Saturday, March 04, 2006

Transformation Design, Part Deux

I mentioned the new study of "transformation design" in an earlier post. Briefly, it's using design principles to rework organizations. I think it's a great way to think about it, and anyone who cares about optimizing anything ought to have the topic resonate with them. Thanks to Chris, who emailed me that the UK Design Council's full paper has been uploaded to their website (it was previously only an excerpt).
More than 30 years ago, Charles Eames, the American multidisciplinary designer, was asked, ‘What are the boundaries of design?’. He replied, ‘What are the boundaries of problems?’.

This point is as relevant today as it was in 1972, but the way we view problems has changed significantly since then.

Traditionally problems were seen as complicaed challenges that could be solved through breaking them down into smaller and smaller chunks – like fixing a car.

RED believes that the most important modern problems are complex rather than complicated. Complex problems are messier and more ambiguous in nature; they are more connected to other problems; more likely to react in unpredictable non-linear ways; and more likely to produce unintended consequences. [...]

Traditionally, organisations have been designed for a complicated rather than a complex world. Hierarchical and silo structures are perfectly designed to break problems down into more manageable fragments. They are not, however, so effective handling high levels of complexity. For this reason, many of our most long standing institutions are now struggling to adapt to a more complex world.
As they say, read the whole thing! My thoughts are that of course this has to be a) workable and b) totally useful - the paradigm shift that we're needing to make at this point societally. I'm surprised, but not terribly so, by pushback from designers. I think the argument that something's designer is the ultimate authority in its form is highly overstated. Designers design loads of things that continue to be improved upon, transformed, etc. Not to mention the fact that if you look at what happens to an architect's work, say, at a zoning meeting, that argument kind of flies out the window, doesn't it?

Anyway, I think that design is a great way of looking at the problems of organizations, and the problems organizations are called upon to solve. The people aspect is precisely what calls for design. After all, you can build a house as a piece of art but there's a small market for that. Mostly, you build a house to function as a house, and the better the architect understands the way people work, the better he'll be able to do that.