, yet we’ve never moved an inch into the future by analyzing. Tony then explained of Aristotle’s two roads of thought, Analytics (which dominates Western thinking, and propels management science) and Rhetoric/Dialectic (which is the domain of design and leadership and is the art to analytics’ science). The second road (Rhetoric/Dialectic) introduces values, where the first road is objective. Therefore the second road is better equipped to respond to human problems and gives us a toolkit for creating visions for the future.

Roger Martin: In 1959 the Ford Foundation said that business schools were not analytic enough, and we’ve been glorifying the hegemony of analytics ever since.

Jeanne Liedtka: Jeanne expressed skepticism about large organizations enthusiastically undertaking innovation, noting that, “innovation will continue to be a subversive activity.” Roger Martin responded that, “the subversive activity is to turn the future into the past.” (This prompted me to think that this would be a very interesting essay for the two of them to write.)

Jeanne called up the fixed mindset and learning mindset models researched by Carol Dweck at Stanford. Business thinking is predominated by the fixed mindset, people who are often driven by a fear of failure and of looking stupid. Innovators and design thinkers are more likely to be of the learning mindset, people characterized by actively seeking broad repertoires of experience and who are willing to take risks.

However, Jeanne suggested that these two mindsets can be brought together in the context of the organization through design. The hypothesis generation and testing that is inherent to design approaches is very effective for reducing corporate fear. And the way to succeed, to innovate, is to experiment in the marketplace.

Tony Golsby-Smith: Tony proposed the notion of the dialectic organization, one that is both analytical and rhetorical, capable of using both of Aristotle’s roads of thinking. While analytical thinking is an undeniably critical part of managing an organization well, leadership, decision-making, and innovation are inherently 2nd road activities. (Tony warned us not to make innovation alone the holy grail.)

Roger Martin: Roger added that everyone in the organization should be involved in making choices and determining the future, and therefore rhetorical thinking should not be limited to the province of leaders only. Bringing Design Thinking to the Analytical World (or, If Innovation is Subversive, Then Strategy is Heresy)

The second session of Day 2 was presented as a second, deeper conversation with Tony-Golsby Smith. Where the first session explored why there is such a strong relationship between design and strategy, this session would look more into how design might engage with strategy. What hope is there for the design community and the world of organizations to move on from fear and cynicism and to address the big challenges of the future? Tony began by telling us he wanted to be provocative, suggesting that “design is the divine expression of the human condition” and that “strategy is heresy”. Well, that certainly prepared us for a different kind of conversation!

Darrel Rhea asked Tony what were the opportunities or threats for our role as designers? Tony’s reply was that the view of design as craft was too limited to address the problems we’re talking about, that design thinking provides an opportunity for design to move into broader applications. In looking at the bigger, more wicked problems that design is seeking to address, Tony suggested that design becomes an activity of transforming situations (from John Dewey’s conception of “situations”). Changing the world, he said, is not an illegitimate goal. But he noted that we don’t work on the world directly. We work on the world through the system of language.

The case for language: People who can transform situations are very good at language. Conversations themselves are an act of co-creation. And yet language is not the same as communication. In the sense that Tony was speaking, language is thinking, language is the synthesis of the pictures we form in our heads, and language has the capacity to change others’ thinking. The organization itself is a mental construct. No one has ever seen one. Change and design, he said, are a language game. And language is the only tool for leadership.

Tony went on to describe three themes of language: agency (people change the world, not data), synthesis (how we model situations), and conversations (human beings creating shared meaning). In mastering language, Tony suggested that designers have the opportunity to shift their stance from helper/supporter to driver. It is language that allows us to get to strategy as design. But Tony warned that we shouldn’t see language as an activity of abstraction. Design is a physical act, and it is born of the need to make the abstract tangible.

Design & Organizational Transformation Bill Buxton of Microsoft Research and Claudia Kotchka, formerly of Procter & Gamble, talked about the challenge of bringing design into organizations and how to transform those organizations into design organizations. Bill noted the attraction for designers to work in what otherwise might be considered a hostile environment: if you are successful in this context, you have the ability to impact 1 billion people a day. Claudia talked about the challenge of attracting designers to a company like P&G, and then creating a multicultural organization where different cultures are valued and respected. Both Claudia and Bill agreed that designers have a specialized skillset that makes them different from businesspeople and engineers. Creating tolerance for design culture is not the same thing as doing good design. Bill noted that it was crucial to create a pull, not a push, process, where engineers were actively and enthusiastically inviting designers to the table.

Client/Designer Relationships Robert Brunner of innovation firm Ammunition LLC presented a provocative story about shifting the paradigm of client/designer relationships. He discussed the importance of being able to work as a partner with your client, and what better way to do so than to share a stake in the outcomes? His company has turned the process around, so that they develop product concepts that interest them and where they see significant market potential, and then they approach clients as partners in IP ownership. In effect, they fully develop the product and then find a client who wants to take their product to market. A fascinating and empowering model, and one that I’m surprised more design firms don’t use.

Business Roger Martin’s conversation with Scott Cook, co-founder and chairman of Intuit, seemed to be one of the most-enjoyed sessions of the conference. Scott was engaging and low-key during an exchange where he shared stories and wisdom from his twenty-some years of leadership at Intuit. He advised the audience to “run a culture of experimentation” and “allow space for development without managers hanging over projects.” He said he encouraged businesses not to stop at the first idea, which is what they typically do. He discussed management practices, such as bringing out people’s weaknesses as something they can actively work on in a supportive environment. And he talked about the importance of integrating design practices into everything the business does, such as making sure business people get out and do ethnography themselves and become part of the process of identifying and solving problems.

Environmental Design Two consultants, Deanne Beckwith, who works with Herman Miller’s Programmable Environments Team, and Chauncey Bell, who works with CareCyte, a healthcare delivery innovation group, talked with Darrel Rhea about undertaking projects with significant social innovation potential and the challenges of the bigger systems they are designing within. They each shared what was effectively a case study about their projects. In a nutshell, Chauncey noted that services are the biggest design problem our society currently faces; in looking at how the design of medical facilities can drastically shift the cost equation for the delivery of health care, he reminded us that controlling health care costs was a problem we as a society haven’t even begun to understand, let alone solve. Deanne echoed this, insisting that addressing critical problems like sustainability demands not just designing new things, but new business models.

My initial reflections on the DMI Conference can be read on the post "Thoughts on the Design Management Institute's 2009 Conference "Re-Thinking Design"".