Using Excellence by Design to manage Complexity

March 22, 2010 1 comment

Nature does it Better.  Something to really consider is how immature we are compared to nature.  Nature supports infinite complexity, yet does so by design.  Biology and Chemistry form the design basis for  nature to support broad complexity.  Every leaf, tree, and flower is different, yet they are all formed based on the same design principles.  Man has a long ways to go to form design principles as robust as nature has, but what the heck, we have only been at this for a blink of the eye compared to the age of the earth.

Business in general, and IT in particular, that has become much more complex.  There are several ways to think about this subject.  One is simply how business (and life in general!) has become more complex.  This is due to wider variety of options (in products and services), greater breadth of customer base and relationships in general, and more rules/regulations/considerations in these, due to government, social, economic, environmental, and legal aspects.  Yes the world in general is getting more complex.

Another way to look at complexity is from an IT perspective.  Certainly technology has gotten more complex for the same reasons noted above, plus the advancements in technology itself, which provides an ever increasing set of alternatives in hardware/software/networking technology and perhaps the most influential, the rise of independent offerings that must be ‘integrated’ into a solution.  It is not unusual today to find an IT solution that mixes cell phones, web servers, third party hosted applications, remote storage, and enterprise databases.

In fact, the combination of these two trends is growing, and influencing each other.  McKinsey recently issued a report on Tackling IT Complexity in Product Design. Should we be concerned and if so, what can be done about it?

Actually this is a subject I have spent some great amount of effort on over my career.  Since college, where I studied systems science (BS, MSU, ’80), I have been involved in understanding complex systems and forming models and solutions to explain and address this complexity in ways that are sustainable (i.e. not by spaghetti code that implements every complex feature!).

Some great examples of solutions that support complex behavior, but do so in simple, consistent, excellent designs are operating systems (who are able to run an infinite variety of applications), networking (able to transport infinite data payloads over an incredible variety of communication types including data, voice, video), and perhaps most understandable to many, the spreadsheet (which after all is probably the most widely used IT tool in business and is able to manage an infinite variety of calculations and structures for reporting).

So complexity of need is inevitable (people want to run all kids of applications, send all kinds or data, execute all kinds of calculations), but designing solutions to address this complexity in simple, well structured, sustainable ways is still possible. It is another example of Excellence by Design.

Not too surprisingly, there are more example of solutions to complex challenges via poor, complex designs, then there are examples of elegant, excellent design.  And the problem is growing.  Creating a great design for a minimally complex world is not too hard, creating one for a highly complex world is much tougher.

McKinsey provides a nice summary of some of considerations that can tend to result in poor design, and overly complex products.  While not complete (call me if you want a full discussion 😉 ), it hits some good highlights including: Growth in technology inside the product itself, poor architecture for the product, weak or myopic understanding of the business needs (creating a product for a fixed set of requirements is inflexible and shows not only poor architecture but a poor understanding of the long term business needs) , poor collaboration/teaming among the parties who influence product design (mktg, engineering, manufacturing, etc.), and weak competency in the overall product design and development process.

In the Excellence by Design framework I use as the basis for this blog, I hit these points and a few others.  Here are some highlight how they help address complexity and help guide an organization to Excellence by Design:

Chaos vs Control: The world is complex and not all requirements are the same.  Deeply understanding and in fact embracing what aspects of a product must thrive in a chaotic environment, vs what aspects must ensure very disciplined control, is a key part of designing for complexity.  The internet protocols are very controlled and precise in order to ensure interoperability, yet they are designed to enable a wildly chaotic set of data to be transported.  Very few companies or teams i have worked with really try and differentiate requirements in this way.

Systems as Strategy: Creating ‘systems of execution’ that reliably operate, yet support broad usage types is very useful.  As a simple example, it is surprising how many companies have financial processes that are still not systemized in any robust way, and still rely on a (often constantly changing) variety of custom spreadsheets, personnel, and submission timing, for budgeting, forecasting, and final reporting of costs.  Same is true for HR in most companies.  I could go on but the point is you can address complexity in part by excellent design of the operational aspects of the organization.

Craftsmanship to Community: Enabling and organization to leverage both wise/competent experts, and the broad community of participants inside and outside the organization, can help address complexity by making the subject more of a priority, and seeking best ideas for how to design more holistically, yet few organizations utilize this potential.

Architecture Advantage, Design for Change, Product as Platform: These three Excellence by Design principles are core to addressing complexity in product design.  Combined together, they can make a huge difference in how products are designed and result in better products (higher quality, greater customer satisfaction), that are more resilient to change (lowering costs and improving competitive advantage), and have a higher value proposition (a product that is able to be easily extended and/or combined with other capabilities generally has a much greater value in the marketplace).

