Management by Design, by Richard Farson

By | December 25, 2015

Have you ever noticed the difference between a meeting held at a long rectangular table and one held at a round table? The time spent, the agenda, and the participants may be exactly the same, but the meetings are completely different. The discussion at the round table is more informal, the leadership is shared, the communication more personal.

Making further changes in the physical design of the meeting amplify the effect. Eliminating the table entirely and sitting in a circle, removing jackets and neckties—or to promote a decidedly relaxed discussion, removing shoes and sitting on the floor—all predictably shift the conversation in directions that are increasingly open and comfortable, with participation more evenly distributed. To produce these behaviors, nothing need change but the design of the physical situation.

Design may soon become the byword of leadership and management. Because of the growing recognition of its power to affect human behavior, increasing numbers of organization specialists think executives should adopt a design perspective. Management guru Tom Peters says it flatly, “Everything is design.”

Why would he make such an all-encompassing statement? To get the answer, we need only turn to the definitions of design given us by the noted graphic designer, Milton Glaser:

“One definition is that design is the intervention in the flow of events to produce a desired effect. Another is that design is the introduction of intention in human affairs. A third rather elegant description is that design moves things from an existing condition to a preferred one. This last one reduces the complexity of the idea, but I like all three definitions. Design doesn’t have to have a visual component. Ultimately, anything purposeful can be called an act of design.”

But if design is everything, how can it be something special, focused, and usable for leaders? To clarify this we need one more definition: Design is the creation of form. Everything that a manager deals with has form—buildings, offices, meetings, correspondence, speeches, conversations, interviews, networks, schedules, reports, communications, products, relationships, procedures, workflow, ground rules and systems.

But why is form so important? The short answer: In human affairs, form rules. For example, form always wins over content. How you say something dominates what you say. A written message carries more weight than a spoken one, a printed one weightier than one that is typed, which is weightier than one handwritten, even though all the words may be identical. These are metamessages, sent by the form of the message, and they are powerful.

A clear example of the victory of form over content is seen in education. As effective as our schooling may have been, we all tend to forget what was in the curriculum. Seniors at Ivy League colleges, given a multiple-choice test comparable to a seventh grade history exam, achieved an average score of fifty-three. Tried solving a problem in square root recently? We all once could. We just forget. But, as the late social critic Ivan Illich pointed out long ago, we never forget the lessons we learned from the form of education. We learned to raise our hands, obey adult authority, stand in line, take turns, not talk about certain subjects, and many other lessons now indelibly ingrained. Those lessons are not in the curriculum. The form, the ritual, the social design of the classroom, teaches them.

Recognizing the importance of form, marketing departments spend a lot of time on packaging their products, often sending a deceptive metamessage that bears little relationship to what is in the package. A box can be made to make it seem as if there is more product inside than there actually is. That sort of practice corrupts the concept of design, and denies its fundamental lessons. Indeed, the most important reason to focus on form is to bring it in line with content, so that the metamessage does not undermine the message, but supports it; so that the embracing context of a project design is congruent with the goals of the project.

Too often that is not the case. For example, simply by its organization and form, a management training class often inadvertently sends the metamessages that leadership can be made successful simply by learning certain skills, or, because of his or her position in front of the class, the instructor is a more effective leader than are the students. Both metamessages are untrue, of course, but because they are never spoken and do not appear in the curriculum, the organizers fail to see power of such metamessages and, unfortunately, they become the main learnings. When the participating trainees return to their jobs, they find the techniques insufficient. They compare themselves unfavorably to the supposedly effective instructor, feeling that they cannot live up to the powerful metamessage lessons they remember, and the new expectations they consequently have of themselves. Frustration, and sometimes abuse, predictably follows. The results are precisely the opposite of the program’s goals.

The Profession of Management

The broad ranging discipline of design, with centuries of history, adds to the stature of the manager as a true professional. It provides a substantial antidote to the disenchantment that is beginning to set in among top managers with respect to the dominant management approaches of the past few decades—approaches that at first seem to work, but over time, don’t. Performance reviews, extrinsic incentives, accountability pressures, motivational pep talks and leadership skill training are all discredited, as are the simplistic management fads that continue to seduce executives, and then disappoint them. Remember Quality Circles, Management by Objective, Zero Defects, Total Quality Management, Six Sigmas, etc.? Design, because it represents not a technique but a more fundamental posture, looms as a powerful alternative.

