Design Doing: Paving the Pathways for Structuring Organizations

3 October 2022

This is another except from my new book Understanding Organizations…Finally!  that will be out in February. (Pre-order on Berrett-Koehler or on Amazon.)

Design thinking has become a fashionable phrase of late. On its website, under “What Is Design Thinking?”, the renowned design consultancy IDEO has described it as an “iterative process” that proceeds through these phases: empathizing with the users, defining their needs, problems, and own insights, ideating by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions, prototyping to start creating solutions, and testing them.1

Why is this called design thinking when it reads more like design doing? As Hannibal said when faced with having to take elephants over the Alps: “I shall either find a way or make one.”

Here’s how to make a way

There is a park in Prague, also perhaps where you live, that was designed by designers who knew better. They paved pathways where they decided that the people should walk. One of these, to take people from a busy street to a bridge, was paved in an S-shape. The designers formulated, and the people of Prague reformulated. They took control of the situation and walked straight across, on grass that became earth. Thus evolved the people’s pathway to the bridge.

This suggests that there are two kinds of designers: those who really do know better, and those who, by believing they know better, do worse. When a surgeon is about to begin an operation, we don’t say: “Could you please cut a little lower?” The surgeon knows better. But an architect, educator, or manager who knows better can be a menace to good design, because this precludes the experience of the users.

There are, of course, designers who know what they don’t know, and so allow the people to walk the park, so to speak. And as the walkers keep walking, the pathways keep changing.

None of this should be different in designing organizations. Instead of designers who know better as they pave the structures for everyone else, the users who have to live with the consequences of the structure need to participate in the design of it. They have to formulate by implementing—learn their way to the structures that suits them best. 

Hence, we must beware of immaculate conception in designing our organizations. Doing so in one shot, however common, leaves little room for the users to adapt and correct mistakes. Organizations require emergent structures, just as they require emergent strategies: when possible, start marginally, tentatively, and let experience take it from there. In other words, allow structures, like strategies, to be learned, beyond being planned.

(Preorder Understanding Organizations…Finally! on Berrett-Koehler or on Amazon.)

1. “How Do People Define Design Thinking,” IDEO, https://designthinking.ideo .com/faq/how-do-people-define-design-thinking (accessed August 30, 2021).