Service Excellence: Not an obvious principle to help reduce complexity, but an increasingly important one.  As the world becomes more dynamic and changing and complex, the ability of a product to promise ‘service excellence’ over time becomes more important AND a key differentiator to competitors.  Again though this is a subject for which few organizations have developed a core strategy and strength in.

Yes, in a world that is inevitably and increasingly complex, developing enhanced organizational capabilities that help manage complexity is a key success factor for business and IT organizations.  Using the Excellence by Design principles is a start.

Excellence by Design of next generation User Interfaces

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

One trend that is abundantly clear is the dramatic change taking place in user interfaces (UIs) on the web.  This change is driven of course by new technology but even more by a new found comfort with new methods of presenting information and content…and this ‘comfort’ applies not only to designers, and the businesses they work for, but most importantly, to the consumer.

Here are a few examples to demonstrate new trends in Excellence by Design of user interfaces.

  • The first is shown above.  Its a screen shot from  There are several aspects to this site I think are spectacular examples of Excellence by Design.  First I should state that the Editor in Chief Michelle Adams, is rapidly rising in stature and I can see why.  Her eye, as represented by the content of her newly launched magazine, is impressive.  More to the point of this column, the magazine layout itself is one of the best I have seen and represents a much improved way to engage yourself in a magazine, online.  The UI, the ability to click adds and get more info, and the ability to change your navigation are all outstanding.  Note that this magazine is done using the tools provided by the site so the capability demonstrated by Lonnymag is just an example of what is coming from many other self publishers.
  • Another great example is the new New York Times – Times Skimmer. This new UI for reading my favorite newspaper is another great example of what is coming and how it changes the game of designing for, and engaging in, content for the web.
  • Perhaps the most impressive forward looking example however, is now available on YouTube, where Sports Illustrated has posted a video explaining what is to come with their new publishing approach.  It is startling, incredibly exciting, and demonstrates that the future design of user interfaces will be radically different than what is seen today.  Catch it here.
  • Of course I must mention the new Apple iPad, which I believe is the tip of the iceberg in showing how the device side of user interfaces will be changing.  These tablet like, high fidelity devices are certainly the wave of the future and will have seamless communications so you can connect with others, or perhaps move a piece of content (like a picture) over to your HDTV set with a simple swipe.  The end of the Sports Illustrated video shows another great example, where you use the iPad like device to interact with a show you are watching simultaneously on your HDTV.Update: here is another great iPad UI demo from Penguin books.
  • And lastly, I must mention Ford Motor’s new MyTouch upgrade to its Sync platform. It’s a great system that I admit I have a bit of special pride in, given my role at Ford during the time the Sync strategy was being debated.  Sync, soon with the MyTouch extension, is a great example of modern UI Excellence by Design.

Ford MyTouch with Sync

Yes, we are certainly poised for a great leap forward due to technology (sw and devices) and the comfort of users in  accepting these new UI paradigms.  As with other advances, there will be many implementation that are poorly done, but those that really standout and are successful will be Excellent by Design.

Excellence from IWB

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

I recently took the time to catch up on the blog of Irving WladawskyBerger. IWB used to be a favorite of mine near the end of my IBM career because he seemed to well understand both technology itself, and the changing nature of the business (and social) environment that affects its use.  I pulled a couple interesting quotes from some of his recent postings:

  • On the Services economy he writes on Feb 3, 2010 “key differences between research and innovation in the industrial and service economies… I simplified them down to three.  1) Focus: Physical Systems versus People-based, Organizational Systems 2) Design Objectives: Product Quality and Competitive Costs versus Positive Customer Experiences, 3) Organization and Culture:  Hierarchic and Siloed versus Multi-disciplinary and Collaborative”
  • On Dec 23, 2009 on Collaborative Innovation he wrote: “IBM’s 2006 Global CEO Study was the link between external collaboration and innovation.  Over 75% of the 765 CEOs interviewed in the study ranked business partners and customer collaborations as top sources for new ideas.  This is very different from previous organizational models that assumed that innovation was too critical to involve outsiders.”
  • On Jan 28, 2010 he writes about the challenges to successfully capitalizing on Disruptive Innovation: “Many companies fail to adequately embrace a disruptive innovation …because the strategy was essentially rejected by the organization…the institution was not able to stretch enough to be able to implement the needed changes.  This happens even when the very survival of the organization is at stake”.