To fulfill the high calling of leadership, managers need to move toward a more professional attitude, away from dependence upon the welter of quick fix techniques heaped upon them by most management books and articles. Such a technique-oriented approach to leadership development demeans management. Too many managers already fail to regard management as a profession. They think, how could management possibly be a profession? After all, aren’t managers are made overnight when they are promoted from being workers? And don’t most succeed? It’s easy to see why managers assume there must be nothing in the role that amounts to a substantial profession.

Just the opposite is true. Management is exceedingly complex, and carries major professional responsibility. There is a vast amount to learn about management, but we tend not to realize that these new managers have already learned most of it. They have been on the receiving end of those roles long enough to learn them quite thoroughly. Through long experience, they already knew how to be managerial. Although we are not aware of it, we all have a mastery of roles we may never play.

Nevertheless, the understandable insecurity that comes from taking on what is surely the most complex role in society, that of leadership, makes managers vulnerable to simplistic bromides (like new parents, who have had imposed upon them one of the most complex and difficult roles). Paradoxically, the more complicated the role, the more simplistically society treats it.

Exploring some of the perspectives garnered from the disciplined field of design would help managers develop a more professional stance, less buffeted about by fads. Other professionals—physicians, lawyers, professors, architects—are far less likely to be entranced by trends and fashion because they have a strong professional perspective that guides them through the challenges. Leaders and managers need to acquire that strength of professional perspective, and the discipline of design can help provide it.

The Power of Design

Design achieves its power because it can create situations, and a situation is more determining of what people will actually do than is personality, character, habit, genetics, unconscious motives or any other aspect of our individual makeup. Nobody smokes in church, no matter how addicted.

Design has always had great influence on personal experience and the course of human affairs. We all recognize the inspiration that comes from the architecture of a great cathedral. Stage sets and costume designs enrich the drama of theater. Industrial design of accessories and tools augments our powers and makes our lives safer and more comfortable. Interior design can provide settings to improve sociability. Landscaped green belts contribute to the civility of neighborhoods. Graphic design can shape our thinking and motivate our behavior.

Because it is so powerful, design also has a dark underside. If mindlessly conceived or corrupted, design can produce depressing consequences. The design of cities that plan giant shopping centers can erode traditional communities by forcing neighborhood businesses to close. Massive highway construction can divide and rupture a neighborhood. Kafkaesque office designs of row after row of monitored employees, or maze-like cubicles, can dehumanize. Graphic designs in advertising can be dangerously misleading, promoting unhealthy products or unworthy candidates. Some designers think these bad designs greatly outnumber the good ones.

More than one organization has moved into newly designed quarters, only to discover that the new designs fail to provide for the kind of human interaction it had come to depend upon. Business author Fran Hawthorne cites the design of pharmaceutical giant Merck’s new headquarters as contributing to its current difficulties in getting new products approved. When all the research, manufacturing and executive offices were in one place, people interacted more, walked around, ate at the same cafeteria. The CEO would sit at lunch and talk with anyone, blue-collar workers or other scientists, increasing cross-fertilization. “When they moved,” she says, “they lost some of the water cooler talk.”

In general, however, the news is encouraging. Recently, the design disciplines have received research attention indicating that the physical environments designers create may have positive effects never before realized, potentially reducing all of the measures of despair. For example, studies show that if children grow up in a home designed to permit a view of greenery, they are less likely to turn to addiction and crime and more likely to achieve in school. Such thoughtfully designed environments can reduce the frequency of divorce and other signs of family dysfunction. It is no longer far-fetched to predict that intelligent design will help prevent mental and physical illness, child abuse and suicide.

The Design Perspective

It is a given that managers need to work with individual employees, one-on-one, becoming continuously and intensively involved with their work. Equally important is dealing with constellations of people, such as project teams. From there, consciousness grows. The better managers see that these small groups are embedded in larger systems—organizations, industries and communities. These, in turn, are part of even larger social, cultural, political and physical systems—corporations, cities, and international systems. As they look more intensively at these environments that are so determining of human events, the distinction between the social and the physical systems blurs. They are interdependent. Each has something important to contribute to the other. That ability to expand one’s view, and appreciate the forces at work in the larger context, serves as the basis for developing a design perspective.

In certain areas, managers already have a long history of including design in their work. In addition to creating buildings, they have worked with designers to establish corporate identity programs, make open office arrangements, employ color schemes or background music, produce ergonomically correct products, and the like. Few leaders at the top, however, have seen the incorporation of design as central to their management of human relations.

