Tag: business


Strategy: Myths, fantasies, and reality


A defining feature of sustained excellence in any enterprise is a good strategy — a vision and plan linked to the delivery of something of value, consistently. One of the big reasons many organizations fail to thrive is not just that they that have the wrong strategy, but that they don’t have one at all (but think they do). 

Strategy is all about perception.

Whether you think you have one or not is partly perceptive. Whether you are delivering a strategy in practice or not is also a matter of perception. Why? Because strategy is what links what you build your organization for, what you drive it toward, and what you actually achieve. Lots of organizations achieve positive results by happenstance (being at the right place at the right time). That kind of luck can happen to anyone, but it hardly constitutes a strategy.

Also, statements of intent are great for creating the perception of strategy because one can always say they are working toward something in the abstract, but without a clear sense of how intentions are connected to actions and those actions connected to outcomes, there really isn’t a strategy.

Do you have a strategy?

The best example of this is in the entertaining and instructive illustrative book ‘I Have a Strategy (No You Don’t)‘, Howell J. Malham Jr literally illustrates the problems that beset conversations about strategy as it chronicles two characters (Larry and Gary) talking about the subject and busting the myths associated with what strategy is and is not. One exchange between the two goes like this:

Larry: “Hey Gary, I was working a strategy to put a cookie back in a cookie jar but I tripped and fell and the cookie flew into my mouth instead. Good strategy, huh?

Gary: “That’s not a strategy. That’s a happy accident, Larry

The entire book is like this. One misconception after another is clarified through one character using the term strategy to mean something other than what it really is. These misconceptions, misuses, and mistakes with the concept of strategy may be why it is so poorly done in practice.

Malham’s work is my favourite on strategy because it encapsulates so many of the real-world conversations I witness (and have been a part of) for years with colleagues and clients alike. Too much conversation on strategy is about things that are not really about strategy at all like wishes, needs, or opportunities.

This isn’t to suggest that all outcomes are planned or connected to a strategy, but the absence of a strategy means you’re operating at the whim of chance, circumstance, and opportunism. This is hardly the stuff of inspiration and isn’t sustainable. Strategy is about connecting purpose, plans, execution, and delivery. Malham defines a strategy as having the following properties:

1. It has an intended purpose;
2. There is a plan;
3. There is a sequence of actions (interdependent events);
4. It leads toward a distinct, measurable goal

When combined with evaluation, organizations build a narrative and understanding of not only whether a strategy leads toward a goal, but what actions make a difference (and to what degree), what aspects of a plan fit and didn’t fit, and what outcomes emerge from the efforts (including those that were unintended).

A look at much of the discourse on strategy finds that many organizations not only don’t have strategic plans, they don’t even have plans.

Words and action

One of the biggest problems with “capital ‘S’ Strategy” (the kind espoused in management science) is that it is filled with jargon and, ironically, contributes greatly to the very lack of strategic thinking that it seeks to inspire. It’s one of the reasons I like Malham’s book: it cuts through the jargon. I used to work with a senior leader who used all the language of strategy in talks, presentations, and writing but was wholly incapable or unwilling to commit to a strategic direction when it came to discussing plans and actions for their organization.

Furthermore, it is only marginally useful if you develop a strategy and then don’t bother to evaluate it to see what happened, how, and to what effect. Without the action tied to strategy, it is no better than a wish list and probably no more useful than a New Years Resolution.

Those plans and linking them to action is why design is such an important — and sadly, highly neglected — part of strategy development. Design is that process of shifting how we see problems, explore possibilities, and create pathways that lead to solutions. Design is not theoretical, it is practical and without design doing design thinking is impotent.

Two A’s of Strategy: Adaptation vs Arbitrary

The mistake for organizations working in zones of high complexity (which is increasingly most of those working with human services) is assuming that strategy needs to be locked in place and executed blindly to be effective. Strategy is developed in and for a context and if that situation changes, the strategy needs to change, too. This isn’t about throwing it out but adapting.

Adaptive strategy is a means of innovating responsibly, but can also be a trap if those adaptations need to be built on data and experience, not spurious conclusions. Arbitrary decisions is what often is at the root of bad (or no) strategy.

Roger Martin is one of the brightest minds on strategy and has called out what he sees as sloppy use of the term adaptive strategy as a stand-in for arbitrary decision-making going so far as to call it a ‘cop-out’. One of the biggest problems is that strategy is often not viewed in systems terms, as part of an interconnected set of plans, actions, and evaluations made simultaneously, not sequentially.