Across these points is an underpinning truth related to Excellence by Design.  Excellence used to be achievable by a much more narrow focus.  A specific person or existing organization executes on a specific idea and product.  If THEY are capable and THE PRODUCT is great…excellence is achieved.  This is hard enough task and frankly one I think few organizations are strong in anyway.  Often there is more concern about the myriad of other issues at hand from budgets to performance reviews to project deadlines and of course politics, to distract people from the core task of building and delivering a great product.

But in today’s world this has become much more complex for several reasons:

  • Achieving Excellence is a broader challenge.  It is not just related to the product, it is related to services as well.  It is also based on excellence in customer experience.  It must be global and also meet local  expectations.  Excellence simply covers a wider range of factors now than just the core product.  Great ‘design’ for excellence must include this.
  • The participants who contribute to Excellence are much broader as well.  They include partners much more often, and many times customers as well.  Proctor and Gamble made a major and highly successful shift from  internally developed innovation, to an innovation strategy much more engaged with partners and customers.  Monsanto, which is a leader in agricultural biotechnology, has a very robust community they draw from to develop new product ideas as a core part of their pipeline’ process. Your design for excellence must include robust means for cross-functional, cross-company, cross-customer collaboration.
  • Building a culture adept at effectively embracing disruptive innovation is hard…and often seen as threatening, especially in today’s economy.  People are seeking stability and consistency in their jobs at exactly the time that the world is pressuring companies to become better at capitalizing on emergent, disruptive innovation.  Its a big cultural (aka management) challenge to enable a culture that can thrive in chaos, yet stay under control to deliver with consistency.  Designing and establishing organizational values, policies, enablers, and reward systems that reflect this is a critical success factors, yet too many companies ignore this aspect in the Excellence by Design efforts.

My point is the Excellence by Design must include these considerations in order to be effective.  Your ‘design’ for excellence must include ‘Service Excellence’  (principle #8 of the Excellence by Design principles. It must include a comprehensive approach to partnering and effective leverage of your customers (principle #3: Craftsmanship and Community) and it must help build a culture that is  comfortable working in an environment that embraces chaos, yet has effective controls to drive successfully to conclusion. (principle #1: Chaos vs Control).

Taking this broad approach to Excellence by Design will help you achieve success in today’s disruptive world that is more services oriented, collaborative, and innovative.

Mashups and Product as Platform

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

In a recent NYTimes blog post, Michael Zimbalist, vice president for research and development operations at the Times, discusses the potential for hardware to follow what has happened in software, in allowing unpredictable ‘mashups’.  While Mr. Zimbalist references the classic manufacturer driven integration, the more interesting aspect is the advent of consumer driven combination, as he states:

“The coupling or uncoupling of powerful hardware components is gradually shifting from the manufacturers to the consumer.”

From an Excellence by Design view this raises a few points of thought:

First, this is no surprise for two very basic reasons.  From a more recent history (i.e. information age) point of view, this is nothing more than the inevitable evolution of software recombination, (new hardware mashups are enabled in large part by the new software integration capability of that hardware) and is similar to  successful industry of ‘build your own PC’.  There is simply both past experience and better capability to do hardware mashups.

Second, to use my favorite analogy, is this any differ than the car industry, which has for years enjoyed a popular industry of ‘hot rods, ‘customs’, and ‘pimp my ride’ type mashups?  Americans in particular are extremely fond of modifying the factory product, whether for looks, performance, or simple uniqueness.  And it is not exclusive to autos and Americans. Motorcycles are another popular target for endless modification by the consumer, and the interest is worldwide.  So when ‘information technology mashups’ sounds new, remember its just a new version of a long held love.

Third, (and more to the point of Excellence by Design), what can we expect from this new application of user/owner ingenuity? Let’s take some lessons from what we have seen from the past in autos and motorcycles that I’ll refer to as:

