Tag Archives: corporation

Design and the corporation, first wild, now tame?

RobertFabricant-620x415Have you seen the piece Robert Fabricant wrote for Wired as a year-end review?  I think you’ll find it both chilling and cheering.

Fabricant says “leading design firms are contracting or exiting the business.” Where did all this talent flow? Fabricant says it went to Fortune 500 companies.

Cheering?

Well, yes. This is good news for those of us who believe that the corporation is systematically challenged when it comes to capturing and thinking about culture. No, not corporate culture. I mean the body of ideas and practices with which each of us (and all of us) construct and negotiate the world. (AKA “trends” but of course so much more than merely trends.)

THIS culture is an essential knowledge for the corporation. It is the source of “black swans” and “blue oceans,” the dangers and opportunities, that confront the corporation. Mastering culture will help the corporation flourish even in a world of terrible, otherwise inscrutable dynamism. But no. The corporation prefers to treat culture as a dark matter. It knows culture is out there, but it can’t retrofit its models to account for it. The result is tragic.

So it’s good news that designers are now joining the corporation. Though we can just imagine the moments of first contact as the C-suiters look out of their princely offices over the parking lot to observe…anomalous data.  Colors, shapes and models that break the otherwise uniform sea of sensible sedans. Minis, Fiats, BWM i3, Teslas, cars that say the owner pays attention to the world around her, prizes the exquisite visual choice and the witty design decision, likes that shock of recognition when a shape in the world gives voice to an idea in our heads, who actually lives for a material culture that makes culture material.

This is not the C-suiters reaction. No, their reaction is “wait, what?” This is their idea of pattern recognition, noticing when things look, like, weird. Welcome to the designers. They are, like, weird.

I remember my first contact with designers. I was a freshly minted PhD and I went to a conference on built form staged by Setha Low. I was doing the anthropological thing, which is, when in the presence of people different from yourself, trying to guess the grammar, the culture, from which their view of the world springs. And the best I could do in the early days was to notice that designers managed a paradox that seemed beyond the rest of us (or at least me). They had their feet on the ground, even as they kept their heads in the clouds. Weird, yes. Wild, too.

Designers managed to be more or less fully domesticated, capable of adult behavior and professional careers, even as they harbored an enfant sauvage within, a creature who put creativity above conventional niceties, who was in fact not so domesticated after all. To use the cliché, designers somehow managed to think inside the box and live outside of it.  This impressed me deeply.

Which brings us to:

Chilling?

Is there something chilling about the fact the design is now taking up residence in the corporation? I think there might be. For all these years, designers kept a careful distance. They were in but not of the world of business. But now, if Fabricant is correct, they are at risk of falling into the gravitation field of the corporation, into what for some may be an incinerating embrace.

What if we are looking at the domestication of design, the end of its ability to think in restless, anarchic ways, the very extinction of the discipline as the fount of creativity in our midst. Those of you who have the ethnographic data, please do comment.  Do you see any of the early signs? Designers getting complacent? People going home at 5:00? The end of that thrilling charrette-mentality where it’s all hands on deck and we’ll sleep when we have to, eat when we must. The real sign may be this: when the designer’s car in the parking lot begin to go out, now good grey sedans, no longer colorful, provocative, counter-expectational “vehicles” for passengers of any kind. Then we will know the thing is done, the field is dead.

I suggest designers think of this as a hostage negotiation. They must insist on a trade. We the designers will bring you this precious knowledge, the ability to use design thinking and cultural knowledge, if and only if we may remain an edgy, disturbational, counter-intuitive presence in your midst.

More probably, the outcome will look like this. The corporation will hold designers in its thrall for a couple of years. Then two things will happen. Noticing how miserable they are, some designers will leave. The corporation will see they have so wounded the golden goose that culture and creativity is no longer forthcoming. It will then turn into a willful child, throwing away its “broken toy” and moving on to some new enthusiasm. Released from their Babylonian captivity, designers will return eventually to form.  And the world will be, like, weird again. And wild.

post script

I set this post to Darrel Rhea for comments and he came back with a beautifully observed response.  I will post this tomorrow.  Please come back!

