Q&A: On Redesigning Businesses

It seems that every organization today is searching for new ways to work, plan, survive, and thrive. Whether you’re a large, multi-office architecture and design practice, a retailer, or a health care institution you’re probably unhappy with your position in the marketplace and your bottom line. You talk the talk of innovation, but you don’t seem to understand what it takes to walk the talk. You make small adjustments to the way you work, but the vision for your future trajectory continues to be hazy. So what do you do? With this question in mind, we went to IDEO, the famously multi-faceted consultancy that continues to reinvent itself, and can tackle everything from designing a shopping cart to making better cities. We asked partner Ilya Prokopoff who is a co-leader of the firm’s Systems at Scale Practice, to talk about how design thinking can lead to growth and success. Interestingly, the idea of excellence in the 21st century involves two of our favorite matras: daring experimentation and genuine collaboration. 

Susan S. Szenasy: You have been working for many years at IDEO to help organizations change and transform themselves using the design process.  How has your work evolved over the past few years?

 Ilya Prokopoff: We have always had clients ask us about the ways we work. Early on, this interest led us to create “mini-experiences” for them in which they could use and apply human-centered design practices. Building on this, we began to extend those experiences by structuring projects for our clients that yielded new offerings for them, but that also had an explicit “learning layer” designed to build new skills for their employees. And, most recently, we have been turning design thinking inward on client organizations, treating them as human-centered design challenges in their own right – recognizing that their systems, processes, roles, and purposes can all be designed to help them achieve new things.

Our current thinking about design for organizational change views the client’s organization, and the context within which it operates, as an ecology of elements that, when designed cohesively, creates something new. Many of our clients come to us with the big question of, “How can we become innovators?” We still very much like this question, but have found that the goals for change also come in a lot of other flavors. “How can we become the best service providers in the world?” “How can we create new communities and harness their collective strength?” “How can we become the best place to work?” These are among the questions we’ve been recently asked. And, you can see that addressing these questions demands that we think both about the new ways an organization can provide value, and therefore, how they design themselves to deliver.

It’s no mystery today that every organization needs to reassess itself to be more in tune with the “new economy.” Taking on a new approach can be difficult for organizations and their leaders. We like to think designers can help.  How can designers make the shift from old to new easier?

You ask, “How can designers make the shift from old to new easier?” In this case, everyone should consider themselves as a designer, not just those who have a degree from a design program. Being in tune with the new economy, at its most basic level, means allowing yourself flexibility, relying more on creativity and exploration, and being willing to try and iterate new approaches that help you learn without the weight or risk of “getting it wrong”. These are all qualities that designers naturally live by, and often are quite different from the things that have traditionally made someone a good businessperson.

IBM recently completed an amazing study called Capitalizing on Complexity, in which they asked 1,500 CEOs worldwide to describe their priorities for navigating the current business climate. Two compelling themes that stood out for me are that A) CEOs identified complexity of the interconnected world in which we live as the biggest challenge to business, and B) that creativity is identified as the most important competency for any leader navigating these waters today. This resonates completely with me. Leaders who mix rigorous fact finding with careful consideration of new possibilities seem to make better, faster choices about the future than those who don’t. Those who wait for indisputable proof often end up moving too slowly, leaving a lot of options unexplored.

At what point should an organization think about calling in a designer?

Typically, organizations think about bringing in designers once they have a clear idea for what needs to be designed – usually to prepare something new for delivery to the market. That’s fine, but design offers so much more earlier on, when bigger, more systemic, strategic choices are being made. We routinely help our clients answer big questions like, “What’s next?” Or, “What should we focus our efforts on?” Typically, the answer to these questions includes continued efforts on honing what they already do well, but then giving deliberate focus to things that either stretch them into new territories, or jump clean over their current business into all new territories. With this portfolio of opportunity in mind, organizations can then design themselves to take advantage of those that seem most promising. We help them do this with the recognition that it takes different skills, processes, structures, and most importantly, different mindsets, to take advantage of each kind of opportunity.