Good strategy is not a set of steps, but a set of cascading choices that influence the operations and outcomes simultaneously. Strategy is also about being active, not passive, about what it means to design and create an organization.

Grasping strategy for what it is, not what we imagine it to be, can be a key factor in shaping not only what you do, but how well you do it. Having the kind of conversations like those in Howell J. Malham’s book is a means to get things moving. Taking action on those things is another.


Image credit: Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

behaviour changebusinesspublic healthsocial mediasystems science

Genetic engineering for your brand


DNA doesn’t predetermine our future as biological beings, but it does powerfully influence it. Some have applied the concept of ‘DNA’ to a company or organization, in the same way, it’s applied to biological organisms. Firms like PWC have been at the forefront of this approach, developing organizational DNA assessments and outlining the principles that shape the DNA of an organization. A good brand is an identity that you communicate with yourself and the world around you. A healthy brand is built on healthy DNA.

Tech entrepreneur and writer Om Malik sees DNA as being comprised of those people that form the organization:

DNA contains the genetic instructions used to build out the cells that make up an organism. I have often argued that companies are very much like living organisms, comprised of the people who work there. What companies make, how they sell and how they invent are merely an outcome of the people who work there. They define the company.

The analogy between the DNA of a company as being that of those who make it up is apt because, as he points out, organizations reflect the values, habits, mindsets, and focus of those who run them. For that reason, understanding your organizations’ DNA structure might be critical to shaping the corporate direction, brand and promoting any type of change, as we see from the case of Facebook.

DNA dilemma: The case of Facebook

Facebook is under fire these days. To anyone paying enough attention to the social media giant the issue with Facebook isn’t that it’s happening now, but why it hasn’t happened sooner? Back when the site was first opened up to allow non-university students to have accounts (signaling what would become the global brand it is today) privacy was a big concern. I still recall listening to a Facebook VP interviewed on a popular tech podcast who basically sloughed off any concerns the interviewer had about privacy saying the usual “we take this seriously” stuff but offering no example of how that was true just as the world was about to jump on the platform. I’ve heard that same kind of interview repeated dozens of times since the mid-2000’s, including just nine months before Mark Zuckerberg’s recent ‘mea culpa’ tour.

Facebook has never been one to show much (real) attention to privacy because its business model is all about ensuring that users’ are as open as possible to collect as much data as possible from them to sell as many services to them, through them, about them, and for others to manipulate. The Cambridge Analytica story simply exposed what’s been happening for years to the world.

Anyone who’s tried to change their privacy settings knows that you need more than a Ph.D. to navigate them* and, even then, you’re unlikely to be successful. Just look at the case of Bobbi Duncan and Katie McCormick who were outed as gay to their families through Facebook even though they had locked down their own individual privacy settings. This is all part of what CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the folks at Facebook refer to as “connecting the social graph.”

The corporate biology of addiction

In a prescient post, Om Malik wrote about Facebook’s addiction to its business model based on sharing, openness, and exploitation of its users’ information mere weeks before the Cambridge Analytica story came out.

Facebook’s DNA is that of a social platform addicted to growth and engagement. At its very core, every policy, every decision, every strategy is based on growth (at any cost) and engagement (at any cost). More growth and more engagement means more data — which means the company can make more advertising dollars, which gives it a nosebleed valuation on the stock market, which in turn allows it to remain competitive and stay ahead of its rivals.

Whether he knew it or not, Malik was describing an epigenetic model of addiction. Much emerging research on addiction has pointed to a relationship between genes and addictive behaviour. This is a two-way street where genes influence behaviour and behaviour influences a person’s genes (something called epigenetics). The more Facebook seeks to connect through its model, the more it reinforces the behaviour, the more it feels a ‘need’ to do it and therefore repeats it.

In systems terms, this is called a reinforcing loop and is part of a larger field of systems science called systems dynamics. Systems dynamics have been applied to public health and show how we can get caught in traps and the means we use to get out of them.  By applying an addiction model and system dynamics to the organization, we might better understand how some organizations change and how some don’t.

Innovation therapy

The first step toward any behaviour change for an addiction is to recognize the addiction in the first place. Without acknowledgment of a problem, there can’t be much in the way of self-support. This acknowledgment has to be authentic, which is why there is still reason to question whether Facebook will change.