Excellence by Design Rules for enabling Hardware Mashups

  • Hardware can be designed to well enable mashups, or not.  Think of tires, batteries, windshield wipers for your car, or seats, handlebars, and shocks for your motorcycle.  Pretty easy to change and customize.  In the case of tires it is because there are well accepted standards for size, attachment, and performance of the replacements parts, and ease of change by the consumer.
  • These ‘mashup enabling’ properties can be manufacturer driven, or industry driven.  Some manufactures will actually go to great lengths to enable external (business or consumer) modification for their products.  You can argue that the Apple iPhone Apps platform is a great example for software (though Apple has historically been very closed to hardware modification) as Windows was for the PC.  Speaking of the PC, the IBM compatible PC market is one that has, almost by accident, become the classic case of extreme hardware mashup/modification.
  • There can be great variation in the performance of mashups, due to interface issues, quality of the replacement parts, and the willingness of the original manufacturer to facilitate such mashups.  Think of the IBM S/370.  It spawned the first real market for computer hardware mashups, as ‘plug compatible’ replacements proliferated.  But IBM was not exactly supportive and sometimes changes in microcode (the first example of software that facilitated hardware mashups!) could negatively affect the performance of using a third party hardware product.  (note this became such a hot issue it was the core of many lawsuits…something that has and likely will again occur as hardware technology mashups proliferate)
  • In the end, success is very much about design.  Good design can facilitate mashups, ensure/preserve interface compatibility and performance, and enable extensions in compatible ways.  Poor design can significantly reduce performance, lead to unstable operation, or worse.  Its true in cars, motorcycles, mainframes, PC…and the new crop of iPhones, Nexus Ones, USB devices, etc.
  • Custom is interesting,  Factory is almost always more reliable, Industry evolution is best. Just like the examples in other industries, there is real advantage to the planning, design, and inherent focus that the manufacturer puts on theire product.  Mashups that leverage this and do so in approved ways are much more likely to be stable, those that are custom fabricated and integrated poorly are just asking for trouble.  But the efforts do lead to evolution, and the ‘industry’ as a whole can often mature to better and better means to enable stable and valuable mashups.  Such has happened in the auto industry, which enjoys a healthy, safe, and valuable after market parts industry.  Very true also of Harley Davidson, who, thru a combination of corporate desire, and relentless demand from its customers, spawned a huge market for hardware adds that range from super simple bolt-ons, to complex and sophisticated changes.
  • Success is reliant on designing your Product as Platform. This Excellence by Design principle supports the idea of thinking holistically about your product not as a standalone offering, but as a base for future extensibility, whether by tight integration, loose integration, or unanticipated mashups.  It enables more flexible and reliable mashups, and better enables your community to help drive your product into new, innovative markets and uses.


-‘Mashups’ are becoming more commonplace everyday, and done so by a wider variety of people (large companies, small companies, backyward mechanics, and even average consumers).

-Beware of the GREAT difference between mashups that are done well and with products designed for it, and those ‘backyard’ inventions whose wheels may fall of just miles down the road.

-Best case is to think of the mashup potential for your product, and intelligently embrace the potential through good design and market/customer enablement that supports and nurtures innovation.  This is strongly reflected in the Excellence by Design principle  Product as Platform.

In summary, Excellence in hardware mashups can be accomplished…by Design of your Product as Platform.  Hey, don’t just take my word for it…it has proven successful in other industries and will work well again for information technology.

Climate Change – Map of the Future

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment

There is a new, way cool interactive map of the future of our planet’s climate. Check out the Map of the Future below.  This new tool was developed as part of an NSF sponsored traveling museum exhibit. The interface is really great.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The reason I mention it is also because the science for the climate calculations is based on Climate Interactive’s simulation tool — C-ROADS.  I was lucky enough to be part of the original team who helped craft the vision for the tool, which was based on absolute adherence to scientific accuracy, speedy execution, and (my main contribution) to do so using an ‘open’ design approach to enable future community based enhancements and innovative uses…like the Map of the Future.

I would argue that ‘Excellence’ in regards to this effort used many of the principles I have espoused in this blog.  We wanted to enable chaotic (i.e. unplanned, unexpected, innovative) uses of the simulation.  So we designed it as a platform so that others could (appropriately) extend its capability, usability, and impact.  We also wanted to ensure appropriate control so the team that developed the model ensured it has a robust scientific process for validation.

We also wanted to move climate simulation from a specialized craft that only deep scientists could deal with, to something speedy and easy to use (yet accurate), to broaden the community of people who could use the tool, and extend it.  As a result we created versions focused on learning, and versions focused on negotiating scenarios among countries.  The former case was used for the Map of the Future tool you see above.  The latter version has been used by various countries and most importantly, in the recent climate negotiations in Copenhagen.

My hat is off to Drew Jones who has been the leader of this whole effort.  Drew is dedicated and passionate, smart and pragmatic, willing to start simple yet pursue excellence.  Due to his efforts we were able to get some very different perspectives into the project and I think, achieve some real Excellence…by Design.

Bioengineering Excellence by Design

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment

One of the industries I am personally interested in, having spent my last career role at Monsanto and with a son who is gaining his degree in the area, is biotechnology and especially given my own engineering background, bioengineering.

