Editor’s note: Eric Jackson, a technology consultant and developer, is a regular contributor to Local Tech Wire. His column appears on Tuesdays.

BLACK MOUNTAIN,I recently reread a commentary on technology design by Business Week editor Bruce Nussbaum entitled “Technology: Just Make It Simpler” (BW, September 8, 2003). The thrust of the article is that too many of the systems in use today are fragile and prone to failure, some with potentially devastating consequences. The fix, according to Nussbaum, is to design technologies to be manageable, defensible, and recoverable even when they fail.

Summarizing, Nussbaum says, “Make [systems] diverse and flexible enough so that parts of a system continue to operate when something goes down. Invest enough resources to have backup that keeps critical functions running when emergencies occur. In effect, provide enough flex in the system to allow human beings the time to manage properly.”

The article’s concern is the design of technology-based systems, but the design principles he mentions and the importance of design generally go well beyond their application either to technology or to product aesthetics and usability, another meaning of design that has also recently gained renewed attention. Design and design principles are of extremely broad usefulness and importance in technology, products, organizational structure, human and other processes, even something as seemingly abstract as strategy. Indeed, the concept of design may be applied to virtually any activity in which we wish to act deliberately in order to influence outcomes, a definition that covers the vast majority of the activities that a business might undertake.

Diversity, simplicity and decentralization

Good design is often more art than science, at least when one is pushing limits. It is not about rules; rather, it is about considering goals and constraints in light of the interplay and consequences of a variety of underlying principles. In his article, Nussbaum highlights certain principles that underlie the design of robust systems, specifically principles of diversity, simplicity, and decentralization. These principles are neither arbitrary nor artificial; in fact, every important design principle can be found in natural systems and the natural sciences, from anatomy and structural biology to evolution and ecology. The last two are particularly rich in insights for organization and process design. And just as achieving robustness, manageability and effectiveness of technological systems requires that we consider and weigh different fundamental principles against one another, so too does the design of non-technological systems.

Consider the principle of diversity. Nussbaum mentions it in the context of security — if an entire organization uses any single operating system, it becomes much simpler for an attacker to take down its entire network. Just as in natural ecosystems, diversity is a vital defense against threats of all sorts, from deliberate attack to changing circumstances. We have discussed this same principle at some length in previous columns and looked at the ways diversity can provide business with significantly enhanced ability to respond innovatively to a rapidly changing and often hostile environment.

There are many others as well. There is simplicity, which brings both flexibility and ease of management; uniformity for reducing costs, easing integration, and transferring experience (think of standards and best practices); redundancy as a hedge against the inevitable failure of parts of a system; centralization for enhanced efficiency and alignment; and autonomy for the ability to react appropriately to locally unique circumstances; to mention just a few.

These basic principles may act independently, but more often they actively either clash with or complement one another. Thus, combining two different principles can bring greater benefits than either can alone. For example, building redundancy into a system using diverse backup systems reduces the likelihood that a problem that takes out the primary system will also take out the backups. On the other hand, the principle of autonomy is essentially the opposite of centralization, and its antidote. In general, every design principle offers both a benefit and a danger — balance is the key.

Design for a lifetime

Every business process, program or strategy may be fruitfully considered from the standpoint of design throughout its lifetime. Design thinking can obviously help in their creation, but is of value in the analysis and diagnosis of existing systems as well. The fact is that any process, product, program or strategy is more likely to fail than to succeed, more likely to be ineffective that to be effective, and design thinking is a good way to increase the odds in favor of success and effectiveness.

Over the next few weeks, this column will focus on the broad topic of design and the tools it offers in a variety of business contexts. We will consider specific design principles, as well as some key aspects of the design process and the broader question of how design thinking can be integrated with an organization’s culture at every level.

Ideas? Suggestions? Contact Eric at eric@deepweave.com

Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.