There are many paths to addiction treatment, but the lessons from treating some of the most pernicious behaviours like cigarette smoking and alcohol suggest that it is likely to succeed when a series of small, continuous, persistent changes are made and done so in a supportive environment. One needs to learn from each step taken (i.e., evaluate progress and outcomes from each step), to integrate that learning, and continue through the inevitable cycling through stages (non-linear change) that sometimes involves moving backward or not knowing where along the change journey you are.

Having regulations or external pressures to change can help, but too much can paralyze action and stymie creativity. And while being motivated to change is important, sometimes it helps to just take action and let the motivation follow.

If this sounds a lot like the process of innovation, you’re right.

Principled for change

Inspiring change in an organization, particularly one where there is a clear addiction to a business model (a way of doing things, seeing things, and acting) requires the kind of therapy that we might see in addiction support programs. Like those programs, there isn’t one way to do it, but there are principles that are common. These include:

  1. Recognize the emotional triggers involved. Most people suffering from addictions can rationalize the reasons to change, but the emotional reasons are a lot harder. Fear, attraction, and the risk of doing things differently can bubble up when you least expect it. You need to understand these triggers, deal with the emotional aspects of them — the baggage we all bring.
  2. Change your mindset. Successful innovation involves a change of practice and a change of mindset. The innovator’s mindset goes from a linear focus on problems, success, and failure to a non-linear focus on opportunities, learning, and developmental design.  This allows you to spot the reinforcing looping behaviour and addiction pathways as well as what other pathways are open to you.
  3. Create better systems, not just different behaviour. Complex systems have path-dependencies — those ruts that shape our actions, often unconsciously and out of habit. Consider ways you organize yourself, your organization’s jobs and roles, the income streams, the system of rewards and recognitions, the feedback and learning you engage with, and composition of your team.  This rethinking and reorganization are what changes DNA, otherwise, it will continue to express itself through your organization in the same way.
  4. Make change visible. Use evaluation as a means to document what you do and what it produces and continue to structure your work to serve the learning from this. Inertia comes from having no direction and nothing to work toward. We are beings geared towards constant motion and making things — it’s what makes us human. Make a change, by design. Make it visible through evaluation and visual thinking – including the ups, downs, sideways. A journey involves knowing where you are — even if that’s lost — and where you’re going (even if that changes).

Change is far more difficult than people often think. Change initiatives that are rooted solely in motivation are unlikely to produce anything sustainable. You need to get to the root, the DNA, of your organization and build the infrastructure around it to enable it to do the work with you, not against you. That, in Facebook terms, is something your brand and its champions will truly ‘Like’.


* Seriously. I have a Ph.D. and am reasonably tech literate and have sat down with others with similar educational backgrounds — Ph.D.’s, masters degrees, tech startup founders — and we collectively still couldn’t figure out the privacy settings as a group.

References: For those interested in system dynamics or causal loop modeling, check out this great primer from Nate Osgood at the University of Saskatchewan. His work is top-notch. Daniel Kim has also written some excellent, useful, and practical stuff on applying system dynamics to a variety of issues.

Image credit: Shutterstock used under license.

innovationpsychologysocial systemssystems thinking

Reading Innovation and the New Economy

Runnymede Theatre / Chapters

Runnymede Theatre / Chapters

Economic changes are transforming business and work itself in ways that are having consequences well beyond supply chains and jobs, but the way employment spurs learning. A look at a recent change at a Toronto bookstore hints at a future that suggests we may want to think about what kind of economy we want not just the one we have. 

I recently learned that the Chapters bookstore occupying the former Runnymede Theatre in Toronto will be shuttering as its lease is taken over by a major drug store chain.

The bookstore, pictured above and below, is among the most beautiful you will find anywhere. It is also a meeting place for parents (mostly moms) and children, offering one of the few spaces for young families to gather in the neighbourhood.

The loss of Chapters has caused an uproar in the community, ironically just as it did when it came into the once abandoned heritage building. Reporting on the story in the Toronto Star, business reporter Francine Kopun highlights some of the losses that are expected to the community:

“It’s a real loss for the neighbourhood,” said Jill Zelmanovits, 41, a mother of two children, ages seven and four.

“I would say my children have been there every week their whole lives.”

She said staff at the store greet her by name and it is a gathering place for new moms with kids in tow.

The story goes on to add:  “Schools and community groups hold fundraiser events in the space, said Ward 13 Councillor Sarah Doucette (Parkdale-High Park). Her office was inundated with calls from residents after the news broke. “We had an uproar like this when Chapters went in,” she said.”

The change from a theatre to a bookstore was disruptive just as the next change will be as Shoppers Drug Mart moves in. However, it is worth considering from the perspective of social systems and economies what this change will mean beyond the shift in products and services being offered at the home of the Runnymede Theatre.

