Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Creating a "design culture"

Is "design thinking" qualitatively different from the decision making processes of managers in corporations? Perhaps. It's an attractive idea, the notion that design thinking--the way designers solve design problems--can be applied to any number of challenges that corporations face. I've blogged about design schools that are teaching students business skills so that they will have the background to help set strategy and solve business problems.

With the interest in design thinking, I've started to see presentatations by consultants exhorting companies to "create design cultures" and "make innovation part of the firm's DNA." Design and innovation are motherhood and apple pie issues: how could anyone argue against them? If you make design and innovation part of your everyday corporate culture you'll unleash the creative potential of every employee and leave your competition begging for scraps.

Culture change in corporations is a different beast, however. Corporate cultures vary on a number of dimensions. They include team orientation, outcome orientation, and stability: the degree to which the culture maintains the status quo. The dimension that needs to change, of course, is capacity for innovation and risk taking. Where the company currently sits on these dimensions determines how difficult it will be to build a design culture.

There are two things to keep in mind about company culture. One, company culture is determined in large part (though not exclusively) by its leadership. How does the leadership behave? Who do they reward and promote? What behaviors are recognized? That's determines company culture far more than memos from human resources and published mission statements.

Two, changing company culture for the better is difficult. The consultants pushing design culture might forget to raise this issue with clients. Even when the leadership is fully committed to changing the culture it's difficult. All companies show resistance to change, some more than others. Jack Welch changed the company culture of GE with Six Sigma, which shows that it can be done, but it wasn't easy.

Any plan for building a design culture would start with a pretty serious change management plan. Senior leadership would need to know what's it's getting into, and the things they would need to change about themselves. Otherwise, any effort to inject design thinking and innovation into the company culture will just be the fad of the week, and will join the long list of "seemed like a good idea at the time" initiatives that wound up on the scrap heap of indifference.

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