By Eric Jackson

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

On Design 2

Last week, we introduced design thinking for business in a general way. This week we begin to dig down.

Design is a way of thinking about and solving problems that have many possible solutions. If there is an answer, it is not a design problem. Conversely, if your organization is undertaking a project or problem that has many different possible answers, then it is a design problem, whether you approach it as one as not.

The areas that leap to mind when we think of design, such as architecture, engineering, and consumer product design, all share this characteristic. There is no more one “right” design for a hammer than there is one for a bridge.

This characteristic is no less true of business problems, be they in process engineering, strategy development, or the building of a culture within the organization. Business is about divergent problems that admit many, and changing possibilities. Indeed, gaining competitive advantage is all about coming up with innovative ways to deliver value to customers.

Design thinking

Design thinking is a way to approach such problems.

There are four key elements involved in design: goals+constraints, character+values, principles, and, of course, creativity. We will cover the first two and the last this week, and return to a discussion of design principles next time.

Let’s dispose of the last element first. Like any sort of problem solving, design requires creativity. Articles, books and consultants can suggest ways to foster creativity within an organization, but cannot tell one how to “do” or “get” it. However, it is extremely unlikely that this is the element lacking in your organization. It may need to be unlocked. It may require broadening your organization’s conception of who should participate in coming up with solutions. But it is almost certainly there, if you are willing to encourage it.

The first task in design then is to determine the goals of the project or solution, as well as the constraints that it must satisfy. These are hardly unique to design, of course, but failure to carefully and completely think through the requirements for a project is the single most common reason for it to fail. What is the purpose of the project?

What specific needs does each constituent have? What are the priorities — in a crunch, which requirements can be eased or dropped? And what limits must be maintained? Are there constraints on resources like funding, people, or time? Are there constraints on impact? If the goal is increasing sales, perhaps there is a strategic requirement that all the growth occur in new markets, rather than through share gains in current ones.

Goals and constraints

Goals and constraints are about what to do. The character of a solution and the values underlying it are about how, and provide a basis for evaluating and comparing solutions. Character encompasses qualities like “robust,” “flexible,” “secure,” “pleasing,” or “easy to use.” Obviously, such terms demand (but surprisingly often do not get) clear measures and means to determine when and whether they are satisfied. Thus, a project may require a secure software product as measured by its ability to stand up to a particular group’s attacks, or a flexible strategy that retains its validity, in the judgment of a particular set of executives, against a particular predetermined range of possible future scenarios.

Values are similar to character, but go deeper and are far more specific to the individual group or organization. Values encompasses a broad range of things, such as honesty, efficiency, elegance, openness, and empowerment, as well as more business-specific things like quick or longer-term return on investment.

Every organization has values, whether it bothers to be explicit about them or not. It is important to attempt to be as explicit and deliberate as possible, however, since some solutions, quite reasonable in appearance and perfectly valid for other companies, can turn out to be in strong conflict with an organization’s values. The result is that what is intended to be an enhancement of value for both company and customer, ends up destroying it instead.

Character and values are what starts us on the design path. Different values can lead to completely different kinds of solutions. One company may focus more heavily on niche markets because they value a freer, less structured culture that supports frequent innovation, while another may focus on the broader market with strong process and service competencies that come from a combination of efficiency and people-oriented values.

All of these together, goals, constraints, values and solution character, set the stage for actually doing a design, which returns us to the issue of design principles from last week. They, in combination with values and character, provide the “rules” for bringing elements together to construct a solution, and a guide for the kinds of elements that should be sought. More on that next week.