Systems thinking change

Stroller Parking

Will the new drug store have stroller parking?

While we see retail change all the time, this particular move was more emblematic of a larger systems trend that is worth noting. If one is to look at the origin of the Runnymede Theatre and what it did, one starts to see some aspects of an economic shift that might be worth paying attention to.

When the theatre started as a vaudeville stage, the skill-sets required to run and grow the theatre were complex and portable. One needed to know about storytelling, performance, marketing, hospitality, logistics, and how to maintain a connection to the community to create the kind of shows that people wanted to pay for. These are skills that could easily be transferred into other contexts beyond the theatre, which made it an ideal place for engendering talent that could have transferrable benefit beyond one context. And as researchers like Keith Sawyer have noted, the benefits of theatre on creativity and group collaboration are significant.

The bookstore is a step down from that. The roles are fewer, the jobs are simpler, but at least the product is something that inspires learning and there are still benefits for the customers beyond products (much like the inspiration that theatre-goers received). Bookstore staff are best when they read and share what they read with their customers; it makes them better salespeople and stock clerks. The inclusion of a children’s space with related programming for moms and kids adds a community benefit as well as requiring and providing additional skills to the bookstore staff. These might not be as comprehensive as those gained from theatre, but as a system the bookstore still confers benefits beyond just selling books.

The next stage of the theatre is set for a drug store. If we take out the pharmacy (which is a minor part of the modern drug store’s revenue stream and purpose)  the remaining aspects of a drug store require little skill to operate. Stocking shelves, directing people to products, and ringing through purchases (if the self-checkout option isn’t available) requires little knowledge or skill and confers little benefit beyond pay. Fewer jobs are full-time and fewer skills are needed so the pay is likely lower for each staff member as one would expect from this. None of this is intended to dismiss the workers themselves or drug stores, but it’s difficult to imagine many supplemental benefits beyond raw product and pay garnered by having a drug store in the building; no group collaboration skills, no meeting place for families, no knowledge of current affairs, no storylines.

Designing economies

The story of the Runnymede Theatre is not about picking on the drug store, nor is it about being nostalgic for days gone by. It is about considering what kind of employment, community experiences, skills, and outcomes we get when we change our economy. As citizens and consumers we grow what we sow. Being mindful of what kind of things we ‘plant’ and the kind of experiences we pay for, demand, seek and design in our enterprises matters at a system level. Some might say that the market changed and that the theatre and its lease-holders are simply responding to that market, which is partly true. There is no one group that can or should be responsible for governing such shifts, but they are worth paying attention to. If we don’t, no one will.

No better place to pay attention to is Seattle, Washington and the home of Amazon. As the annual consumerist sprint that starts at Thanksgiving in the United States began, viewers of the news program 60 Minutes were treated to a look at Amazon’s prototype plan for drone-powered package delivery. Once again, we were seeing Amazon do what it has done time and again: innovate the business of retail.  Two weeks later, Canada Post announced that it was going to phase out home delivery in urban centres. (Soon, all mail will go to post office stations in centralized locations much like in rural communities).

Amazon is seeking to revolutionize the way products are shopped for, ordered and delivered from books to groceries and more. In an interview earlier in 2013 with Fast Company, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos outlined a bold plan for transforming the way products are ordered, promising the possibility of same day, even 2-hour delivery on anything a person needs. This is innovation at its clearest, yet are we innovating the systems that wrap around these new technologies and processes?

If drones are delivering our books, robots picking them from shelves, and computer programs taking the order in the first place, who is working? Yes, some computer programmers will be employed, but the world isn’t full of or needs billions of programs or apps. What does the future of work look like? What are our choices in this? What kind of systems do we want and are we prepared to shape them?

Greg Van Alstyne and Bob Logan defined design as “creation for reproduction” in a paper published in Artifact in 2007 (an earlier version is available here). Bezos and Amazon are designing the economy by creating tools, processes and ideas that are emergent and potentially self-replicating if spread. They are not the only ones with a say in the matter and every time we buy something, look at something and engage with a product or service we are voting with our wallet, consciousness and attention for what we want.

It is worth considering how we design for the emergence of an economy we want, not just what is delivered at the drug store or by drone.

art & designcomplexitydesign thinkingevaluationsystems thinking

Design Thinking, Design Making

Designing and thinking

Designing and thinking

Critics of design thinking suggest that it neglects the craft of products while advocates suggest that it extends itself beyond the traditional constraints of design’s focus on the brief. What separates the two are the implications associated with making something and the question: can we be good designer thinkers without being good design makers?