Denial and the new, nimble, agile corporation

Ember Status ItemSome time in the last year, I spend 40 minutes and 55 slides telling a roomful of senior executives about a trend that was “on approach.”

Trend X emerged sometimes in the 1960s and was now moving towards them with something like the force of a Tsunami.

Trend X was in the process of disrupting the industry, hollowing out the client’s business model and turning their value proposition inside out.

Then something happened.

Denial happened.

For the rest of this post, please go to the HBR blog here.

Greg Parsons on the new world of work

Here’s the video for an interview I did with Greg Parsons in Chicago on June 11.  The event behind us was NEOCON, the design event that happens each year in Chicago.  It was an impromptu interview so not only are my questions “not prepared,” they are unprepared. I shot the interview on my iPhone which I thought did really well given the noise and the commotion. I have to declare a conflict of interest.  I consulted for Herman Miller on this project.  Which, I have to say, does nothing to augment my admiration for the undertaking. If only I could always work for clients this gifted.

And here’s the transcript:

Interviewer: …do? [laughs]

Greg Parsons: Oh no, no. I won’t be able to take it again. [laughs]

Interviewer: No, look! We can just keep doing it until we get a take you like.

Greg: Huh? [jokingly] No.

Interviewer: We’ll just keep throwing them away. I love what you just said about getting things together, getting people together, telling them the purpose and then turning them loose.

Greg: The way we manage has been…You line people up, you tell them what to do, you get a piece, you know their outcome. You make sure and you monitor, and you see how it’s all tied together. The future is actually much more complex and free in that you actually take people…You align them around passion and purpose, but then you set them free. You don’t pin them down, and they bounce off against each other. They build relationships and together they find the next direction.

As long as you have a clear picture of what you’re trying to achieve, and a clear set of purpose and principles, that will do just fine. You teach them how to make decisions together, so it’s not pinned down. Everything have a process map. It’s actually let people be free, and it’s counterintuitive for people to do that.

Interviewer: Yeah. It feels like we should send in a group of people called pattern recognizers.

Greg: No, I agree.

Interviewer: Who go in and say, “This is an idea.” They just lift it off, as you would transparency. You just lift that off and people keep thinking, keep lifting ideas off.

Greg: That’s exactly how we’ve designed this. We had a big idea around the living office. It’s very general. It’s very abstract. We started to say, we think there’s eight parts of this. And then we said, no, there are nine and we actually have landed on 12 parts and it’s everything from a shared vision to a place design paradigm to a set of products and a set of services. There are 12 things and we’ve put one person who’s passionate and qualified in charge of each of the 12, haven’t told them what to do in their area, but we all get together and do the nodes of our offer. Those nodes keep developing and evolving, which causes the one next to them to develop and evolve, to form new relationships and new matrixes and new networks.

It’s incredibly organic and it’s incredibly uncertain and it’s incredibly invigorating and surprising. Sometimes you go off the rails and you pull people back, but it works, and we got to where we are twice as fast as I think we would have. As a matter of fact, I don’t think we would be here today if we tried to set a process and tell everyone what they needed to do and have a process, the Microsoft project map for everything. We wouldn’t even have the map done by now.

We just had a shared view, got people who were passionate, told them their area of the percolate and we just bounce of each other and build connections as we go.
Interviewer: In a sense the concept of the living office came from a living office.

Greg: It came from the principles of life and we said “What are the principles of life?” It’s the elements of surprise and uncertainty, and it’s freedom, these loose systems of things, interacting, each evolving on their own, but together forming an ecosystem. We said “Let’s apply that to places, let’s apply that to tools and technology, and let’s apply that to actually how you manage people.” Herman Miller has always managed this way, but we didn’t know what it was, so our founder talks about covenant relationships, not contracts. We’re all about innovation and imagining and delivering things that didn’t exist.

