Hostile organisation design

The Big Issue of 13 February 2018, has an article on hostile design.  It highlights ‘the use of architecture that excludes people or has a negative effect on public spaces.’  For example, designing park benches in such a way that people can’t lie down on them.

A couple of days later I read about the ‘ironing board’ seats on new UK trains which have ‘prompted complaints over hard seats, upright backs and low arm rests. One passenger complained of suffering from “numb bum” on the trains.’

The two examples are different, but in the same ball park, the park bench design is intentionally hostile  (see a debate on it here),  whilst the hard seats are probably thoughtlessly hostile (or designed to a cost spec which didn’t allow for more than the bare minimum).

Then I read Leandro Herrero’s daily thought on the tyranny of metrics where he quotes the blurb from Jerry Muller’s book on the topic.  I haven’t yet read the book, but I have now read a review of it, which concludes:

‘Many of us have the vague sense that metrics are leading us astray, stripping away context, devaluing subtle human judgement, and rewarding those who know how to play the system. Muller’s book crisply explains where this fashion came from, why it can be so counterproductive and why we don’t learn.’

(I’ve also ordered the book from my excellent public library).

Organisational metrics are often both intentionally and thoughtlessly hostile.  Take, for example a common call centre operatives performance metric ‘average handle time’ i.e. ‘the total average duration of a single call, including hold time, talk time and the follow-up or admin tasks related to that call.’ Its intentional hostile impact is to penalize reps who are efficient but may also take longer calls to help customers through complex problems.  Its thoughtless hostility lies in the fact that ‘it doesn’t tie back customer retention, growth or any other meaningful key performance indicator’ but people are held to it regardless.

Similar metrics rule doctors’ lives and the book Admissions, by Henry Marsh that I read earlier this year is awash with examples of what I am now beginning to think of as hostile organization design – in my definition this covers both intentional and thoughtless hostility.

Having sensitised myself to the hostile design concept, I’m now wondering how useful it is in practice.  Should organisation designers be alerted to hostile design via some equivalence of the ‘empathy suits’ that Ford vehicle engineers and designers put on to help them actually experience what it’s like to be someone aging, or pregnant, or drunk, and trying to drive a car.

The experience of ‘being’ such a user helps them (Ford engineers) design and build vehicles with special needs and limitations in mind, thus going some way to making vehicles easy and pleasant to use regardless of user.   They really do have the third age suit – similar to the MIT AGNES one – and also  the pregnancy suit, and the drugged and drunk suit.

As we design – and I’m including organisation designers, their sponsors and all the organisation’s leaders here – we could try out variations on the ‘employee empathy suit’.  Ones that spring to mind are the ‘pay differential’ suit,  as we design pay systems,  or the 9-box grid suit as we design performance management systems, or the gender bias in recruitment and talent management suit  as we design those systems.

Experiencing life through those suits would highlight what makes systems, processes, policies, and measures employee/customer friendly, and what makes them hostile.

Going back to hostile design/architecture, it is criticised for its manifestation ‘in the form of “silent agents” that take care of behaviour in public space, without the explicit presence of authorities’ or intervention of other humans.  Thus an anti-sticker sheath or anti-graffiti paint stops street voices.

Using physical design to shape behaviour is very similar to the design ‘nudges’ we are getting from various organisations as we go about our daily lives.   The average handle time mentioned earlier is an example.  Both evoke similar concerns that although design and behavioural nudging can be problematic, in some circumstances it can be useful.

Distinguishing between ‘hostility’ and ‘friendliness’ in design – whether physical or organisational design calls for reflective, ethical consideration.  One ethicist notes that ‘In fact the permissibility of a nudge derives from whether it is being used in an ethically acceptable way, something that can only be explored on an individual basis.  … nudges are justified if they maximise future liberty. Either way the nudging itself is not inherently problematic.’

This notion of differentiating between ‘hostile’ and ‘friendly’ design from an ethical perspective requires not only empathising with the users of the design but also quality collective debate and individual deliberation on the implications and consequences of the design.  These all, I think, are largely missing from organisation design discussions and it is time we brought it into our practice.

What’s your view on hostile design?  Let me know.

Image: Archisuits

Archisuit, designed by Sarah Ross, consists of an edition of four leisure jogging suits made for specific architectural structures in Los Angeles. The suits include the negative space of the structures and allow a wearer to fit into, or onto, structures designed to deny them.

One thought on “Hostile organisation design”

  1. Thanks Naomi, cheers to wearing empathy suits while engaged in high quality individual and collective thinking and decision making

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