Books Management

Recent Read: “The Design of Business” by Roger Martin


Business thinkers and writers are, if nothing else, a wide-ranging bunch. There is almost no subject, from engineering to chemistry to the lives of historical figures, that they won’t use to make a point about how to be a better manager or executive. Today’s business leaders can sort through countless books and articles brimming with lessons drawn from subjects as diverse as ancient civilizations to today’s most successful athletes.

Interestingly, one field that had been largely ignored as a source of management ideas is Design, which is an odd thing in many ways, given the impact that it has on consumers and business. From Raymond Loewy’s cars to Max Miedinger’s typography to Jonathan Ive’s cell phones, great designers have created more than a product — they have shaped a whole way of connecting to and interacting with the environment. After all, great designers don’t just style a product for a consumer, they create an integrated experience to solve a human problem, all the while shaped by an aesthetic that is always functional and often beautiful. With such a history of impact, one wonders why it has taken so long for the ideas that guide Design work  — so closely linked to business itself, of course — to expand into management. Perhaps the delay was due to the fact that until recently top business schools did not include Design discussions in their training. Or perhaps it was because Designers themselves used to maintain an arm’s length relationship from the business side of their work. Whatever the reason, this distance has started to diminish in the recent decade.

The concept of Design Thinking itself can be traced back to a 1987 book of that name by Peter Rowe, which is a systematic view of architecture and urban planning. David M. Kelly, who founded IDEO, is thought to be among the first people to move Design Thinking out of the architectural context and into the business world. Full-length business books on the topic, though, were not available until a few years ago, and I just finished  one of them: The Design of Business by Roger Martin, who is Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Published in 2009, The Design of Business is a short (and imperfect) book, yet it is nonetheless an excellent introduction into Design Thinking and how it can be applied, in a  general way, by managers and executives.

Martin’s book starts by giving the reader a broad introduction into some of the key concepts in Design Thinking and the way in which it works. To summarize Martin’s view, think of Design Thinking as a process with three distinct foci:

Focus 1: Mystery, which is the varied and extensive exploration of a question or unknown in order to understand the nature of the problem

Focus 2: Heuristic, which is the development if an “incomplete yet distinctly advanced understanding of what was previously a mystery”

Focus 3: Algorithm, which is an “explicit, step-by-step procedure for solving a problem”

As Martin notes, this three-step focus creates a kind of funnel view as the information in question is first expanded and then narrowed:

As understanding moves from mystery to heuristic to algorithm, extraneous information is pared away; the complexities of the world are mastered through simplification. That is why my graphic model of the advance of knowledge is a funnel that tapers as knowledge moves through its stages of refinement. 

A key aspect of this funnel process, which is sometimes overlooked, is that information that is “shaved” away in the process is not necessarily discarded, since it can often prove invaluable in the next mystery.

Design Thinking, Martin goes to explain, depends to two main methods for solving problems. The first is “divergent” thinking, in which the number of ideas are expanded both for understanding the mystery and for defining the heuristic. The other critical method is “convergent” thinking — the narrowing of options down to the best solution — which is the central element of the algorithm phase.

Turning to business, Martin makes the claim that most managers are trained to focus on what he calls “reliability.” In this mode, “their goal is not to drive out innovation but rather to protect the organization against the randomness of intuitive thinking.” An over-focus on predictability — which might be exemplified by techniques such as Six-Sigma and Lean — puts managers into a mindset that does not encourage divergent thinking about problems and, instead, focuses them on the optimization of an existing model:

A business that is overweighted  toward reliability will erect organizational structures, processes, and norms that drive out the pursuit of valid answers to new questions. It fails to balance its pursuit of of reliability with the equally important pursuit of validity, leaving it ill-positioned to solve mysteries and move knowledge along the funnel.

Martin’s insight is an important one, and I often talk to clients about the need to have a senior team that is a blend of acquirers and preservers. The former are executives who are still analyzing the “mysteries” inside and outside the company and trying to find ways to solve to those problems, so their career can continue to evolve. The latter are typically focused on protecting the current business model and ensuring that it operates as efficiently as possible, in order to safeguard their status and living.

Design Thinking, in Martin’s view, is a way for almost anyone to expand beyond the typical business focus on “reliability” and to expand their field-of-view onto wider mysteries and to “valid” solutions for these new problems. Martin’s book goes on to discuss a few companies that he believes exemplifies the Design Thinking ethos. In retrospect, his choices will seem both fortunate — P&G — and unfortunate — RIM — to current readers, but that is the luck of the draw for any business writer: today’s role models are all too often tomorrow’s studies in failure, which only goes to show how hard it is to extrapolate lessons from one company to another.

Despite is drawbacks in case study choices and the superficiality of the chapters on how actually to do Design Thinking in real-world settings, The Design of Business is a worthwhile read for anyone curious about Design Thinking. The potential impact of this concept is wide-ranging, and there are very good companies such as Steelcase who have made Design Thinking integral to their culture and strategy. I expect that as this concept gets additional work and refinement — as the idea itself goes from “heuristic” to “algorithm” — its impact will expand. Its with that idea in mind that I recommend this book. For the open-minded reader, it is a good starting point into a new way of seeing management not just as a challenge of optimization but as a creative process of investigation of our environment’s mysteries and the design of solutions that make our world a better place.


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