It’s very hard to do that in a contract relationship where you define what you need by when because you don’t even know what you’re doing, and so Herman Miller has always said covenant relationships, where you agree on the purpose, the goal, the objective, the loose vision.

You agree who’s responsible for which areas and then you set people free and you keep kneading and bouncing off each other to get out [inaudible 03:48] . Very different, very frightening to most companies.

Completely the opposite to what we’re taught is a good process for management, but it’s the mode of living, it’s how people live, and it’s how life happens and so we believe it’s probably how organizations should work…

Interviewer: You have a design degree, and an MBA, both?

Greg: I have a fine art degree, a degree in history, and an MBA.

Interviewer: Right. Your most recent degree was an MBA?

Greg: Yes. I was the wacko artist at the University of Chicago where everybody else was an investment banker.

Interviewer: [laughs] Could you see then what you’re witnessing now, that the world of work, that capitalism would be flexible and fluid in this way?

Greg: No. Basically, when I went to business school, I was learning design at Herman Miller, and how we do it, which is a lot of what I’m telling you about, when we apply onto products, and then I went to business school and said “What if we applied this to business instead of products?”, and it works. To me, this is how Herman Miller is innovative, but we just don’t know it as a practice, and so we’re getting better and better at knowing it as our practice.

Interviewer: In a manner of speaking, Herman Miller, with this new living office is exporting its corporate culture to other corporate cultures.

Greg: Exactly. We’re learning it better ourselves. Most people, we do our thing and we don’t even know what we do and that’s how Herman Miller has an organization. It’s just who we are, it’s our culture, and we don’t really see what we’re doing, and so we’re trying to step back a bit and see what we’re doing so that we do it better and we actually find that we are a network organization. We are a living organization. There are these principles that we’re talking about that are actually coming from us, so why shouldn’t we share them with the world, because they’ve worked incredibly well for us in terms of innovation.
It’s not necessarily right for all work, so if you’re making 500,000 of the same thing, it’s probably not the way to manage. But if you want to reinvent that next thing you’re going to make 500,000 of, it is the right way to manage.

Interviewer: Yes, and to the extent that whatever they’re doing at the moment, they’re also in the game of reinventing who they are and what they will do in the next moment.

Greg: That’s the other thing we are seeing. Every large company started as a small company with a big idea. Most Fortune 500 or 1,000 companies have many of these big ideas that they expand globally, expand and extend into niche markets. They drive down costs as low as possible, but then they have to reinvent the idea, because the Earth is only so big and most of these companies are global. They found the most efficient means to manufacture so costs are approaching zero or as low as possible. Now what’s left is reinventing the big idea, and many of them try and apply the same principles that they have to optimize to how they invent, and it doesn’t work. You have to apply what we’re talking about, which is this mode of living management which is freeing people, giving them shared purpose, giving them shared direction, connecting right capabilities and passions, and then letting them evolve their part of the organization or the living organism.
That’s how life works.

Interviewer: Are there any early adopters out there who will be the first ones into the Living Office and will be a laboratory for you?

Greg: Yes, there are. I probably can’t share them, but, frankly, there are a number of companies we’re talking to that received pieces of this. Actually, we saw it in them before we saw it in ourselves. “Hey,” we said, “they’re doing this. We do that, too,” and we were realizing we do many pieces of it, but a lot of those pieces do live elsewhere. One fundamental thing that most of them seem to share is our perspective on purpose. When I went to business school, we were asked in a lecture hall of 40, “What’s the purpose of a business?” 39 hands went up to say “to make money.” I was the only one who said “to solve a problem really well.” I was told that I was crazy and I left thinking I was crazy.
What I learned was Herman Miller was founded on that idea, that if you actually solve a real problem for people, you’ll get rewarded much more highly financially than you would if you were trying to achieve a financial goal. The way we look at it is, if you want to make more money, don’t focus on money, focus on your purpose and your passion and the money will come.

What you get is very counterintuitive, but companies like Johnson and Johnson and Herman Miller and IBM were all founded on this principle. About 10 percent of businesses seem to pursue it, and those are the ones that have lasted for many decades and have outperformed the stock market.

