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What Managers Can Learn From Designers

November 1, 2009

Back in July, the MIT Sloan Management Review published a special report on Design Thinking, which explored how to apply design thinking in a business context.  In the article How to Become a Better Manager…By Thinking Like a Designer, Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Design Inc. (who helped shape Al Gore’s Inconvenience Truth presentation) and Garr Reynolds, an associate professor of management at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan and author of an influential blog on presentation design, answered the question: What can managers learn from designers about how to attack a problem?

Reynolds’s answers included: embrace restraints (what he meant by “restraints” is what I call “constraints” in my recent post); take a risk; question everything; and, it’s not about tools, it’s about ideas.  Duarte’s answers were: hierarchy; balance; contrast; clear space; and harmony.

To their input I would like to add a few insights of my own:

Collaboration – Like design, no business activities can be effective, productive, and creative in today’s complex world without collaboration between individuals from different disciplines and organizations.  But effective collaboration is an art – one that requires active listening, checking ego at the door, and willingness to stay in the process when things get tough.

Creative Abrasion – Conventional thinking is built on the idea that friction and conflicts are a nuisance.  I would instead argue that no productive collaboration effort takes place without some tension.  The term “creative abrasion” was coined by Jerry Hirshberg, founder and president for Nissan Design International (NDI), to describe the competition between different design ideas that provide the “creative energy” necessary to original thinking and the achievement of high quality design.  This process of simultaneous collaboration and competition means that “…as the creative fusion of ideas occurs by holding seemingly antithetical thoughts in the mind simultaneously, so creative collaboration between people can occur by an effort to retain conflicting cultural and disciplinary viewpoints in the mind without discarding or allowing either to dominate.”  The best innovative ideas emerge when the juxtaposition of divergent professional perspectives stimulates team creativity and helps transcend the obvious solutions.

Embracing complexity – The business tendency of rushing toward the resolution of a problem before the problem is fully understood is often creating more harm than good.  Designers know that the design process is inherently complex and that they must embrace that complexity before making decisions.  The design process provides a structure for problems investigation and inquiry.  It is an open-ended learning process that supports information and knowledge exchange in the goal of defining the problem while simultaneously testing out different ways for resolving it.  While designers, and architects in particular, have developed the specific skills required to embrace complexity, the process may overwhelm most individuals.  It is imperative for managers to facilitate the process of inquiry in their organizations and define a structure that allows knowledge sharing and creativity to take place while maintaining stability.

Prototyping – Designers develop prototypes (drawings and models) to explore different design alternatives, simulate reality, visualize constraints, facilitate trade-offs and manage expectations.  Models are objects that support experimentation, play and learning.  The most innovative companies today are developing a culture of prototyping to facilitate creativity and innovation.

Context – Architectural design occurs within a particular context, which informs it.  A clear understanding of the context provides a framework within which design ideas can be developed.  In our global economy, many businesses have lost touch with their immediate business context and locality.  Solutions developed for a Western world may be completely ineffective in the context of a developing country and vice versa.   Products and services must be re-evaluated and customized based on the context of their specific markets.

Hirshberg J. 1998, The Creative Priority: Driving Innovative Business in the Real World.  HarperCollins Publishers, New York.

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