There are exceptions. One is top management’s early recognition of the oppressive problems of scale—coping with the overwhelming numbers of people they manage. When eliciting creativity has been crucial, executives have redesigned their huge organizations to create smaller, semi-autonomous units, such as Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works, where the stealth fighter was developed, or Xerox PARC, the research center in Palo Alto responsible for many advances in computer technology. Criminologists have long known that rehabilitating criminals is virtually impossible while they are incarcerated in the giant prisons that dominate our current criminal justice system, but when the inmate population is housed separately in units of no more than eighteen or twenty, rehabilitation is indeed possible.

Other examples exist where managers rely on altering form to improve organizational functioning. They take a project team or a board of directors to a resort setting for an intensive, uninterrupted meeting on long-term strategic issues. They establish a ground rule in brainstorming that no judgmental comments can be made, so as not to shut down further development of an idea. They flatten an organization chart to eliminate unnecessary reporting levels, or they redesign the hierarchical structure based upon the abilities of managers to deal with increasingly long time horizons. All these actions qualify as social architecture.

Manager as Social Architect

Because changing situations is much easier than changing individuals, managers who adopt a design mentality think first of the structural issues in eliciting desired behavior. Rather than starting with the most difficult way of operating, i.e. working with the differing personalities and proclivities of their people, they start with the larger environment and work back, if necessary dealing with the more stubborn personality issues last.

Those leaders with a bent for social architecture ask: “How can I arrange this work space to be more encouraging of high performance?” “How can I restructure this group into subgroups that will elicit more innovation?” “How can I establish ground rules for the kinds of meetings and other interactions we have that will make us more efficient?” “How can I design a communication system that will facilitate collaboration among far flung units, creating non-geographic communities?” “How can I design this situation so that my most creative, but most irritable, staff member is less likely to be troubled by, and trouble for, his or her associates?” “How can I organize our team and our workflow so that they are aligned with our goals?” “How can I design a system that gets people the information they need at just the time that they need it without having to work through their supervisors, or go to another building for the necessary document?” “How can I design our organization so that it more closely coincides with the actual patterns of interpersonal trust that exist?”

In a sense, being a manager who identifies with a social design approach is much like being a host. Good hosts prepare events thoroughly. They plan the evening, compose the group carefully, and arrange the seating so that people who might have the most in common or the most to learn can sit next to each other. Once the event begins they make sure that the service doesn’t get in the way of the enjoyment. They watch and listen. They lubricate situations by intervening gracefully in conversations. When they detect discomfort among guests they may tactfully separate some people from each other, or add others. In short, they try to arrange the circumstances in which their guests can be at their best. Social design in management is similar. It embodies a perspective that looks first at the larger context of work, and attempts to make structural arrangements that are conducive to the kind of relationships and behaviors that help meet the overall goals.

Curiously, we often use the esthetic term “graceful” to describe hosting behavior, but seldom use such a term with leadership and management. Yet when leadership is at its best we witness a special kind of beauty, sometimes earthy, sometimes elegant, but in its own way, esthetically powerful. The esthetics of leadership are effective at an unconscious level, surely the most important level, but are largely ignored in management discussions, probably because of management’s masculine image. Design, however, recognizes no such constraint. To the contrary, it is built on a primary interest in esthetics. Embracing a management by design approach, therefore, legitimizes our appreciation of management along these important esthetic dimensions. Great leaders, like great bullfighters and great athletes, combine form and grace and courage into actions that can only be described as beautiful.

Adam and Eve on a Raft

Ever since the forties, when sociologist William Foote Whyte conducted his famous study of the interpersonal tensions that arise at peak hours in restaurants, managers have been encouraged to think about human relations in systems terms. Noticing waitresses shouting orders to male cooks, Whyte surmised that such behavior violated role expectations of both gender and status, cooks being of higher status, and women expected to be subservient to men. (Remember, this was the forties). He designed a system in which the waitress would write down the order on a small pad of paper and stick the slip of paper on which she had written the order on a spindle. The cook would then take it off when he saw fit, calling the waitress when it was ready. That system of realigning the roles remains in place, although the spindle has largely been replaced by a revolving drum, or by computers. It is considered one of the first uses of system design in the management of human relations in industry.