Interviewer: Darn, I just…Hey, there he is, Jim.

Greg: You saved me from this.

(Transcribed by Castingwords.com)  

Culture is the sea in which business swims. Millennials get this. Boomers not so much.

Here’s a post I published on the Harvard Business Review Blog recently.

I argue that Millennials are now forced to live secret lives in the corporation.

Please click HERE.

Thanks for Karlo Cordova for the excellent (and illustrative!) photo.  

Resolved: that big companies are better at innovation than small ones

Resolved: that big companies are better at innovation than small ones

PRO

Schumpeter in the Economist reports new research on innovation and the corporation, specifically the work of Michael Mandel of the Progressive Policy Institute

Mandel proposed three explanations for the big corporation as an engine of innovation:

1. The best path to economic growth is the creation of a new product category or operating system. Only big companies, like Apple and Google, can create these. (Plus, small companies may or may not be able to live in the shade of these giant oaks.)

2. Big companies do better in global marketplaces.

3. Only large companies have the scale to address big problems, and many of our our current problems are big problems (education, health care, environment).

Schumpeter adds three more:

4. Big companies have the resources to find and afford the best talent.

5. Big companies are learning to be more porous and more nimble.

6. Big companies now come scaling up out of small ones at a ferocious pace. Some of them remember their origins. They get large without growing out of their smallness.

CON

As Schumpeter notes, conventional wisdom holds that large companies are too slow and clumsy to be creative, that small is beautiful.

Indeed this wisdom is so conventional we tend more to assume than prove it. I wish I could recite all the evidence that supports the CONTRA case.

The only thing I can report is that several people inside the corporate and consulting world have told me how deeply frustrated they are by the corporation’s inability to innovate.

Indeed, to judge from these unscientific results, this is now a critical moment in the history of the corporation. Some few years ago (less than a decade) the corporation decided that innovation was the thing and it devoted itself to centers, institutes, laboratories, skunk works and a range of strategies and tactics meant to deliver innovations out like a major leaguer firing sunflower shells round the dugout.

Many corporations are now on notice: innovation is much harder than it looks. Much, much harder despite vast amounts of money and managerial initiative.  

A truth is dawning:

that the corporation can sometimes act like a gravitation field from which new ideas and products cannot escape. Someone has great ideas. Entire teams can have great ideas. But the corporation itself acts like a dark star. It does not create alternatives to itself. It consumes them.

How we do innovation in the corporation must remain high on the todo list for 2012.

Celebrities invade the corporation

Please come have a look at my post at the Harvard Business Review Blog on the good and bad aspects of the corporation using celebrity as a “creative director.”  

Please come comment!  Thanks.  

At the moment, I am in Schaumberg, Illinois.  I spend yesterday working with people in the Convenience store industry.  Very interesting.  

The image to the right is the work of Ruby Karelia, a Vancouver blogger and artist.  It is used by permission. See Ruby’s blog here.

As Ruby likes to put it, she uses her blog “to report from her childhood.”  

A “Special Teams” Unit for the corporation

The corporation is very good at problem solving.

Next to getting things done, this is what it does best.  

The trouble is the problems are getting tougher.

This is exactly what we would expect.  After all, the world is speeding up.  Most corporations expect to reinvent themselves continually, and they do.  This is what it is to live in the world that Tom (Peters) built.

In the event that someone missed the news, the business presses put us on notice with titles like "Faster," "Blur," "Out of Control," "Blown to Bits" "Fast Forward," "Creative Destruction." We are learning to live with dynamism.

Please have a look at my little model above.

I believe we’ve spent most of the last 20 years learning to live with life at (C).  This is where problems are difficult but not intractable.  They test our systems and our assumptions, but with a concerted effort we can put things right.  Often the corporation will call in the consultants, send everyone off to a brainstorm or two, and search it’s soul until old models and assumptions are unrooted, and a new approach is put in place.  

Whew!  We’re good for 6 months.