A review of the literature and discussions on design thinking finds a great deal of debate on whether it is a fad, a source of innovation salvation, or whether it is a term that fails to take the practice of design seriously.  While prototyping — and particularly rapid prototyping — is emphasized there is little attention to the manner in which that object is crafted. There are no standards of practice for design thinking and the myriad settings in which it could be applied — everything from business to education to the military to healthcare — indicate that there is unlikely to be a single model that fits. But should there be some form of standards?

While design thinking encourages prototyping there is remarkably little in the literature on the elements of design that focus on the made product. Unlike design where there is at least some sense of what makes a product good or not, there are no standards for what ought to emerge from design thinking. Dieter Rams, among the most vocal critics of the term design thinking, has written 10 principles for good design that can be applied to a designed product. These principles include a focus on innovation, sustainability, aesthetics, and usability.

These principles can be debated, but they at least offer something others can comment on or use as foil for critique. Design thinking lacks the same correlate. Is that a good (or necessary) thing?

Designing for process and outcome

Unlike design itself, design thinking is not tied to a particular product profile; it can be used to create physical products as easily as policies and programs. Design thinking is a process that is centred largely on complex, ambiguous problems where success has no pre-defined outcome and the journey has no set pathway. It is for this reason that concepts like best practices are inappropriate for use in design thinking and complex problem solving. Design thinking offers a great deal of conceptual freedom without the pressure to produce a specific outcome that might be proscribed by a design brief.

Yet, design thinking is not design. Certainly many designers draw on design thinking in their work, but there is no requirement to create products using that way of approaching design problems. Likewise, there is little demand for design thinking to produce products that would fit what Dieter Rams suggests are hallmark features of good design. Indeed, we can use design thinking to create many possible futures without a requirement to actually manifest any of them.

Design requires an outcome and one that can be judged by a client (or customer or user or donor) as satisfactory, exemplary or otherwise. While what is considered ‘good design’ might be debated, there is little debate that if a client does not like what is produced that product it is a failure on some level*. Yet, if design thinking produces a product (a design?), what is the source of the excellence or failure? And does it matter if anything is produced at all?

Herein lies a fundamental dilemma of design and design thinking: how do we know when we are doing good or great work?

Can we have good design thinking and poor design making?

The case of the military

Roger Martin, writing in Design Observer, highlighted how design thinking was being applied to the US Army through the adaptation of its Field Operations Manual. This new version was based on principles of complexity science and systems thinking, which encourage adaptive, responsive unit actions rather than relying solely on top-down directives. It was an innovative step and design thinking helped contribute to the development of this new Field Manual.

On discussing the process of developing the new manual (FM-05) Martin writes:

In the end, FM5-0 defines design as “a methodology for applying critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe complex, ill-structured problems and develop approaches to solve them” (Page 3.1), which is a pretty good definition of design. Ancker and Flynn go on to argue that design “underpins the exercise of battle command within the operations process, guiding the iterative and often cyclic application of understanding, visualizing, and describing” and that it should be “practiced continuously throughout the operations process.” (p. 15-16)

The manual’s development involved design thinking and the process in which it is enacted is based on applying design thinking to field operations. As unseemly as it may be to some, the US Army’s application of design thinking is notable and something that can be learned from. But what is the outcome?

Does a design thinking soldier become better at killing their enemy? Or does their empathy for the situation — their colleagues, opponents and neutral parties — increase their sensitivities to the multiplicities of combat and treat it as a wicked problem? What is the outcome in which design thinking is contributing to and how can that be evaluated in its myriad consequences intended or otherwise? In the case of the US Army it might not be so clear.


One of terms conspicuously absent from the dialogue on design thinking is craft. In a series of interviews with professionals doing design thinking it was noted that those trained as designers — makers — often referred to ‘craft’ and ‘materials’ in describing design thinking. Those who were not designers, did not**. No assessment can be made about the quality of the design thinking that each participant did (that was out of scope of the study), but it is interesting to note how concepts traditionally associated with making — craft and materials and studios — do not have much parallel discussion in design thinking.

Should they?

One reason to consider craft is that it can be assessed with at least some independence. There is an ability to judge the quality of materials and the product integrity associated with a designed object according to some standards that can be applied somewhat consistently — if imperfectly — from reviewer to reviewer. For programs and policies, this could be done by looking at research evidence or through developmental evaluation of those products. Developmental design, an approach I’ve written about before, could be the means in which evaluation data, rapid prototyping, design excellence and evidence could come together to potentially create more robust design thinking products.

