Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Managing as designing: Does it actually work?

In 2002 Dick Boland and Fred Collopy of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, organised a workshop with the title "Managing as Designing", drawing on their experience of working with Frank Gehry as his practice designed their new Peter B Lewis building. The event brought together practitioners and academics working in art and design, music, architecture, the social sciences and management. The book they edited (2004) resulting from contributions to the workshop (including from Frank Gehry, Karl Weick, Wanda Orlikowski, Lucy Suchman, Peter Coughlan and many others) was probably the first major development in the increasingly fashionable exploration in management research of Herbert Simon's idea that management is a kind of design activity.

Since then, Dick and Fred, now joined by design theorist Dick Buchanan (previously at Carnegie Mellon University), have begun to integrate their ideas into the MBA at Weatherhead, one of few management schools to put managing as designing into the core teaching programme. But the question facing all of us teaching this stuff is - what impact does it really have? We don't yet know. We need to explore and test the ideas.

As part of their ongoing enquiry, Fred and Dick invited me to join them and other colleagues Kalle Lyytinen and Youngjin Yoo (Temple University) to organise a workshop that aimed to use art and design techniques to enable a group of people from different organisations to think about their futures. They invited 40+ people from Cleveland cultural and educational institutions to join us for a day and half. As workshop designer and facilitator, I helped design and deliver the experience of the event. We used techniques to get participants to explore and visually assemble defined stakeholders' experiences of the eight institutions and their boundaries in the present (what is) as a way of imagining them in the future (what could be). Case's website will post more details of what we did. But for now, here are a few of my observations.

- Dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty about what to do and how to do it is the central challenge facing those involved in organisational futures.

- Design techniques such as personas and customer journey scenarios are powerful methods even for first-time users that help ground their ideas and facilitate temporary, cross-institutional teams.

- Small groups working on individual ideas within a larger ecology produce platforms for others to work with, resulting in the emergence of new concepts that are unlikely to have been imagined and so could not have been intentionally designed.

- The creation of new concepts creates new barriers.

Fred, Dick and their colleagues are in an ongoing enquiry about the way these concepts might develop in these institutions - not just as a piece of research but as stakeholders in the city of Cleveland. As researchers and educators in this emerging field, we are all interested in how this way of approaching organisational questions about the future shapes the way individuals and organisations act.

Asking if managing as designing "works" is of course an overly simple question. But one way of thinking about how to explore what it does is to bring together people from diverse organizations to experience what it could be. I got people to play on the floor and make things with each other - testing Fred and Dick's own tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity in our workshop design. What we saw was people making important new connections with each other as they went through a shared experience, the results of which I believe will impact (positively) on the city of Cleveland in the weeks, months and years to come.

>>>> See Youngin's blog post here

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Yes, even the toilets too

For a while I have been saying that the thing about service designers is that they attend to the mundane details of the service, everything from the design of posters to websites to text messages to physical environments to interactions with people - all of these are to be designed along with the orchestration of the end-user's encounters with them.

I recently had a chance to go visit a design project two friends were involved in. On the way back from a trip to Dorset, a couple of us dropped off at the redesigned Little Chef restaurant, which UK readers will probably remember as a slightly greasy but comforting roadside chain of restaurants. Now, they've been rebranded (I guess) and redesigned, or at least the one at Popham has. And the one we visited was even on TV - with conceptual chef Heston Blumenthal involved in redesigning the menu. And yes, the food was pretty good, still within the realm of fast-ish, roadside drop in eateries, but more locally-sourced, and a bit more for the vegetarians.

But what excited us even more was the re-design of the space by Ab Rogers Design, which included attention to details such as the conventional ones - layout, colour and materials for the restaurant but also the menus, employee uniforms, little comments on the tilling, little plastic flies on the ceiling which is covered with blue skies, and - the best bit - especially since I know the brilliant people who did it - the music in the loos. Tim Olden is a genius at picking bits of quirky and cheeky music, which plays as you enter the loo at the Little Chef in Popham and Dom Robson is a genius about making the technology work. I can't wait to go back.

Ab Rogers Design mostly do exhibition design, and are not particularly visible in the service-design world. But their reconceiving of the Little Chef brand and its service - not just its restaurant - communicates a similar attention to the detail of the visitor/customer/stakeholder experience. Yes - even in the toilets too - but in this case, it's especially the toilets.