Designing with systems: design is attitude

At the start of the year I mentioned that some of blogs in the coming months would be written by members of the group working with me on the third edtion of the book I’m writing. This is the first of these, written by Milan Guenther, a co-founder of Intersection Group, a not for profit association dedicated to helping people create better enterprises.

This blog post relates to Chapter 2 of the upcoming 3rd edition of The Economist Guide to Organisation Design, find an excerpt here. I, Milan Guenther, am part of the team of reviewers.

“Enterprise Architecture is the issue of the century”, were the words of John Zachman, the “founding father” of the field. What did he mean?

In his seminal 1998 paper, he described how any enterprise, any ambitious human endeavour, is in need of architecture and engineering to accommodate today’s extreme complexity and rate of change. And this is obviously the case today: all around us, we see humanity’s need to establish well organised agency at scale

Just think of the pandemic and who we count on handling it: government institutions, healthcare providers, insurance and pharma companies. To tackle such an immense challenge, they need to be architected, designed, engineered, or better: co-created so that they are fit for purpose and actually deliver treatment, vaccines or financial support. There is no short supply of similar big challenges to look into.

Some time back, my design school PBSA Düsseldorf published a book about their famous alumni and typographer Helmut Schmid, titled Gestaltung ist Haltung, or design is attitude. The point he made when coining this quote: design always represents an idealised future, and it is up to us to take a stance and define what future we would like to see.

Designers of all types set out to do just that. Create better products, services, businesses, strategies and organisations: the field evolved from crafting useful things to designing better outcomes. This inevitably challenges us to redesign the enterprise itself, its organisation and operations to actually deliver on such a promise. We need to design from the experiences we wish to reshape back to the necessary changes in the systems that make them happen.

In chapter two of her upcoming book edition, Naomi suggests that one way of dealing with enterprises, their organisation and their interplay, is thinking in systems. Both a rich and diverse tradition and a loaded term, the abstraction of all those moving parts to a set of systems expressed as boundaries, relations and interactions can help us understand the emerging behaviour. To do so we need to apply this thinking to a representation of the reality we want to change, or in other words create a model of this reality.

I first encountered Naomi’s thinking about this when my friend Sally Bean pointed me to her blog post on metaphors we use for Organisation Design. When dealing with companies, institutions or similar organisations, we apply an analogy that makes it easier to grasp. Naomi included an example that pictures the enterprise as a human body we can treat and heal. Other common models try to describe it as a machine to be engineered and optimised for performance, or even a sort of swamp supporting many competing lifeforms (referred to as an ecosystem). 

More than simply a way to explain or describe what’s going on inside or around an enterprise, these models shape the way we think about the enterprise, how it is organised and goes about its business. Even when consciously applying systems thinking principles, such a model provides us with a way to understand and talk about this non-tangible, dynamic thing we are supposed to design.

The models we use determine to a large degree if we will be successful in our attempt to design better organisations. It makes a huge difference if you see the enterprise as a set of numbers in a spreadsheet, as a portfolio of projects and initiatives, as a group of people trying to achieve something together, as a collection of machines and processes to be automated, or as a set of products and services delivered to customers.

In my experience, these models correspond to the views of typical functions and their teams – think Marketing, HR, IT or Innovation. They originate from different traditions, and correspond to prevalent metaphors present in these teams. They also stem from the simple fact that different actors are concerned with different things, so it seems natural to focus on those and ignore others. These filters are what enable us to design in the first place:

“(…) it is not possible or feasible to represent everything about an entity (in our case a product, system, or sub-system) in a single encapsulated description. When you are designing a takeaway coffee cup for example, you are interested in how well it holds liquid—it is unlikely that you are concerned about the permittivity of the material to light.” From A Function-Behaviour-Structure design methodology for adaptive production systems

In Organisation Design however, this is known to create some big challenges. The infamous silos, inflexible and rigid bureaucracy, dysfunctional customer relationships or a lack of team engagement are not cause but symptom. They can be linked to the limits of the underlying model people applied when designing and managing the organisation. Consequently, Naomi presents a wide choice of potential models to choose from, from management classics to new approaches of self-organisation. What models to use depends on the context, and not least personal preferences, experiences and appeal to the designer.

This brings us back to the original challenge: designing enterprises and their organisation in a way that they are fit for purpose and deliver value. What perspective, what model, or their combination, will help you get to this – together with your co-creators, in the given context? That is the designer’s greatest challenge and biggest opportunity. A quote by George Box in the beginning of this chapter says: “All models are wrong but some are useful”. Instead of presenting another attempt at the ultimate model, it is up to the designer to choose and apply them in their environment. True for something as intangible and abstract as an organisation, it applies to any design practice.

Just as product, service or fashion design, Organisation Design is a deliberate creative act. Systems thinking and models might give us the elements to consider or useful perspectives to apply, but won’t solve that task for us. What’s more: design is always incomplete, never captures or describes the entire system we want to change. This requires multiple models to guide the change required, and interaction with the system to be changed. Naomi explains this using the story of a merger between two councils in the UK, effectively blending and hacking several models and viewpoints.

To do so, we need to 

  • be comfortable with many incomplete models, 
  • acknowledge the fact that organisations are co-created by teams organising themselves to achieve something, 
  • seek external inspiration, experiment and validate, and 
  • treat this as an open inquiry into the future. 

More important than a neutral or correct model is one that helps you get through this process, develop your personal attitude, and chart a way forward together. What is a well designed organisation? This needs to be figured out by those who can imagine the future.


John Zachman: The Issue is the Enterprise

Helmut Schmid: Gestaltung ist Haltung

Len Fehskens: Designing Ambitious Endeavours 

Naomi Stanford on metaphors

David Sanderson, Jack C. Chaplin & Svetan Ratchev: FBS Ontology

Enterprise Design Patterns