The Intersection of Business and Design

The somewhat recent convergence of design and business has fascinated me for quite a while. That said, I find myself both intrigued and dismayed as both groups continue to undermine themselves by not moving beyond increasingly inapt approaches. Management relies on traditional practices of the manufacturing paradigm and design continues to chase the promise of bringing about meaningful organisational change with limited success. If I were to wager on where I think there’s the greatest opportunity to improve this situation, I’d place my bet on disrupting the management conventions that businesses require or encourage their managers to follow.¹ I say this not to catastrophise organisational management styles, but to make a point: managers are (and frankly have been) poised to lead the change in how businesses become more profitable, competitive, compassionate, and sustainable in a world of increasing disruption. Effectively, the manager’s time has come.

Just as Taylorism gave way to Management Science, current management styles will be superseded by theories that are better positioned to capitalise on contemporary business challenges. The ubiquitous MBA approach to business management (Heavily influenced by the likes of Michael Porter and C. K. Prahalad) is failing us and fixing it will require managers to change. Unfortunately, it seems that few people, and especially those within large organisations, are all that keen on changing. I have no illusions about what this would entail—a challenge to the very meaning of conventional management theory and, perhaps more provocatively, what it means to be a manager. This break from tradition will require that managers become the change agents who bring about the new models of organisational theory.

I speak with a foot in both the management and design camps. I’ve worked as both senior management in large corporations and as a consultant within design agencies and I am privileged to have experienced both domains. It is thrilling to confront complex challenges from either perspective. Yet both management and design consulting are undermined by the very things that make them great—the ability for management to influence significant organisational change and the objective and outsider perspective consulting enjoys.²

I’ve also experienced first-hand the unwarranted antagonism between business management and practitioners of design—the perception that one is worthier or takes precedence over the other. This attitude is at best misinformed and at worse detrimental to both organisations and design practitioners. To me, the split is based squarely on differing thinking styles. Businesses deeply rely on deductive reasoning to find insights while design tends to advance discovery though abductive reasoning.³

Deductive reasoning is arguably the most common approach to problem solving. If you’ve ever worked in a large organisation, you’ll be intimately familiar with this method of working. It’s a thinking style that asks the question “What was?” Unarguable facts, statistics, quantitative data, expert knowledge, anything that is known, lead to conviction in one’s decision. It does not speculate on anything outside of quantifiable experience. This is the art of analysis and organisations rely (perhaps over-rely) on it to provide direction. It’s a very powerful form of logic and even designers take advantage of the approach to appreciate the implications of any current state. It’s great when trying to understand an existing space or system, but not so good when evaluating outside the range of what’s known.

In contrast, abductive reasoning asks the question “What could be?” It’s an approach that’s ideal for imagining an aspirational future. For designers, observation, inquiry, and experiences lead to hypotheses that are based on what people feel and value within their world. Through abductive reasoning, ambiguous, ill-defined, and novel problems are no longer constrained by data analysis. It’s perfectly suited for problems where we need to predict a potential outcome, such as in strategy and innovation. An abductive approach sounds great, right? In reality, working from this perspective can be quite anxiety-provoking, especially for those used to an analytical approach. That anxiety can make abductive reasoning self-limiting within organisations. Most people don’t want to live to long in the ambiguity required in this form of thinking.

So we can posit that both management and design have powerful approaches to understanding. Why focus then only on one approach and not the other? When we look at most large organisations, managers sit in privileged and deeply entrenched positions of influence. However a default deductive thinking style means that most managers are working off of the same playbook as others in their industry (others outside of their industry as well). And, ultimately, innovation is stymied by the fact that the competition is on equal footing. In this environment, making progress will require making change.

How might management prepare for a change for the better? I think the answer lies in whether managers embrace both deductive and abductive methods of thinking–not as separate exercises, but as a holistic and consistent approach to understanding and problem solving. No longer limited to analysing “what was”, managers would be empowered to also discover “what could be”. Because of their privileged position, the change a manager makes becomes the change an organisation makes.

I’m not suggesting that managers need to adopt a wholly different way of thinking, but rather that they build on the deductive thinking skills they have, and add to this the abductive thinking designs use. What I hope to convey is that managers can develop competitive ways of thinking and doing by becoming more familiar with the abductive approach that is fundamental to design.

If I had my wish for the future, organisations would champion the notion of “Design Manager”. Powerful thinkers in powerful positions. Less experts in the activities of design, more experts in understanding the fundamentals of business and of human experience. It’s no secret that this approach has led to better, more profitable, and more human organisations. I, for one, would like us all to give it a go.


¹ I’d also place a bet that most MBA programmes have been churning out graduates that are ill-prepared and practiced in all the wrong behaviours, but that’s a topic for another day.

² Although business (and managers by implication) can make positive change, their inaction can cause systemic stagnation. The outsider nature of consulting can limit the length of engagement and the ability to champion meaningful change. I will write in more detail about this experience in a future post.

³ This concept is also explored by the following thought leaders:

Liedtka, Jeanne. “If Managers Thought Like Designers”, Rotman Magazine Spring/Summer 2006 pp. 14-18

Martin, Roger. “Embedding Design Into Business”, Rotman Magazine Fall 2005 pp. 4-7

Buchanan, Richard. “The Four Orders of Design”, Keynote – Emergence 2007. Transcript available at