We have little correlates with design thinking assessment.

The danger with looking at evaluation and design thinking is falling into the trap of devising and applying rigid metrics, best practices and the like to domains of complexity (and where design thinking resides) where they tend to fail catastrophically. Yet, there is an equal danger that by not aspiring to vision what great design thinking looks like we produce results that not only fail (which is often a necessary and positive step in innovation if there is learning from it), but are true failures in the sense that they don’t produce excellent products. It is indeed possible to create highly collaborative, design thinking-inspired programs, policies and products that are dull, ineffective and uninspiring.

Where we go and how we get there is a problem for design and design thinking. Applying them both to each other might be a way to create the very products we seek.

* It is interesting to note that Finnish designer Alvar Aalto’s 1933 three-legged children’s stool has been considered both a design flop from a technical standpoint (it’s unstable given its three legs) and one of the biggest commercial successes for Artek, its manufacturer.

** The analysis of the findings of the project are still ongoing. Updates and results will be published on the Design Thinking Foundations project site in the coming months, where this post will be re-published.

art & designbusinessdesign thinkingsocial systemssystems thinking

Fashionably Thinking About Systems and Consumption

Denim Fashion

In April 2013 the world was horrified to learn that more than one thousand people were killed in a Bangladeshi factory used to make largely low-priced clothes for Western fashion houses. As the stories of sadness, loss and survival emerged from that rubble so too did cries of indignation and disgust from human rights groups, business leaders, and the media about the true cost of cheap, fast fashion.

Some of this push has to do with greater social demands for “more of everything” .

We can speed up our supply chains and reduce the design-to-line time while producing desirable goods cheaply so why don’t we? When it is more convenient to get something new than take something old and refurbish it, why not do it?

The Cost of Fast and Cheap Fashion

This mindset of fast and cheap has enormous costs that are often hidden from view. Speaking about his own field of clothing manufacturing, Flint & Tinder CEO Jake Bronstein wrote in his company’s blog about the Bangladesh incident that killed more than 1100 workers . His words (caps in original) were:


Bronstein has a stake in this game. His company is employing a business model that is centred on producing goods that last a long time, not ‘fast fashion’, even when the concept of an $8 T-shirt dominates the mass market. His company sells only a handful of products to begin with (rather than succumbing to fast fashion trends), are made in the United States in their entirety and meant to outlast their competitors, not just outsell them. This business model looks to create sustainable fashion, not fast fashion, which is more about disposable, quick response designs than durable products.

Bronstein makes a strong point and is trying to do something about it by creating an alternative option for consumers. There is a flourishing make-it-yourself/make-it-local market and movement that can be seen from Etsy through to the return of crafting and the growing popularity of the maker culture as seen in enormous events like the Maker Faires. This is changing the market landscape.

The Complexity of Change

At the same time there are also many myths about what the true cost of our choices are. Writing in the Huffington Post (Canadian Edition), Anne Theriault explores these in some depth pointing to the often classist, simplistic ways these issues get defined in talk about global manufacturing. Theriault challenges the idea that global outsourcing is all problematic, pointing to the jobs that are created often at relatively high standards for each region (and how there are relatively few others available), the comparable absence of affordable clothing selections for many of our poorest citizens at home, and the lack of manufacturing capacity in North America to provide alternative options for those on small budgets.

Theriault is not specifically defending globalization and off-shoring manufacturing, instead pointing out that simply stopping production in places like Bangladesh isn’t as simple as it looks without harmful consequences at home and abroad. The systems created to sustain the current models of economy, consumption, and product innovation are not easily halted without serious ramifications across the globe.

However, these models are also not sustainable. This is a hallmark wicked problem in the short term, but unlike true wicked problems this is one that can be potentially designed for change in the long term.

Designing Fashionable Change

Fashion is largely about design and thus its appropriate that design thinking might be useful in bringing about change in the way that the fashion industry operates (and how consumers support that industry).

Design thinking is employed in three key phases: problem finding, problem framing and problem solving*. We have a problem, that much is clear. But what is the frame of the problem? As both Jake Bronstein and Anne Theriault point out, fashion is about people before products to different ends. Neither highlighted aesthetics and identity when speaking about fashion; they spoke about livelihoods and values. They have framed the issue as one about human wellbeing and social and economic sustainability.

