A Pattern Language

I just started to read A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander that someone gave me for my birthday. My friend knew I was interested in it because he looked at my Amazon wish list – which made me wonder whether Santa now looks at Amazon wish lists rather than at notes floated up chimneys. The book was on my list because now that I'm moving in architectural circles I find that it's a book frequently mentioned, and I was curious about seeing if Alexander's pattern language of the physical architectural could translate to organizing the work systems, processes, and behaviors that are stuff of the organization design as I define it – "arranging how to do the work necessary to achieve a business purpose and strategy".

Myriad companies traditionally associated with architecture, product design, and facilities layout, are entering the field of organization behavior, organization development, change management, and organization design as I know it – are finding. Tim Brown of IDEO (a global design firm) in his Fast Company article Strategy by Design, notes that "In order to do a better job of developing, communicating, and pursuing a strategy, you need to learn to think like a designer." Helpfully he offers his five-point plan on this:

Hit the Streets: Any real-world strategy starts with having fresh, original insights about your market and your customers.

Recruit T-Shaped People: They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That's what you're after at this point — patterns that yield ideas.

Build to Think: Once you spot a promising idea, you build it. The prototype is typically a drawing, model, or film that describes a product, system, or service. .. The goal isn't to create a close approximation of the finished product or process; the goal is to elicit feedback that helps us work through the problem we're trying to solve.

The Prototype Tells a Story: Prototyping is simultaneously an evaluative process — it generates feedback and enables you to make midflight corrections — and a storytelling process. It's a way of visually and viscerally describing your strategy.

Design Is Never Done: Even after you've rolled out your new product, service, or process, you're just getting started. In almost every case, you move on to the next version, which is going to be better because you've had more time to think about it.

What's interesting is that I see architecture and design firms racing to recruit anthropologists, ethnographers, organizational psychologists, and similar, collectively called "Human Factors" experts to work on client projects. But I don't see these design firms advertising for human resource consultants to do this work. Nor do I see HR Departments racing to employ architects and designers to help them apply design thinking to their organizations issues and challenges. But they should.

Why? Because there is a spiraling confluence of physical space, technology, business processes, and the way people work. One of the projects I am working on has been battling uphill using traditional 'change management' approaches to increase mobile working, desk sharing, and collaborative exchanges. We want to do this for a number of purposes, to:

• Reduce duplication and overlap of service provision
 Drive service innovation and performance improvements
 Build capacity for change within the organization
 Develop organizational flexibility and agility
 Ensure a collaborative/team based approach
 Reduce corporate real estate footprint
 Meet sustainability targets

'Hitting the streets' we realized we could achieve the various purposes by associating with a different language – that of reducing our organization's energy use. We're now 'building to think' roping in our sustainability experts, our measurement guys, and our IT people, to design the pattern that in Alexander's words "[together] create a coherent picture of an entire region, with the power to generate such regions in a million forms, with infinite variety in all the details."

What this means in practice is that we'll have an approach to energy reduction that offers business units the ability to reduce their energy use in the way that makes sense to them using the patterns that are on offer in any combination they please. So we're now looking within the organization for the T-shaped people who can work with the business units to choose and assemble, and work with the patterns.

Our next task will be to help with the prototypes and ensure that they 'tell a story'. Again Alexander offers insights he describes 'a rough procedure by which you can choose a language for your own project, first by taking patterns from this language … and then by adding patterns of your own'. This is precisely the tack we will be taking on the project.

Finally we'll be regularly ramping up the energy reduction goals proving the point that 'design is never done' (something that people who tinker with the organization chart can't seem to grasp). Alexander, in his book begins with towns, pointing out that "These patterns can never be designed or built in one fell swoop – but patient piecemeal growth, designed in such a way that every individual act is always helping to create or generate this larger global patterns [that] will, slowly and surely, over the years, make a community." And in keeping with values of participation and involvement – these, one hopes inherent in well managed organizations – notes that small groups shape their corner of the world. The large patterns cannot be created by "centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans."

So we have it. Five design principles and a concept of a pattern language. A different tack for us and one that is already bringing ripples of excitement and interest, and a far cry from the apathy we've experienced from conventional change management and organization design approaches.