Monday, February 1, 2010

Wading into Complexity

I am fascinated by design thinking at the moment, perhaps because it provides pointers for being both more creative and more successful. The Design of Business by Roger Martin* focuses on helping businesses to use design thinking, but his ideas apply to individuals and institutions as well.

Balancing Predictability and New Knowledge
Martin recognizes that companies need structure and established routines in order to exploit their past successes. As a result, they analyse the figures to determine what works and what doesn’t work. They value reliability and demand proof before trying something new.

But the results don’t live up to expectations. Martin explains, “What organizations fail to realize is that while they reduce the risk of small variations in their business, they increase the risk of cataclysmic events that occur when the future no longer resembles the past and the algorithm is no longer relevant or useful.”

Martin says that “Few large companies have managed – or even attempted – to balance sufficient predictability and stability to support growth with sufficient creation of new knowledge to stimulate growth.” He points to Cirque du Soleil as one example of a successful company with both strong management (a multinational organization with 3500 employees worldwide) and creative new ideas.

Stare into a Mystery
Martin asserts that companies need to be prepared to act on the basis of valid ideas, even if they can’t be proven. “It is not possible to prove any new thought, concept, or idea in advance: all new ideas can be validated only through the unfolding of future events. To advance knowledge, we must turn away from our standard definitions of proof – and from the false certainty of the past – and instead stare into a mystery to ask what could be.”

In order to make discoveries that will lead to new businesses or new markets or increased competitiveness, Martin recommends that companies adopt design thinking. “The design thinker has a stance that seeks the unknown, embraces the possibility of a surprise and is comfortable with wading into complexity not knowing what is on the other side.”

Embrace Surprises
Martin says that “In reliability-driven, analytical-thinking companies, the norm is to see constraints as the enemy: there is never enough capital, customers demand impossibly short intervals, and distributors are always trying to squeeze a little more.” But design thinkers embrace constraints, viewing them as opportunities that force individuals to pay attention, to focus their thinking and to be creative.

Bridging the Gap
Martin recognizes that it can be challenging to reconcile analytical, proof-based decision-making with creative, intuitive thinking. He suggests a number of different ways of bridging the gap between the two approaches.

Analytical thinkers should be encouraged to share their data and reasoning but to stop short of imposing conclusions. By leaving the discussion open, design thinkers can explore all the options without feeling boxed in.

On the other hand, design thinkers can use language carefully in order to avoid frightening their analytically-minded colleagues. For example, rather than focussing on how new and exciting something is, they can reassure their colleagues by explaining that ‘although this has not been done in North America, similar projects in Europe have proven very successful.’

Similarly, design thinkers can progressively tackle a large project by biting off small chunks. In this way, there is a closer connection to past practices, and it isn’t as scary a jump into the future for proof-based thinkers.

*Roger Martin is Dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. His earlier book is The Opposable Mind.

1 comment:

John B. said...

Inefficiency has much to be said for it. Loose-jointed organisation it used to be called.

It is said that during the bombing Blitz on London in 1941 what saved the utilities from collapse was the tangle of Victorian local layout that still persisted.

How would we survive today if there were an widespread colapse of electric power? Bombs in sub-stations would be very powerful indeed, much more so than downing the odd aircraft.

We do though have already quite enough inefficient business here to keep us going.