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Solving Wicked Problems
on October 21, 2009
It's unfair that some individuals can write so well about topics that can be a bit esoteric. Roger Martin, who is dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, has produced yet another good book about thinking differently. His first book, The Opposable Mind, captured how good business leaders can see past the traditional "either-or" alternatives to create "both-and" options.
In The Design of Business, Martin offers a view that suggests that design should be the centerpiece or the starting point for much of the work we do in business, and why design is so important. He's not the first to suggest the importance of design, and a number of firms, such as IDEO, have been in the vanguard of the design-led forces. What Martin does well is to describe why design led thinking is important, and give examples of how to do it well.
Martin argues that all knowledge moves through three stages - a mystery, a heuristic and an algorithm. Mysteries are about discovery of new opportunities or research into solving intractable problems. Heuristics are rules of thumb that narrow the size and scope of mysteries and make them more manageable. Algorithms reduce the heuristics into repeatable processes.
This leads to two schools of thought in most businesses: exploration and exploitation, according to Martin. Most businesses are structured to exploit the algorithms, refining the way they do business and becoming highly effective and efficient, while neglecting the exploration of mysteries. Martin calls this the reliability-validity tradeoff. The vast majority of businesses want "reliability" - clearly defined processes that are easily repeatable and produce the same results. What he argues they need is more "validity" - creating the right and best outcomes through more exploration and less reliance on reliability. Three powerful forces emphasize reliability over validity: the demand for proof of the correctness of a new idea, an aversion to bias and time/resource constraints. These factors reinforce the bias toward reliability and repeatability over exploration and validity.
Once Martin has described his ideas, he then proceeds to use a few good examples to demonstrate the transition from a reliability driven organization to a validity and design driven organization. One chapter is devoted to the transition Lafley and Kotchka made at P&G, well documented in other places. Another chapter is devoted to Herman-Miller and the development of the Aeron chair. One of my favorite quotes from that chapter came from the Chairman of Herman Miller. He quizzed the design team about who they interviewed and received feedback from about the Aeron chair. When told they had not asked the sales force for feedback, the chairman said "That is right. You never ask the sales force what they think of a design. Their job is to sell it." Note that the designers spent hundreds of hours with actual customers, watching them work at their desks and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of existing seating options.
The book offers up a few more examples, ones that unfortunately have been used by others to demonstrate innovation and design, including Apple, RIM, Target and Cirque de Soleil. The weakness of many books about innovation and design is that they either have too few examples and must return to the same well, or that design thinking simply isn't widespread, so the same examples are used over and over. What's not clear is whether or not these firms are bellwethers or just happy accidents.
On the whole, this is a well-conceived and well-written book. In what could be a very esoteric topic, Martin keeps the concepts moving and introduces a lot of examples. He puts his finger on many of the challenges that those of us in the innovation and design space constantly face: too much short term thinking, too much demand for proof of an idea based on historical norms, too little time and too few resources for innovation and design.
This is a great book, and an easy read. It belongs on the desk of any executive or manager who is tasked with introducing more design thinking into an organization.