Bioengineering is the application of engineering principles to improve product design and production efficiency in the application of biology to new uses in medicine, agriculture, and other domains.  The biotechnology industry in general is still in the ‘pre-engineering’ stage, where the management, manipulation, and recombination of biological elements is largely manual, complex, laboratory activities requiring great care and special knowledge.

Compare this to the industrial age where parts were commonized and processes automated.  This enabled the transposition of core elements (chemical elements like iron, air, etc.) into generally usable materials (steel, screws, plastic, etc.) and then components (motors, transmissions, gauges, fabrics, etc.).  These were then combined into complex, yet resilient and reliable products (automobiles, refrigerators, furniture, etc.).  This process became commonplace, yielded high quality, and dramatically lowered costs to manufacture.

I recently listened to a lecture at MIT on Synthetic Biology by Drew Endy.  Drew is highly active in the bioengineering field.  With a background in Civil Engineering, he brings to biotechnology the interest to apply the same kind of engineering enablements that other fields have enjoyed.  Drew highlights four key engineering improvements that bioengineering can enable to move the field forward:

1)      Biosynthesis:  This is the act of using information and raw materials to essentially ‘manufacture’ DNA. The cost, ease, and effectiveness of this approach drastically changes the nature of bio creation from manual art to an engineering science.  It also calls lays open the door for the next three improvements.

2)      Standardization of Parts:  Like screws, or tires, or internet protocols, every industry that desires to grow must develop standards for parts and supplies.  The biotechnology area is still very immature in this regard.

3)      Abstraction of Components:  Every industry eventually seeks to combine details ‘under the covers’ and provide capability without need for detailed understanding of the internal mechanisms.  The Automobile industry perfected this and also the supply chain that provides the components.  The Information Age also leverages this:  your use of the browser to read this article relies on the interaction of millions of individual parts, yet the system works because its execution (and interfaces among them) has been abstracted across a relatively few set of standardized components.

4)      Decoupling the Process: Today’s biotechnologist must play the ‘Renaissance Man’ role and have many skills.  Mature industries have design, engineering, systems integration, manufacturing, maintenance, marketing, financial, legal, etc. decoupled, allowing simpler roles, greater specialization, and improvements in each.

Bottom line, biotechnology has yet to develop the engineering methods to enable that industry to make the same leap forward that the Industrial Age and the Information Age made.  But the recipe is similar.  Bioengineering of common parts and subsystems, means of exchange and communication, standards for quality and security, and even laws of ownership and licensing, all must be evolved.

The point is, Bioengineering has the challenge to improve the Excellence of Biotechnology by designing these types of systemic capabilities, methods, standards, so that this nascent industry can proceed in a more effective fashion.  ‘Effective’ here meaning to enable greater progress and utilization of its potential, while improving efficiency and cost, and enabling secure and rightful application.

Make no mistake, this is a huge challenge and  critically important.  The manipulation of DNA is moving from manual recombination (‘sequencing’) to true manufacturability (‘synthesis’).   While sequencing is still a bit of an art, attaining effective DNA synthesis will require bioengineering to enable ‘mass production’ in the same ways engineering improvements enabled the railroad, the automobile industry, and the Internet.

It is an exciting challenge for its potential, for the value that Excellence by Design can bring this critical new age.

Reducing Complexity thru The Architecture Advantage

January 21, 2010 1 comment

One of the principles of Excellence by Design is called “The Architecture Advantage”.  It promotes the idea that just as  excellence is rooted in great design, great design is rooted in great architecture.  This truth is apparent all around us, as we encounter the products and services of life.  Those that seem to work well are usually well architected (if one cares to look deep).  It is also true that most that work poorly are in some part, based on poor architecture (although there are a vast number of other reasons they may perform poorly).

Another perspective on this truth on the value and advantage of architecture comes from an unlikely source.  The book ‘The Invisible Edge’ focuses on the value of intellectual property as a strategic tool.  My experience has been that too often IP is seen simply as a ownership issue, and more is better.  The book does  good job explaining what makes good IP.  The chapter labeled ‘Simplify’ provides the Architectural perspective. It provides 40 pages of very insightful reading.

It starts by describing the danger of business complexity: “Complexity can kill a business.  It saps energy. It increases transaction costs.  It erodes focus.  It distracts attention.  Complexity, though, is the inevitable outcome of the kind of economic interdependency that characterizes our modern economy….businesses need to make deliberate choices to reduce it.”