Since then the technology of systems design of operations and workflow, aided by software design and information technology, has had many advocates, and made innumerable inroads into management. In the last two decades, reengineering, business process redesign (BPR) and benchmarking have captured the attention and enthusiasm of mangers, mainly of middle management, and become globally pervasive. Unfortunately, because of its call for the radical redesign of work, doing away with seemingly unnecessary elements, reengineering became associated with impersonal downsizing. Nevertheless it represented a major developmental step in systems design.

Reportedly, reengineering fails seventy percent of the time. That is probably not out of line with most management efforts, and in any case, failures are the inevitable consequences of risk-taking, which itself is highly desirable. But the failures are usually attributed to such factors as operating without higher levels of management being involved in the process, failing to include the views of employees who would be affected, and underestimating the organization’s resistance to change. That is, the system design failed to deal with its larger context. Putting it another way, top management failed to provide the necessary environment to support such efforts.

Senior management seldom sees the importance of creating a larger context that is physically and attitudinally congruent with the intent of the system designs, one that would be conducive to the system design’s success. In that respect, such technical systems designs are comparable to information technology, in the sense that both have been poorly understood and seldom adopted for its own use by top management. Information technology got its start at the bottom of the organization, serving clerical and engineering needs, and has grown like a monster with almost no leadership from the top. While there are exceptions, a great many top executives, to this day, are still not interested or involved.

Most executives at the top similarly ignore systems design, and its offspring. As a result, neither information technology nor systems design has reached its potential. Seldom has either been employed to advance the strategic interests of the organization’s top leaders. But if senior executives begin to embrace the mentality characteristic of senior designers, they will recognize the importance of seeing these developments in context, and will be able to create the larger forms and the appropriate attitudes necessary to sustain them.

The differences between applying a new systems technology such as reengineering, and developing a true design perspective are subtle, but important. While technology is involved in almost any design, the crucial and defining aspect of design is its distinction from technology. In the area of human affairs, technique is usually insufficient, if not counter-productive. If professionals come to rely only on technique, they fail. Design, on the other hand, is an approach, a posture. It uses tools sometimes, but most importantly it brings a different perspective to a situation, one that studies and embraces the larger environment, and gives it new form.

Bear in mind that in discussing the posture of designers, I am describing the approach of the better designers only. Like every profession (management included), the members are distributed on a curve—great, good, mediocre, poor and dangerous. Ask any professional, from any field, to give you the name of an associate they would themselves consult, and you will see how small the group of acceptable professionals is. I refer, therefore, only to superior designers and superior managers, an elite group of which I trust the reader is a member.

New Tool for Social Design

The design of organizations, of societies actually, always follows the available communications technology. When we had to be within earshot of each other we organized into tribes. Later, with messengers on horseback, the feudal system emerged. Eventually the postal service was developed, permitting us to have bureaucracy. The advent of telephone and telegraph brought about the international organization. Along the way, other communication advances such as the printing press, typewriters, carbon paper and xerography, all helped shape the design of organizations.

Now the Internet and accompanying information technology present a completely new way to design our organizations. We are enabled, for the first time, to network non-geographically into small groups, or into larger overlapping networks of any size. We can make new arrangements, and alter old ones, by pressing a button. Contrary to popular conceptions, communication among people on this medium can be deeply personal and highly creative. Opportunities abound for management to build on this radically new base, inventing wired, and wireless, organizations unlike any we have ever experienced.

The implications for social change are profound. This revolutionary technology gives us an entirely new social form in which many of us, perhaps all of us, will live. Achievements in telephonic communication, and in broadcasting, as influential as they have been, have not changed our basic social structures. We still live and work in essentially the same configurations we have for a century or more. Computer-based conferencing, however, makes real the long dreamed of ability to function in global communities.

Although hundreds of millions of people now communicate on the Internet, it is much too early to tell just how this development will affect management practices. But it is already clear that work groups collaborating on the Internet become somewhat autonomous and independent, requiring a more tolerant and flexible management style.

One manager, eager to improve the innovative quality of a project team under his supervision, recognized that potentially important contributions were not being elicited from some of the junior or introverted or otherwise marginal members of the team. He decided to forego most of the regular, face-to-face meetings and instead connected the project members via computer conferencing technology. He realized that the traditional meetings were forcing these quieter members to sandwich their comments in between the comments of more senior or voluble members, and in those circumstances they were reluctant to come forward. But communicating online, at times convenient to them in an asynchronous manner, gave them freedom from that constraint. As a result, the levels of their participation, and subsequent quality of innovation, increased.

