Design Overview

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“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” ~Sun Tzu~

My thinking on improving results rests on one unshakable conviction: In every aspect of human endeavor better design generates better outcomes. A musician’s perfect performance skills can’t make a bad song good. A great construction team can’t overcome bad architecture and bad engineering. Great execution skills can realize the full potential of a great design, and poor execution can ruin the best, but if you hold execution quality constant the better design will generate better outcomes.

“Organizations exist only for one purpose: to help people reach ends together that they couldn’t achieve individually.” ~Robert H. Waterman~

This conviction leads to the importance of design in improving the effectiveness and efficiency of collaborative systems– businesses, governments, universities, schools, non-governmental organizations, markets, value networks, social networks, and so on–that exist to achieve outcomes beyond the reach of individual action. We all want better health care outcomes, better education outcomes, better energy choices, better transportation, better products, and better services. These outcomes depend on complex interactions between many parties. Better results frequently require changing how those parties act in concert, not just discrete improvements made by one or another. Frequently the parties involved are independent, with their own perceptions, interpretations, and intentions, making it harder still to improve interactions between them.

While participants and stakeholders often differ on what constitutes better outcomes (and we’ll spend considerable time on this problem), or on how to improve them, almost all agree that our existing institutions could perform much better. We make huge investments intended to improve these outcomes, within organizations and across society more broadly. Everywhere we turn we encounter initiatives and special projects that promise to make things better. We also know that most of these efforts cost more and take longer than planned, while still failing to deliver the expected benefits. Where we see improvements the gains are marginal and mostly come from standardizing core execution processes. Continuously refining execution capabilities can deliver incremental outcome improvements, but breakthrough improvements require improving the design.

Why do ambitious improvement efforts frequently fail? Our experience identifies these common issues: 1) A lack of understanding of how the existing system works. 2) An inability to model the system in a way that allows reasoning about it usefully. 3) An inability to anticipate the consequences of a proposed change without implementing it and seeing what happens. 4) Design methods that cost far too much and take far too long to produce useful designs. 5) Inadequate attention to the challenge of transforming the system from its current execution model to a better one. 6) Failure to anticipate how proposed changes impacts all involved participants and stakeholders. 7) Difficulty in communicating design concepts to participants and stakeholders.

If design plays such a critical role, why do we struggle to overcome these roadblocks?

  • Execution is concrete, necessarily focused on action, on tactics. Design is conceptual, existing in the sphere of ideas, of strategy. Design is abstract in its nature, and the cognitive ability to deal with abstraction skews to the right of a normal distribution, with relatively few people able to apply our existing design tools and methods successfully. Execution’s concrete nature means far more people are cognitively equipped to succeed at it.
  • Creating a good design, difficult as that is, remains far easier than transforming an existing execution model to a better one. Defining an effective strategy is hard, but convincing the army to adopt it is far harder, and successfully training the army to execute it is harder still. A design method must produce a design that persuades participants and stakeholders to adopt it, and enables them to do so successfully.
  • We can readily see the impact of our limited abilities in dealing with abstraction in our approach to designing collaborative systems. We lack a rich and settled vocabulary to frame our concerns. We have to agree on the meaning of words frequently used loosely, imprecisely, vaguely; words like domain, system, actor, agent, role, information, network, and the like. Defining such terms rigorously requires significant discipline, and understanding those definitions requires significant effort. Busy people struggle to spend the time required, especially when they’re uncertain of the value they’ll realize.
  • Everyone quite reasonably expects technology to play a key role in improving outcomes. We have spent our professional careers designing and building these types of technology solutions. Our experience quickly exposed the need to create a technology-independent model of the target real-world system first. Without such a contextual design information systems can assist specific activities here and there, but not improve outcomes of the system as a whole. And attempting to connect these discrete applications turns into a never-ending investment in brittle integration glue. The quality of the technology-independent design determines the potential quality of any enabling technology, for good or bad. We also learned that a successful design method must define automated operations that transform the technology-independent design into its technology embodiment, else human misunderstanding and well-meaning creativity will cause them to drift apart.

Posts tagged [method]() and in the section design delve into the challenges laid out above and describe a design method that meets them.

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