The book then answers the question (and in a way, demonstrates ‘Excellence by Design’) by stating how: “Design strategies lie at the heart of meaningful simplification.” What is really illuminating is that the book respects the importance of good design (and in their focus, IP strategies related to that design) in achieving simplification.  In fact they state “simplification strategies are rarely easy to pull off; in fact, executing a successful simplification strategy can be the hardest challenge of all.”

This advice is true for all aspects of a business including product complexity, process complexity, marketing complexity, human resources management complexity, supply chain complexity, etc.  Again the authors are right on when they state “Important design choices can be made at every level of aggregation, from the smallest detail of a product’s architecture, to the design of the manufacturing floor, all the way to the design of the organization, and even to the design of the entire network of relationships in the business ecosystem”.

What makes this point so valuable and related to the ExD principle of ‘The Architecture Advantage” is the fact that the book pays homage to the role and importance of architecture as the key to good design and valuable IP that drives simplification and reduces complexity.

Easily said but as a colleague of mine is fond of saying; architecting and designing well is not a job for amateurs.  The book goes to provide an excellent discussion of what architecture is and what characteristics are found in ‘good architecture’.  Is covers several examples and discusses the tension between having architectural features that are more ‘closed/controlling’ versus ‘open/collaborative’.

A most eloquent quote in this chapter sums it up brilliantly.  “Some of the most powerful and sophisticated strategies in modern business involve alignment of IP and design strategies behind a new architecture that breaks the compromise between complete control and overly complex collaboration…strategies like this simplify by rejecting complexity instead of redesigning it.”

Clearly there is an Architecture Advantage to Excellence by Design.

Designing a ‘Network’ business

January 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Thomas Friedman is a NYTimes columnist and author of several books including The World is Flat, and Hot, Flat, and Crowded.  He has recently written about China for the NYTimes and in his most recent article describes the difference between ‘Command China’ (represented predominantly by the Communist Party and the State) and ‘Networked China’ (represented by the growing entrepreneurial businesses of China and it’s people.

Mr. Friedman is not making a political point but an evolutionary one and it is worth listening to.  He references a new research paper by John Hagel, entitled “Shift Index”. Interestingly, though the paper uses a lot of big consult speak, it very much hits the same themes I highlight as drivers for one core belief in Excellence by Design that “The world has shifted to be essentially uncontrollable and unpredictable…due to the convergence of many factors but the largest are Technology advancement, the rise of Consumerization, and Globalization and its elimination of barriers to entry.  As a result, the capability of change to occur has dramatically accelerated: innovation is quicker to arise, faster to market, and more easily adopted by wider audiences”.

Back to Mr. Friedman’s article.  He reiterates the implication of this (as Hagel points out) in saying “We are shifting from a world where the key source of strategic advantage was in protecting and extracting value from a given set of knowledge stocks — the sum total of what we know at any point in time, which is now depreciating at an accelerating pace — into a world in which the focus of value creation is effective participation in knowledge flows, which are constantly being renewed.

It’s worth rereading the above and then asking yourself (or your business) an essential question.  Are you and your business striving for ‘Command’ Excellence or ‘Network’ Excellence?  If you design at all, are you designing with the intention of becoming excellent in this more fluid, dynamic mode of business?  Are you managing the business to capitalize on knowledge you have…or the knowledge you need to have? It really can have a huge difference.  In the former, you believe you are more knowledgable, powerful, controlling than others, and seek to maintain/maximize dominance of these stock of information/capability.  In the latter, you are constantly seeking the new information, new connections, relationships, opportunities.  The former can lead to arrogance and resistance to change, the latter to a more inquisitive and faster moving sense.  Which is your business?

Think about this as you consider designing your products and services, and the systems and processes that support them, and also the competencies and information sharing means of your people and partners.  Sounds like a tall order but one that can be more systematically approached by using some the the principles of Excellence by Design.  In a future post I’ll spend more time elaborating on how to go about that.

In any case it is worth a discussion with your staff and peers about the ‘Shift’, moving from a ‘Command’ to a ‘Network’ mode, and the resulting implications on the business, its operations, and especially the people, partners, and customers that bring it to life.

A conversation on the new role of Designer

January 14, 2010 Leave a comment

I recently had a conversation with Marv Adams, a colleague I have known for some years.  It was very insightful.

Mike: Before we start right in Marv, perhaps you could share a bit of your career background so our readers can understand the context of your perspective to the conversation we will be having.

Marv: My degree was in Electrical Engineering and I came out of school just as the PC market was taking off.  After working in various dimensions of computer & OS design, I did systems engineering work, project management, IT management in various functions and then CIO.  I’ve been a CIO in financial services and manufacturing.