If that is the frame we start from, the next phase is to design a system that supports this expression of values. I surmise that wellbeing is about aesthetics and identity as much as the values behind it, even if we like to imagine we are above being pushed by such things (decades and volumes of social psychology and marketing research proves the point).

In a complex system it is more important than ever to distinguish oneself through markers and fashion is one of many that can do this. It’s not a surprise that complex societies with high levels of diversity are where the seeds of fashion emerged. It’s not just that fashion could emerge through this intersection of ideas, its that it necessarily had to.

If we accept the premise that fashion is useful and necessary, that it brings considerable social and economic benefit, but that the costs related to fast fashion and consumption are intimately tied to these benefits we can start to imagine new ways to design a system that supports personal expression, creativity, environmental sustainability, and social benefit simultaneously. This is only likely to happen once there is an embrace of the two sides of the current fashion industry.

Unfreezing the Mindset and Business Model

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin‘s planned model of change has been applied to complexity and found to be a useful way of viewing these kinds of issues. The planned component to change might seem at first seem at odds with complexity, but is very much at home with design.  From a design perspective, Lewin’s concept of ‘unfreezing’ a mindset around a problem opens up possibilities to create a new one in its place. The current mindset is set against tensions related to cost, employment, supply chain management, sustainability, and ethics.

Unfreezing this mindset opens up the possibilities of seeing spaces for synchrony. It also creates new space for business model innovation.

Bronstein’s recent initiative with Flint and Tinder to create the 10-year hoodie through Kickstarter is one result of unfreezing an innovation development model and creating a new market for a product that is normally designed to last far less than 10 years.

Crowd Supply is another venue that has sought to use values, quality, and local production as a driver of new product development by creating a hybrid funding model that marries Kickstarter with a conventional online retailer. The recently funded Wild Park Place jacket and Freelance backpack are some of the early funded fashion projects launched through this platform.

Another model is being implemented by denim manufacturers Gustin, who have taken a similar approach of crowd-funding production, but on a model-by-model basis within their product line. Gustin recognized that there was a lot of waste and costs to the traditional retail model of selling clothes to resellers and having to supply them with a set group of sizes and colours, only to have some returned, the costs raised, and much wasted. Now they take orders for specific pairs of jeans in batches, which allows them to fit somewhere between custom tailoring (one person, one product) and mass market (thousands of people, many products), reducing waste and lowering costs.

None of these are perfect (and its likely no model can be), but they all change the way the business model is set and offer some examples of ways to change the system as a whole, piece by piece. What makes these promising from a systems perspective is that these models can easily be replicated globally or potentially scaled up. There could be an Asian Crowd Supply, or a clothing maker in South America who could do the same thing. Crowd Supply is introducing new projects each month and denim maker Gustin has seen its runs increase over time as some evidence of the success of these models.

These do not fully address consumption — which is a big systems issue for our planet — but as large companies like Patagonia have shown, it is possible to create demand for products that can be repurposed, re-imagined, and redesigned to be less harmful to the environment, sustainable, high quality and economically rewarding. These start-ups are adding to that field.

Design is not just about fashion, it is about making sustainable, healthy, and ethical business models fashionable.


* These conventional phrases are somewhat misleading when dealing with complex phenomenon as problems are often not solved, but rather addressed in a manner that provides some optimal option for action that minimizes unwarranted negative side effects.

Image source from Pinterest; owner unknown.

design thinkinginnovationpsychology

Innovation, Design Thinking and the Folly of Fads

Designing ideas for flight

Innovation is at once everywhere and elusive. Understanding what it really is, how to inspire it, and how to avoid losing its real value in the hype might be the biggest and most ironic challenge for innovators yet. 

Psychologist, creativity researcher and systems thinker Keith Sawyer recently asked the question: Is innovation just a washed up trend? To support this thesis, he presents the following:

Evidence: The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday May 23, 2012) argues that the term “innovation” is now so widely used, it doesn’t really mean anything anymore–other than a very general notion of “change.” Longtime WSJ reporter Leslie Kwoh says “Businesses throw around the term to show they’re on the cutting edge….But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating.” And then she gives the biggest insult you can give to a trendy business term, in my opinion: she compares the word “innovation” to the washed-up buzzword “synergy.” Ouch, that hurts!

This makes a point. It’s hard not to question the term seeing that it’s almost everywhere. Earlier in the blog he points to how Bruce Nussbaum eventually added an entire section to Business Week on Innovation and Design to match the demand for news on both of those topics. But as Nussbaum himself has written about the term design thinking, the term innovation may also be on shaking ground from over or poor use. Ironically, this all comes at the time when we need what innovation stands for more than ever and the creative problem framing and solving tools that comes with design thinking.