The Marriage of Design and Management

Architects usually carry the thought that when they are designing buildings, they are actually designing organizations. They are right in that. They design experiences, not just rooms; situations, not just spaces; relationships, not just furniture; communities, not just real estate developments. Increasingly, they have come to embrace the concept of social design as central to their work. As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.”

In organization design, the boundary between physical and social design is disappearing. Does this mean that leaders and managers must become architects? Psychologists? Sociologists? Political scientists? Economists? Philosophers? Historians? Yes. Or learn to work with them. Not to acquire their skills, but their perspectives.

The top people in any field always transcend technique. An outlook energizes their work; a viewpoint toward the challenges they face. For leaders to adopt the approach of designers—studying the larger environment, and experimenting, modeling and inventing appropriate forms to meet a particular situation while honoring the needs and goals of the people involved —equips a manager with a different way to solve problems and cope with predicaments.

The Dynamics of Design

Some designs are endlessly effective. Meetings held at round tables, for example, will never lose their power to distribute participation more evenly. But other design interventions may depend for their power only upon the fact that they stand in sharp contrast to the conventional procedures.

We often forget that almost everything derives its power from its context. A teacher may seem excellent, because so many are mediocre. Honesty is so powerful because it exists against a backdrop of almost constant deception. Similarly, a design may work well only as long as it is different from the conventionality of what existed before. But if it becomes the standard way of functioning, it may lose its power. That is why most new management techniques, seemingly no matter what they are, as long as they are well-intended, work for awhile, and then don’t work. And why constant innovation is the continuing requirement of leadership.

Like leadership, design is dynamic, not static. One cannot design a situation and expect it to work indefinitely. Any design requires constant attention and revision, even a seemingly permanent design, such as a house. Seventy percent of new houses are remodeled within three years. Designs involving human relationships are even more in need of continuing modification and improvement. Organization theorist Charles Hampden-Turner reminds us of the relevance for management of the scene in Alice in Wonderland in which the frustrated characters try to play croquet using live flamingos as mallets, and hedgehogs as balls. The flamingos and hedgehogs keep moving. Such is the case with social design. The designs involve living beings, and they keep moving.

Better designers always involve the eventual participants in the design process. There are strong practical and ethical reasons for that. On the practical side, not only do these participants know much that would improve the design, but their involvement makes them more likely to help make the plan work. They become invested in its success.

The ethical reasons are subtler. For example, when managers know how some act or technique or design they are using is likely to affect an employee, but the employee doesn’t, the managers’ respect for those employees will predictably erode. Knowing that the people are being fooled, the manager is blinded to their genuinely intelligent behavior or creativity. Such deception, therefore, fails in two ways. It harms the deceived, but even more pernicious, it harms the deceiver, through the gradual erosion of respect for others, even for people in general. One solid rule for managers, therefore, is to operate always so that one’s liking and respect for employees can grow. That may be the best case for openness in management.

One further caveat. Designs can have unintended consequences, even when they work well. Consider the design decision to establish Casual Fridays at work, where dress codes were relaxed. Although the change was quickly embraced, the executives who made such changes were surprised to find that instead of gratitude from the employees, they were deluged with new complaints and demands. Why not casual every day? If we can make this change, why not some others long overdue? The change produced rising expectations, as almost every positive management action does. Managers, like athletes or soldiers, cannot relax after success, but must be always ready for a quick turn of events, for the unintended consequences and inevitable paradoxes of leadership.

If embracing a design mentality seems a tall order, a major departure from what managers are now doing, perhaps it helps to remember that, in any field, those who are still doing what they were trained to do are obsolete.

Designing the Future

Design has many definitions, but if design is the creation of form, then it surely applies directly to leadership and management. Everything we see and hear and do has form. By its form, everything sends a metamessage. Therefore, everything is amenable to design. If we are going to seriously and systematically incorporate the approaches of social design into management, we have much to learn, and much to invent. But we can do this with the comfort of knowing that we are embracing the perspectives and approaches of an ancient, distinguished and thriving discipline, with greater relevance for the 21st century than ever before.

We should not underestimate the crucial importance of leadership and design joining forces. Our global future depends on it. We will either design our way through the deadly challenges of this century, or we won’t make it. For our institutions—in truth, for our civilization—to survive and prosper, we must solve extremely complex problems and cope with many bewildering dilemmas. We cannot assume that, following our present path, we will simply evolve toward a better world.

But we can design that better world. That is why designers need to become leaders, and why leaders need to become designers.


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