Mike: Thanks Marv.  As you know I have been working on the subject of business excellence by design, with a focus on how to better design business and its products and services to cope with the increasing degree of change, unpredictability, and competition of today.  What thoughts would you have to start off?

Marv: The role, competence and collaborative nature of a designer in today’s highly interconnected world is more important than ever.  Excellence in design starts with the designer having a deep appreciation of the context for their product.  Depending on the type of product, the designer must design for variation in user capabilities, variation in the physical environment the product will operate in, variation in the integration requirements for the product (i.e. is it likely to be a component in other emergent systems), variation in the amount of change required to the product over its life time (i.e. a fork will experience no change requirements and an OS will experience many changes), etc.   The designer must also think about how the product is disposed of at end of life for environmental reasons.

Mike: Seems that the respect of the role of designers exists in some industries (fashion? art? maybe industrial design like Herman Miller).  How well do you think this role is well understood, respected, well staffed, and empowered/enabled in most Business and/or IT organizations?  Is this an opportunity that needs focus for senior management?  A critical success factor?

Marv: GREAT POINT!  It is not understood well at all, and that is a growing problem & opportunity in my opinion. More than ever, questions of design are highly interconnected with questions of business strategy.  Business strategy is nothing more than designing what markets, what customers, what products and what business models can be most successful.  Michael Porter, in his work on business strategy, talks about the importance of having clarity in your business:  are you trying to serve few needs of many customers;  broad needs of few customers,  broad needs of many customers in a niche / narrow market?   To effectively design products & services, a designer must have influence on business strategy.  A designer or design group must have influence on how the business delivers on its promise as well. Think about Apple, and the role Steve Jobs plays. He is involved in the design of the business system in addition to the product.  This involves what competencies are required in their support staff, stores, etc.  It involves what is done inside the firm versus sourced.   Business leadership must be stronger designers in today’s world AND must pay for / respect product & service designers more than ever!

Mike: You mention Steve Jobs, which raises the example of Apple’s product and services evolution through the iPod, iTunes and iPhone.  Compared to what manufacturers of basic audio players and cell phones did, Apple seems to have a far more holistic design in many ways.  Certainly interconnected, agile to new uses (iPhone Apps!).  While the industry seems to be waking up now…is this a good example of how design (holistic, integrative, business strategy design) gave Apple a huge advantage over the competition?

Marv: Yes, I love this example because it illustrates so many important aspects of great design. One aspect is innovation.  Innovation in nature occurs when there are re-combinations or unexpected mutations.  In today’s world, where so much is densely interconnected, innovation is largely defined by recombining things that already exist into whole new value propositions. Apple did this in the way they revolutionized music distribution and did it again in how they revolutionized the basic cell phone and made it a compute platform.   I believe that Apple operated from a design vision that is rooted in a deep understanding of interconnectedness. When you operate from this perspective, you can have basic success if your product is a successful component, and wild success if you trigger an emergent market. Apple has done both, but the wild success I suspect has come from things that emerged, that they didn’t fully expect.  Having said that, they made products which were highly adaptive and able to change with the ideas of the many users who fell in love with their products.

Mike: A last question and back to role of designer. What about staffing such a role? Seems like the role of designer as you describe it is, unfortunately, rare to find, and still an art.  While there are plenty of people (in general business or in IT) who do something in the area of requirements or analysis, it is not a competency that is very mature, or has strong educational opportunities (like say, marketing, or finance, or becoming a certified project manager).  We have mentioned understanding and influencing business strategy, designing for variation, having a holistic, integrative view of the products and services, designing an ecosystem, having products that enable emergent and unexpected uses, and being mature and skilled enough to wield a significant influence in the Business.  Seems like this role would be best served by top talent, until it evolves to something easily practiced.  What action might you recommend as a Senior Executive in terms of staffing such a role?  Use many people? Few? Use Consultants? Do in-House?  High level manager or more of a propeller head (sorry!)? Create a small team to focus on this and grow the competency?

Marv: The billion dollar question!!  I’m going to give some thoughts, but I will openly acknowledge that I am personally grappling with this, so my answers are definitely a ‘work-in-process’.  There is a new, technical book, entitled “The Master & His Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist.  It goes into depth on the role of the left and right hemisphere’s of our brains and makes an observation that the western world has become dangerously imbalanced towards the left.  The strengths of both sides are important, but the right side’s strengths are under represented in most institutions.  Left side bias looks something like this:  mechanistic, sales process / quarterly focus, finance / controllers measuring costs of irrelevant items WAY out of context of anything, IT people placing technology in the way of relationships (think VRU’s), etc.  It looks bureaucratic often / short term thinking / solve the next issue but ignore the systemic perspective.   To solve this problem requires a deep and healthy appreciation for the strength of the right hemisphere:  thinking holistically, seeing systems, visualizing the time dimension, appreciating a multitude of capabilities and perspectives that are essential in today’s interconnected world.   Getting more right bias into key positions is critical, and they come from all educational backgrounds.  This is going to be really hard!  However, institutions who don’t see this will fail in a world that is producing change at a staggering pace.  Only those institutions that understand the concepts of complex systems, how to design their firms, products and people to adapt will stand the test of time.  The others will be flashes in the pan and then be gone!   Again, this spells opportunity!

