The Secret of Innovative Corporations

Not long ago, establishing quality procedures was at the core of a company’s managerial dynamics. Few could escape quality circles, ISO standards, or implementing processes that advocated the “right way” of getting things done in order to improve efficiency. Everything was about streamlining practices to improve productivity and quality as well as about uniting the members of the company around the idea of the proper way to work and provide service. Through such efforts companies would gain competitiveness and margin points and they would take the lead over others.

Quality management is a powerful management tool. It gathers the staff around a clear and virtuous purpose: doing better what we were already doing well. It reassures customers, who, informed about the company’s virtue, trust it. This system works, if all competitors live in a similar context, facing the same constraints.

But the arrival of “emerging markets,” with lower production costs, has shattered all the management reflexes born from quality processes. In this context the idea of doing better what the company already does well is useless: their competitors from Asia, India, and elsewhere have changed the game.

For a time, Western companies claimed that the Chinese, for instance, would never be able to produce the same quality as they were producing. They were wrong. Our markets are swarming with excellent products coming from countries with low production costs.

In this global world, industrial paradigms have been shattered to pieces, balance is challenged, and industrial and business processes need to be reconsidered incessantly, or else risk seeing structures shrivel up and die.

Quality must adapt perpetually. It must make room for innovation and leave well-worn paths in order to discover new ones–urgently.

Companies must restrain themselves from all restrictions when it comes to their ability to innovate, to mutate, and to change what they do. In spite of this, of course, the point is not to drop quality but to shake loose from the restraints of the processes.

The era of “total quality” was an era of managers-administrators. They knew how to establish a rule, how to enforce it, how to control it, how to punish those who did not comply. Management was taught as if it were an exact science, with a techno-scientific logic.

The era of the innovative company is that of entrepreneurs, those who risk, differ, deflect, can be wrong; those who use innovation to take decisive advantages over their competitors. In this new context, employees should turn into entrepreneurs since they are given new responsibilities. Promoting initiatives, project groups, suggestion boxes… all these practices are well known but often forgotten, in a world the focused only on meeting specifications. These practices must be restored for good; the company must become a place of exchange and not constraints.

The era of innovation is the era of design management, of the entrepreneur-designer. This person gathers different skills, and values the ideas of all to help them plan the future and see ahead. The innovative firm engages with the managerial approach by systematically questioning certainties. The central question of our time is: “What else can I do with what I know how to do?”

Designers know how to ask the right questions. They ask banks: “What if your downtown agencies were no longer banks?”; automotive industries: “And if you did not produce cars any more?”; hotels: “And if your rooms were meant for other things than sleeping?” There is no doubt that design and designers can play a capital management role in the era of innovation. They give meaning and images to plans of the future, softening the anguish of change.

Christian Guellerin has been president of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Schools of Design, Art and Media since 2007. Under his leadership the organization grew from 80 to 178 establishments in 44 countries In 2008 ; today they’re expanding to China and India. He is also the executive director of the Ecole de design Nantes Atlantique, which trains professionals to create and innovate for socio-economic development, with an interface between technology, economics, and the sciences. He writes frequenly on design and pedagogy and teaches in several schools and universities in France and abroad.

Visit Christian’s blog for more information, and see some of his other posts on Shifting Design Education.

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