I heard you recently describe how today’s organizations need to focus on their core businesses while, at the same time manage to explore the edges of how their business can remain viable and competitive in the future.  I was intrigued by this and interested to hear your thoughts on how designers can have an impact in identifying new opportunities in bringing old systems up to date.

All organizations, especially big established ones, have an incredibly powerful tendency to norm anything new. This is both a huge strength, and a huge weakness. It’s a strength because the whole organization knows how to do what it already does, which is typically about routinely delivering solid value to known clients – a very good thing. It can be a huge weakness, though, if an organization is trying to shift itself to take advantage of new opportunities for growth. The inertia of current behaviors and practices is so strong that you need to find creative ways to break patterns, recognize the value of those breaks, and then attract the organization toward these new ways of doing things. You can think of this as finding a balance between “edge” and “core”.

There are a number of pretty interesting examples of this balance out there. One that’s been getting a lot of press is Starbuck’s Coffee’s launch of experimental concept cafés in Seattle. These fully functioning cafés give Starbucks the chance to experiment with everything – from products, to services, to brand identity. They created a new edge condition in which they are able to experiment holistically. And, a lot of what they have learned is filtering back into their core offer, once it’s been proven. It’s sort of an experience R&D capability for them.

Another example is from a relationship we have with a large media organization that began with the question of, “How can we become innovators?” This led to an initial set of broad-based learning experiences for leadership and key people in many of their regional assets. When this was seen as too slow for the impact they needed, we partnered with them to create a vision for an entirely new offering and business model that they have built into a really interesting startup that’s gathering all sorts of new attention for them. And, furthermore, it’s showing the core of the company what doing something new in the media space can look and feel like.

Organizational change can require building internal momentum for a new offering or future.  What kinds of evidence can help build that momentum and how does design specifically help with that challenge?  Please give examples.

IDEO, at its core, is a design firm. So, we believe that everything you do should be as tangible an expression of the future as possible. A lot of really huge decisions are made in big organizations based upon abstract data and personal experience. The trouble is, when you’re trying to do something really new, often the data and experience we have may not tell us the whole story. Helping people in all parts of the organization (and not just the executives, but also the folks who will be on the hook to make it real), see and feel what the future could be like, is key. We did a very interesting project with Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower – their department of immigration – to design a new service experience for foreigners coming to work and live in Singapore. As a first step, we did a highly collaborative, and very fast design effort around the service center where people go to get their work pass. The momentum created by seeing this center up and running, and embodying many of the promises of the fuller service experience, created an internal organizational pull for the other components of the system. I don’t think we would have seen this pull without the tangibility of being able to walk into this fully functioning center.

Also, one thing that often trips up big organizations when they are creating something new is that they measure the value and return of the new thing by the standards of existing, familiar things. No new idea can withstand the rigorous measures of what success looks like for the core business. Successful innovators find new ways of describing value not only about market impact, but also about what’s being learned and about what changes are demanded in order to do something new.

How has your ability to help organizations changed?  What have you learned from your clients and how has that changed your methodology?  What makes you valuable to your clients today?

One of the biggest changes in our practice has been that we’ve shifted our perspective from, “We can do this for you”, to one that’s more like, “We’ll do this together.” As the requests we get from our clients become more complex, we recognize that what we’re doing needs to be viewed as part of an ongoing journey. We now have relationships where we, and the client, both recognize that it’s about evolving their ecology. And, that this includes all sorts of things that need to be pushed forward simultaneously – their vision, their strategy, their offerings, their delivery, and their organization.

I think the thing that makes us valuable to our clients today is that we are comfortable engaging with all the elements of their ecology – recognizing that the pathway forward isn’t always crystal clear, but that taking a design-based approach will allow us to find the steps along the way, and make those steps as tangible an expression of the future they aspire to as possible.

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