Design as a strategy of organisational reconfiguration

James Box supported Management by Design (MxD) in exploring design as a method. The following text is based on the workshop with James and students and teachers from MxD.

As a design practitioner and consultant, James has been thinking about design as a “learnable, repeatable, scalable” process (Box, 2020), that organisations can adopt in order to stay viable, and to even thrive on the challenges of changing conditions.

Design has long been held responsible for the novel and the innovative and it has been romanticised as the skill of genius, or as a special leadership skill. However, aspects of serendipity and practical tinkering are also part of the characterisation of design. Just how design really works remains mysterious (Kolko, 2011).

In his talk on “Venture design”, James describes design as a toolkit for successful innovation by organisations. Venture Design is a method which he uses in design practice. It combines design & entrepreneurship to quickly identify and capture viable market opportunities (Box, 2020). It leans on several established areas of design – Design thinking, Lean Startup, Agile Product Development. As a method it seeks to achieve “preferable futures” by design.

Design as a reconfigurable posture

James refers to Rita McGrath, who writes on “transient advantage” as the modern, fleeting remains of what was formerly called “competitive advantage” in organisational strategy. Because of uncertain societal and environmental factors, she argues, it is not possible anymore to stick to a strategy that is adopted once and then may lead to continued successful initiatives. Instead, it is necessary to work with “transience" and to create an organisational approach that systematically reacts to “amorphous” conditions.

“Often, the very success of the initiative spawns competition, weakening the advantage. So the firm has to reconfigure what it’s doing to keep the advantage fresh. For reconfigurations, a firm needs people who aren’t afraid to radically rethink business models or resources.” (McGrath, 2013)

This quote emphasises “reconfiguration” as an important concept in dealing with change. If changing conditions require continuously adapted responses, the ability to reconfigure oneself, alongside the changing conditions, is the key to adapting successfully. Reconfiguration is the ongoing renewing of one’s position in relation to new conditions.

There is an opportunity to think of change as an ongoing condition of an organisation. Change is a permanent state. Design would then be the posture to adopt as an organisation in order to remain reconfigurable. As requirements change, with design as a posture, the organisation can be reconfigured. Innovative postures are reconfigurable - they are responsive to changing conditions.

Design provocations as the material of innovation

Through a reconfigurable posture, the organisation can remain open for change and innovation. But how to meaningfully participate in reconfiguring change? James uses concepts, drawings, or the business model canvas as “provocations for preferable futures” (Box, 2020). These provocations are representations of innovative ideas which invoke change. It is not unusual to use conceptual materials in design innovation. But here these materials are not treated as a mere ‘representation’ of the innovation, like a well-defined production plan, but it is understood as the idea-generating tool itself. The conceptual provocation is the active impulse for innovation within the reconfiguring process unfolding, in which the organisation itself is reconfigured and changed. “Provocations for preferable futures” are not the representations of innovation, but the very material that makes innovation.

The nature of innovating that this workshop inspires, uses the material of provocations and the posture of reconfiguration in order to be and stay innovative as an organisation.

References

Box, James. (2020). Venture Design, Workshop MxD @ New Design University.
Kolko, Jon. (2011). Exposing the Magic of Design. New York: Oxford University Press.
McGrath, Rita. (2013). Transient Advantage, https://hbr.org /2013/06/transient-advantage.