Now is the time to prepare ourselves for living at (D).  This is where the world inflicts upon us a blind side hit so grievous that we feel exactly like the quarterback who was just visited by a defensive end weighing 260 pounds and travelling at ten yards a second (over 40 yards). The coach asks "How many fingers?" The QB replies, "let me get back to you on that one."  

We are now much better at opposable problem solving and creative thinking.  We are better at collaboration, brainstorms and skunk works.  We are better at "thinking outside the box," and a host of other cliches.  

But we have gone a long way to go.  The thing about (D) is that we have to think our way out of confusion.  And the only way to do that is to embrace assumptions we know are wrong.  And to put these assumptions into constellations we know are wrong. 

We are terraforming.  We are creating a great mass of bad ideas as a platform on which to create some good ideas.  ??? (D) is now beginning to look more like (C).  Eventually, this will give way to (B). And eventually, for a brief while, we will be at (A).  

Now it used to be enough to build our new systems when we got to D.  But it’s clear, I think, that we need a faster response time.  We need a team of people who spend their professional lives creating new models, lots of new models, so that if and when the corporation finds itself at (D), it’s got alternative ideas at the ready.  By this reckoning the corporation will now constantly entertain many visions of itself, so to protect against against intellectual stasis that comes from (D).

This Special Teams unit doesn’t have to have the perfect answer.  (Guess who spent too much time watching football yesterday?  How bout them Browns?)  But it has several possible models, each of which is far enough along that the corporation can be returned to (C) and retrieved from the wilderness and the horror of (D).  The trouble with (D) is that there is no platform. There’s just chaos.  And failure.

Installation of new models, that’s another model.  Someone from the Special Teams unit will suddenly appear at our desk.  The conversation will go something like this,

"Oh oh. Special Teams. You people are never fun."

"We just want to put a new model in places.  Not to worry.  Won’t take long.  You know, the way we’ve been thinking about product innovation?  Ok.  Here’s the new model.  And you know the way we distinguished between the collaboration and competition?  Big change there.  Here’s the way it works now."

Remember when we used to terrify one another with stories of how the Japanese could re-engineer a product line with almost no downtime.  That’s what we are looking at here.  A kind of corporation reprogramming that can be made to happen almost in real time.  

Technical change will continue to speed up.  Cultural changes will continue to speed up. The corporation is going to have to make ready.  It’s going to take on new order of intellectual difficulty.  It’s going to need a new order of intellectual power.  And, yes, it’s going to need a Special Teams unit. 

References

Brown, Tim. 2009. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. HarperBusiness.  

Champy, James, and Nitin Nohria. 1996. Fast Forward: The Best Ideas on Managing Business Change. Harvard Business Press.  

Cowen, Tyler. 2004. Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures. Princeton University Press.  

Davis, Stan, and Christopher Meyer. 1999. Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy. 1st ed. Grand Central Publishing.  

Evans, Philip, and Thomas S. Wurster. 1999. Blown to Bits: How the New Economics of Information Transforms Strategy. 1st ed. Harvard Business Press.  

Foster, Richard, and Sarah Kaplan. 2004. Creative Destruction: Why Companies That Are Built to Last Underperform the Market–And How to Successfully Transform Them. Reprint. Crown Business.  

Gleick, James. 2000. Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. 1st ed. Vintage.  

Grove, Andrew S. 1999. Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company. First. Crown Business.  

Handy, Charles. 1995. The Age of Paradox. Harvard Business Press.  

Handy, Charles. 1991. The Age of Unreason. 1st ed. Harvard Business Press.  

Kelly, Kevin. 1995. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, & the Economic World. Basic Books.  

Lessig, Lawrence. 2008. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Penguin Press.  

Martin, Roger L. 2009. Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking. Harvard Business School Press.  

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  Flock and Flow: Predicting and Managing Cultural Change in a Dynamic Marketplace.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Peters, Tom. 2006. Re-Imagine!: Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age. DK.

Peters, Tom. 1988. Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution. Harper Paperbacks.