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

1 comment:

alf said...


thanks for sharing the experience.

I've been following the increasing interest in business schools for a while, esp. as I offered an elective at INSEAD using participatory and user-centered design techniques and concepts (the first offering was in 2000!).

It's great to see that people keep exploring this path and nice to see that participants in these workshops really engaged in the process.

I think there might two things one need to think about. First, there's design as a method and I think one can "easily" (or more easily than the second thing mentioned below) teach some of the techniques and offer design as a tool kit for innovation and change.

The second thing is "design thinking" or the design attitude. This is harder to define and harder to "teach". I guess one of the reasons is the ambiguity and uncertainty you mention.

I am not a designer and I remember my first experience working with Wendy Mackay (now at INRIA) on a participatory design project with air traffic controllers. I found the ambiguity and the playfulness associated to the process, exciting but sometimes would have liked to get "the" answer. I had a similar experience working with Aileen Wilson (Pratt Institute) on an installation project as we were exploring possibilities, working with the idea of an open form.

Last year I taught an elective at NYU-Poly on creativity, art and management and this idea of ambiguity, uncertainty and open form was one of the ideas I wanted the grad students to take away but that was not easy. I also played myself with the idea of ambiguity and uncertainty, pushing even more than I usually do the idea of the teacher as a facilitator. I often felt uncomfortable in that role, "on the edge" but eventually when I saw the students' projects and got their feedback, I realized the approach made sense.

Looking forward to seeing the conversation evolving,