Mike: Great perspective.  Seems that most of todays organizations don’t reward these skills.  That is a tough issue not only for the organizations but for those who may aspire to be designers….will the rewards occur, or go to those more left brained, so to speak?  Any final thoughts before we close?

Marv: Most of today’s organizations don’t have meaningful, effective or inspiring goals & metrics that matter.  They are stuffed with left brain generated metrics.  How often have we been in operations, financial or sales reviews where people’s heads are buried in 1 inch binders filled with red/yellow/green colored metrics.  One of the realities of the world is that evolution doesn’t think, it simply selects winners from losers.  Those who don’t get this right will lose in ‘natural selection’.  Our economy has seen extreme examples of this process in action as times have gotten tough.  We have also seen new players emerge, who have capitalized on change!   Good conversation, thanks for including me!

Mike: This has been a great discussion on the critical role of business Excellence by Design(ers)!.  Much appreciated and frankly a lot to think about for our readers, as they consider the role, its potential impact, and actions to build, empower, and reward competency in.  You have given us some great things to think about.  Thanks again.

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Design of Business

January 12, 2010 1 comment

Recently I was fortunate enough to talk with a colleague at Doblin Group, an innovation consultancy I respect and a firm that seems to well grasp the nature of designing business to enable sustainable innovation.

Our conversation wandered into the the subject of design for business.  We ended up discussing Roger Martin, who is the Dean of the Rotman School of Management and author of several excellent books on design in business including Opposable Mind and the Design of Business.

Roger has made a real study of helping business enhance their strategy by better design. One of his beliefs (that I definitely concur with) is that there is tension between the desires of business to create and operate in predictable, reliable ways, and the need to add value in more unpredictable ways.  He calls this the tension between Reliability and Validity. An excellent video of Roger explaining this further is available here.  It’s worth the 30 minutes to anyone interested in better understanding the future of business, whether you are a by-the-numbers business person or a creative, innovative designer (The first 15 minutes especially so, if you have ADD).

Roger is absolutely right on as he describes that the nature of Reliability tends to drive narrower focus and emphasis on fewer metrics…after all it is easier to be reliable if there are limits to it.  There is certainly a place for this.  It is used all the time.  It is quantitative, measurable.  It’s like having a test with scores.  It does the job reliably.  IQ measures something.  But how much value do these reliable things provide?

On the other hand is Validity (as Roger calls it).  It is based more on future, on more variables, and is more uncertain.  Indeed, the challenge is that too much emphasis is placed on this at the expense of providing more dynamic and valued capabilities for business.

Roger says: Business people live in a world that rewards Reliability, while designers tend to live in the world of Validity.  Business people like items that are predictable, measurable, and thus achievable.  Designers tend to live in the future of new ideas, potential, and unpredictability.   While I am not sure the words Reliability and Validity capture the essence of the message for me, the message is right on.

Certainly a business must respect the need for and practice of Reliability. Techniques and competencies for this are well known (project management methodologies,  six sigma methods, software development techniques, Statistical process control, and many, many others).

In the video Roger positions Designers, in search of Validity, as taking on tough problems, seeking new innovations, and inventing.  Business people faced with ever more complex environments prefer algorithmic means to reliably achieve that which was planned.  So Roger then challenges Designers to ‘design a way of working with business people who are most interested in Relaibility’.

Roger then asks for methods (language, analogies, etc.) to help this dialogue. A good suggestion…and frankly something that he does not answer but…is the intent of Excellence by Design!  I consider Excellence by Design to support both Reliability and Validity and provide some principles to enable the productive blending and dialogue between them.

Roger suggests simply getting people together (those who are focused on Reliability and those focused on Validity) and dialogue on some small topic/problem/challenge.  I again agree.  I believe the Excellence by Design model can be used to facilitate this. Use any principle as a means to focus the discussion and investigate the tension between the Predictability and Validity points of view.

Feel free to call me if you need help.  😉

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