What’s in a name?

The term innovation is generally described as the act of introducing something to new to create positive value. Design is the act of creating something with intent to produce value. It is no surprise that these two concepts go together so well. Design thinking is about applying conscious thought to the act of creating things those products, services, and policies that have value — it is about contemplation and action related to making things that we want and need. These are loose amalgams of definitions that I’ve come across in my research and reading over the past year in support of the Design Thinking Foundations project and capture much of what these words mean explicitly.

However, implicit in this language is a whole other set of values, prejudices and attitudes that extend the concepts beyond the explicit language into something cultural. One of the byproducts of this is found in overuse or adherence to the hype cycle. Now everything is innovative, when really it shouldn’t be. Sometimes what we are doing is working just fine and the need to create something new is unnecessary.

Yet, as change accelerates in many fields and complexity increases, the need to adapt and develop resilience will increase along with it as will the need to innovate in spaces where innovation is not a familiar term. It may not be needed everywhere, but it will be needed in more places more often with increasing urgency as the dynamic complexity of the worlds we’ve created increases. Even keeping things constant will require some adaptation.

To quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s bookThe Leopard:  ”If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

What happens next?

But what if Keith Sawyer’s speculation is right and the term innovation is on the way out? What happens next? In response to his concerns about design thinking becoming a shadow of itself in the hands of organizations and practitioners who see it as a quick fix or a blunt instrument, Bruce Nussbaum has sought to explore and further develop a concept called creative intelligence. Having spoken to Nussbaum personally about this, I got the sense that his concerns were less that design thinking itself was problematic, but that the concept had reached a stasis in its application that no longer reflected the dynamic force it once did when he first championed it at Business Week.

It’s hard not to see parallels to innovation. While I agree with Nussbaum’s charge at what design thinking has become, I also don’t think it’s a lost concept (see the debate on the Design Thinking LinkedIn group to see evidence of this). I also think creative intelligence focuses on something different, not replaces design thinking. (Besides, we still have systems thinking, critical thinking and other forms of problem conceptualizing that have endured much debate). The problem is that it is far easier to talk about something than do it and talking too much can burn something out to the ears. Hence the reason catch-phrases never last long. Innovation is at risk and so, too, is design thinking.

Is this adaptive language use or a case of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater?

If not innovation (and design thinking), then what?

The concern with throwing these terms out is that much of what passes for judgement on their worth is based on little evidence of effect. While innovation thankfully has enjoyed much research, design thinking lacks much empirical examples. However, in both cases, when the terms are most often written about or discussed in the media and popular social discourse it is rarely about evidence and nearly always on rhetoric. I am guilty of this, too. I often tweet or refer people to articles from blogs like Fast Company and FastCo Design that write heavily on design and innovation, yet present few empirical studies and lots of opinion.

To this, I point to today’s HBR Working Knowledge update from five scholars who have done much research on innovation and summarize their points quite well, including the idea that not all of us can or will be innovators (from Clayton Christensen).

What is the answer? Is it time to move on or shall we try to invigorate the discussion of concepts like innovation and design thinking with dialogue, evidence and (self-referentially) some innovation and design thinking to advance not only the discourse on these topics, but also their adoption, study and adaptation to help us tackle the complex, wicked and pervasive problems that seem to be growing in our world each day.

Photo: Make Art Not War by v_imagine-l used under Creative Commons Licence from Deviant Art


43 Steps to a Well-Prepared Design Strategist (via the design strategist)

I stumbled upon this list of “to-dos” and related resources aimed at preparing someone to serve as a design strategist. What I like about the post is the list of resources linked and embedded within. It’s not designed (no pun intended) to be prescriptive, but as a series of things to ponder as one moves into the field. Having engaged in this before, I wished I’d considered a few of these before starting out.

I came across this post thanks to the Design Thinkers group on LinkedIn, which has shown itself to be quite active and engaged.

43 Steps to a Well-Prepared Design Strategist You’re asked to serve as a design strategist in an innovation initiative at a large corporation. They’ve asked you to come in on Monday for a get-to-know-you session and an ideation over lunch. Are you ready? Here are some questions to ask yourself as you prepare for this new opportunity to let your design strategy talents shine. Here, as well, are some suggestions to help keep your saw sharp and your thinking sharper. Not in any order – skim the … Read More

via the design strategist