A couple of years ago, I was at a conference which focused on the overlaps between design, business, and other organizational disciplines. It was kicked off with a discussion led by Dr. Richard Farson, who cautioned that the design profession is at risk of devaluing itself as a profession. His argument was that anyone who was in the business of executing tasks that clients ask for is not a true professional, regardless of how skilled they are at their craft. A true professional, Farson stated, is a person who works with a client to achieve a goal, and tailors their tasks to realize that goal. If you don't do that, you are in the business of taking orders, which is a much less valuable endeavor.
He then went on to give the example of Frederick Law Olmsted. For those who don't know, he was the famed landscape designer in the 1800's who designed Central Park in NYC, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, and many, many others. Farson stated that if you think Olmsted's greatest achievements are that he designed lots of beautiful parks, "...you've totally missed the point of his role as a professional." He said that Olmsted was a true professional who was working with community leaders to create egalitarian communities where the environment encouraged people to gather together, and used his skill in landscape design toward achieving that purpose. That his parks are still achieving those goals today is a testament to his success as a professional.
I mention this story because it applies not only to design, but to people from any discipline. The world is full of people who are happy to "take orders" from their clients or employers. Why? Being a professional means taking responsibility for doing work that helps an organization to achieve their goals. The client may have an idea for how this should be done, and a professional has to be able to say why those suggestions will or will not work. Yes, a professional sometimes has to say no. And good clients and employers will respect this professional opinion far more than the constant yes of an order taker. This type of relationship requires integrity, trust, and respect for the ultimate purpose that is driving any work that will be done. It is not as easy, but is infinitely more rewarding.
Today, we need more people to step up to the plate and take responsibility for how their professions can help our organizations to achieve their goals. It is easy to point fingers at the leaders who have failed to point our work in the right direction. But I wonder, how many people out there had a chance to influence what was happening, and instead chose to just do what they were told? And on the other hand, how many leaders chose not to listen to those who did step up to deliver a message they may not have wanted to hear?
In the last couple of months I've found myself recommending Steven Kerr's article "On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B" several times, and felt I should share it more broadly. It's a classic (1995), and is short, sweet, and always worth the reminder.
I'm reminded of this when I see a friend of mine struggling with launching a new product to market. He is rewarded for successful launch of new products. His manufacturing counterparts, however, are rewarded for delivering the lowest cost, fully optimized products that can be produced. Their metrics are the same for new products as they are for existing products. I asked whether the manufacturing group could be rewarded differently for new products, maybe being measured on fewest number of days to make a new product. Of course, my friend was quick to laugh at such a suggestion.
Clearly we can see the waste that is created in the system here, and the unnecessary hurdles that are put in front of the innovation goals the company says they want to achieve. And of course, the manufacturing group doesn't want to be the reason why their company is less successful at launching new products than their competitors. But with the current system in place, this is surely what will happen.
Reward systems are one of the easiest things a company can change, and they are often the last thing that a company recognizes should be changed. And because the development cycle often carries the burden of different reward systems that have been developed in individual silos, the true consequences of changing one reward system can be difficult to assess. In addition, companies may be better served by creating reward systems based on end results than by discipline. In my friend's case, everyone who is responsible for launching new products needs to be rewarded to make that happen, and not by discipline.
If your company has clearly stated its desired innovation goals, and is having difficulty launching new, consumer relevant products, look at the reward systems in the development process. Don't look only at the obvious rewards. Really dig into the whole system and look for any inconsistencies. I'm sure you are getting exactly what is being rewarded.
Chris Brogan had a great quote on Twitter yesterday. It read "Technology is never the solution. It's the facilitator. Strategy aligned to goals is the solution."
I would qualify the last sentence, but considering the 140 character limit on Twitter, I'd say he got the important part right. Technology is a facilitator. It's our job to figure out what, exactly, any technology would need to facilitate. Consumers don't buy technology. They buy solutions that make their lives better, and typically have little patience for interacting with technology directly. The more invisible technology becomes, the more it will be embraced.
Last year I was reviewing a proposal with a client who was very concerned with predicting which technologies he should add to his products in the coming years. It took a while to show him that once we identified the right consumer needs and benefits to deliver on those needs, we would probably find out that multiple technologies would be at his disposal to deliver them. It's the technology piece that should remain flexible, as his strategy should be based on delivering consumer goals, not defining and protecting the enablers of any one set of solutions.
What is the role of technology in your company? Does everyone know what goals the current technologies are enabling? Or is the technology treated as if it is the benefit in and of itself? You may need to shift a few perspectives to make sure that your strategy is based on delivering what it is that your consumers are actually wanting to buy.
There has been a lot of discussion about Design Thinking lately. It's an important topic and certainly needs more discussion to achieve better clarity in its meaning as we translate from theory to practice. However, I want to make sure we don't lose sight of the business value of design as a discipline in and of itself.
The outcome of my work is usually the identification of a market opportunity, a business strategy to realize that opportunity, and criteria for solutions to satisfy that opportunity. To me, one of the most important functions of the design discipline is to take information that is tacit, and make it explicit; we call it information design. When an information designer visualizes the relationship between the different aspects of a recommendation, a model is created which makes a holistic understanding possible. Any flaws in logic or previous assumptions are made clear, as are the implications of the decisions that will be made to move ahead. As such, any tacit assumptions that people bring to the discussion are made explicit, and the group can truly align on a common understanding. This is what I mean by "designing" or "visualizing" a business strategy or model, and information design is a critical skill in developing models that achieve this level of clarity.
