Managing design vs. managing designers vs. managing business
Wed, Oct 10, 07
In Design Vs. Design Thinking at BusinessWeek Bruce Nussbaum says:
“…I actually do believe that more designers will become CEOs and top managers as we move forward… it may be easier for creative folks who ‘get’ design to learn business management than it is for business folks to really learn the core precepts of design.”
Christopher Fahey chimes in to ask why top-level managers shouldn’t come out of designers as opposed to MBAs having to learn more about design under the ‘design thinking’ umbrella that’s all the rage now:
“Is it not obvious to you that these emerging design-conscious business leaders might be most profitably drawn from the ranks of, say, designers?”
Why do we want either side (business and design) to learn from and be like the other? So that they can each do their own job better? Or do we want to forge another professional category that’s the superset of the two? Do we want an uber-manager capable of leading both business and design? Or the intention here is to merge business and design altogether? How likely is that? Is it even desirable?
The CEO position, for example, entails many functions: massaging the board of directors, dealing with banks, reporting to regulatory bodies, playing golf with customer CEOs, signing major checks, etc. How relevant are these ‘chores’ to design? Are these the kinds of responsibilities designers want to pursue? If in fact they do spend a huge chunk of their time on these functions, will they ever have the time and focus necessary to do design at all? How will designers be compensated then?
There is a notion of “management” looming in this discussion. But management of what? Business? Designers? Design?
I think we can all agree that non-designers can manage the business. It’s also not that difficult to imagine non-designers being able to manage designers, in terms of projects, people and processes. But can non-designers manage design? As a designer of two decades mostly in the enterprise arena and someone who founded and ran a company, my answer would be, no.
The D-school camp seems to think that design needs to be managed by non-designers, namely business folk with a design sense. I think the underlying presumption is that design (growing in strategic importance) is not being leveraged properly within the organization. And that’s largely true. While designers complain about design-averse business managers, the latter is weary of an unwieldy process not sufficiently focused on P&L.
If what designers want is more power to decide on some of the fundamental problems their organizations face, they can do that without having to become managers of organizational processes. But first, they have to be invited to the table — the table of strategic decision making.
How do designers get invited to the table then? The old fashion way: by earning the trust of the rest of the company. They will be questioned by business, so designers will have to learn to question business. Designers should be at the table not as expert witnesses, but as the framers of the problems the organization faces.
Who manages business or designers is a minor issue compared to who manages design. Design starts with the framing of a problem. If a problem is framed by business first, then designers are reduced to being implementors of a process they had no control over.
The biggest problem before designers, therefore, is to move from the tactical to the strategic plane at the table.