Creative Construction: Transformations in Design Thinking

Paul Pangaro is a systems thinker working in product and systemic design. (Paul worked with Hugh Dubberly on visually mapping innovation, and was founding CTO of snap.com). Several years ago he designed a series of management books for Sun as conversations on what we now call design thinking. Paul refreshes our memory, to call into question one of the tenets of Design Thinking that commonly shows up among designers new to organizational complexity.  I frame this belief system as “anything can be designed better if we apply design thinking to it. Design tools give us the capacity to transform organizations, systems, and infrastructures.”

I see that belief as a hopeful, but not workable, creative construction. As I’ve said before, we can help, but we are not the ones transforming. Designers are chickens, contributing eggs, and not pigs, giving up their bacon.

Paul’s axioms remind us of the nature of organizations and truly wicked problems, that these are living, evolving complex systems. They were never “designed” in the first place, and we should not tempt hubris by taking such an approach.

Axiom # 1: Forcing Organizational Change is Impossible.

Assuming a rigorous market model and strategic plan are created, there is a massive impediment to implementation: existing processes, existing structures, and existing beliefs.
The “little grey book” speaks to why this happens: the internal organizational language becomes incapable of understanding the external environmental change.

Going beyond design thinking, “desired” organizational change cannot be forced by the board or management team. As we turn toward Transformation as a perspective on systemic innovation, we must become clear about our authentic capabilities to guide change, when we are not the owners of the need for change.

Axiom #2: Forcing Organizational Change is Unnecessary

In sum, changing an existing organization is neither possible — resistance will waste resources and lead to destruction — nor necessary.

Change cannot be forced, it must be owned by its stakeholders. Therefore,  it really cannot and should not be “design-led change.” Designers can enable teams to more effectively enact the change they envision, through transformative and innovation processes. But we fool ourselves if we think we are “designing transformation” for a client organization. We need to protect our own language and that of design thinking to prevent its appropriation by economic interests. The recurring pattern of the management fad, from shared consensus within a community of practice to formalized processes spun by management consulting takes about 3 years. And we have no agreement on a canon or consensus language yet to protect, making us even more vulnerable than, for example, TQM.

I will add a third axiom to Paul’s two. Organizations are too complex to change in meaningful ways from within. Real transformation requires ecological, environmental change. Change owners must elevate the context for change to the system the organization operates in.

If we’re changing the game, nothing really changes until we change the board the game is played on. This is where we can apply Design Thinking tools, which are becoming closely coupled to transformation-oriented practices.

But first, Transformation itself requires a conceptual do-over. While some are calling for Transformation as the New Innovation, experienced thinkers on the organizational side understand the futility in this framing.

Organizational language shows up in real world settings biased by prior uses, and is subject to what Karl Weick calls organizational sensemaking. People in collective situations make sense of an ambiguous, changing situation based on memory, personal and organizational. They rely on similar patterns that occurred in the past to reduce uncertainty and cognitive dissonance. So if we start talking transformation, in many companies this will be framed as “change = layoffs.”

Every organization lives within and communicates through a language system that has evolved over time. An organization’s embedded language system pre-dates your arrival on the scene as a design / innovation consultant, and is resistant to change through direct means. It is also invisible to people in the organization, until communication breakdowns occur to reveal the different meaning between people living in differing “linguistic domains.”

Your clients may not interpret the same meanings as you from the same words. Recall how the language of business reengineering was deployed by management consultants working headcount metrics as their measure of change. “Transformation” has similar connotations in many industries, carried over from TQM and 1990’s corporate reorganization programs.

In a desperate economic climate, such as now, organizations revert to bad form, resulting in not-so creative destruction. Mass layoffs and restructuring are implied in today’s “transformation” language, at least as understood by many of our would-be clients. If a simple definition of transformation is “a significant change of form, recognized over time,” then we might identify this pattern as negative transformation.

While design thinkers are ostensibly proposing positive transformation, the difference must be authentic and sincere. Our new tools for positive transformation are actually older tools of collaboration and systems thinking. Design thinking is also a newer term for a venerable orientation to problem solving.  So why not help people understand value in terms they will relate to?

Perhaps we should adopt transformation ourselves as an insider’s framing, a kind of shared joke that implies both the intent of betterment and the wisdom of learning from failures.

There are many tools we might repurpose in authentic transformation. Bottom-up social systems change, for example. Socialization is a bottom-up revision and co-creation of practice and processes. It is owned by people working in a practice community, but protected and supported by management. Socialization is the core concept of a new book now on Amazon, We Tried to Warn You: Innovations in leadership for the learning organization, by Nimble Books.

The thesis of the book, in brief, is as follows:

“I believe many large-scale organizational failures result from a cascade of communications problems, reinforced by a style of decision making popular in our culture that rewards the appearance of certainty. The book proposes recovery by enabling a decentralized, lateral leadership network of people working across boundaries to repair, innovate, and create resilient organizational structures.

The book title draws from the spirit of the front lines of work, where a broken strategy is often recognized long before management notices. The people working closest to the customers are able to foresee the potential for disconnects among a company and product’s strategy, design, and user adoption. What we may later call a strategic breakdown was foreseeable and perhaps repairable. Those working with users and customers are able to make sense of direct behavioral observations and connect these to the company’s future prospects.”

Of course, socialization may also be subject to the same collective language sensemaking problems as transformation. But there is a big difference in this creative construction – socialization is not an organizational campaign but a process for stakeholders to recreate and re-energize their own language, skills, tools, and processes. Its a system for changemakers to create change. Sounds too much like socialism? Perhaps we should get used to that as well.