In many organizations design is used only in the development of the actual product or communication, as done by product or graphic designers. These too are important design skills, but they happen after the criteria for the solution is established. Here the design skill is used to translate intangible criteria into tangible offerings. The extent to which the designer can convey the intent of the solution is what will determine its ultimate success.
How is the design discipline used in your organization? If the designer's role is to apply their personal aesthetic tastes to make an offering "look" better, then you are missing out on an opportunity to make your organization's tacit assumptions more explicit, enabling better decisions to be made. It may be time to rethink how you define the quality and value of design in your business.
By now most of us have heard how Google is planning layoffs and other cutbacks given the current economic situation. If you haven't, you can find the info in this Wall Street Journal article. What I find most interesting is that they are significantly pulling back on their famous 20% rule, which basically enabled any employee to spend 20% of their time on their own pet projects. It was stated that the reason they are pulling back on these projects is because this system has not been able to produce any big new revenue streams to reduce the company's reliance on ad revenue through searches.
Many companies are finding themselves in a similar situation. Often, this type of program is started in an effort to encourage innovation. The prevailing thought is that if people are given lattitude to do whatever they are passionate about, then creativity and innovation will flow. What is missed in this approach is that one of the things people are most passionate about is solving problems. Think about the satisfaction people get when they solve a really tough problem. Think about the creativity that is necessary to find a way around an "insurmountable" roadblock. The best thing a company can do to foster creativity and innovation is not to say "Do whatever you want", but to say "If we can find a way to deliver this benefit in such a way that we achieve x,y, and z corporate goals, we will become the market leader."
Once your organization truly knows what innovation goals will ensure success, THEN you can leave people alone to do their thing. Magic will happen if you do this. Magic will not happen if you give people a blank piece of paper to do whatever they want, and then hope they will do something you will find to be of value. Remember, people are passionate about solving problems that will be useful to the organization. If you provide the right consumer centric problem, you'll be amazed how much creativity and innovation will follow.
Interesting article from IMD on why small companies have an edge over their large company counterparts in driving innovation. The point I found most interesting is that they point to psychological safety as a necessity to foster a culture of innovation. They define psychological safety as "the assurance that if you have an idea and explore it yet it fails, you won’t be fired or penalized for it."
Most organizations understand that it is important to accept failure in innovative cultures. But how do you send a clear message to the organization about what type of failure is acceptable, and what type of failure is not acceptable? No one wants to reward people for not being thorough, screwing up, or being lax. Stating this fact seems obvious, but in practice it can become quite muddy. What do you do if an engineer perfects a new technology that has no relevance in the market? This is what can happen when companies try to encourage failure by creating sandboxes that can be tangibly measured. For example, each group or person gets a budget of $x to spend on exploration, or (as Google famously states) each person has 20% of their time to work on whatever is of interest to them. Yes, a random breakthrough may occur, but these metrics are meaningless if they are not tied to innovation goals.
I believe that the leadership of an organization bears the responsibility of defining the goals for value added innovation. By this I mean that they need to define the business the company is in based on what benefits they provide to the market. When this is very clearly stated, (as is usually the case in a small company) people know what challenges are set out before them. They will then find ways to cut through silos, form groups that consist of people with diverse skills, and be able to tell when one path needs to be abandoned for another that's more promising. These "failures" will be good failures because they won't look or feel like failure at all. The goal will be greater than any one execution which removes the burden of failure from any one task or series of events.
In my opinion, the only real failures happen when leaders do not take on this responsibility. They reorganize to remove silos, give up some money, free up some time, and sit back and wait for magic to happen in a vacuum. If this is what happens in your company, think about what you can do to set market driven innovation goals. Otherwise you risk rewarding real failure.
What's the level of visual literacy in your company? Chances are it's not very high.
I define visual literacy as the ability to discern whether your products, services, marcom materials, or anything else you produce, are visually communicating the message you want your consumers to receive. This skill is not taught in most schools, and even some design schools fall short in this area. All too often, the quality of design is determined by how much the design is "liked" by internal stakeholders, or designers. Even many consumer evaluation methods rely on asking consumers which option they like the best.
Consumers don't buy products because they like the way they look. For example, if it's important to your consumers that your product be rugged, it should look and feel rugged. All the written specifications in the world that say your product is rugged will not compensate if your product does not look and feel rugged. Consumers may like the way the less rugged product looks better than the alternatives, but they will still buy the one that looks more rugged if that's what's important.
Visual literacy is different from being able to understand what consumers want. It's also different from being able to design things that are aesthetically pleasing. It's the ability to translate what consumers want into the look and feel of the offering, conveying a consistent message across all visual elements. This skill is fairly intangible, and as such is usually overlooked. This is a mistake, as intangible attributes are far less likely to be copied by the competition than technical attributes.
Think about how design decisions are made in your company. Are products designed functionally, with design "painted" on after the fact? Are the marcom materials designed separately from the products, with different communication goals? Are your products evaluated based on preference, or based on how well they look like they will do what they are intended to do? Are designers evaluated based on hand skill and the ability to create designs the management team likes, or on their ability to communicate the benefits that consumers will buy?
Visual literacy is a strong source of competitive advantage. Whether it's being used to your advantage or to your competitor's advantage is up to you.