Design a Solution

When design problems arise, hold back your fight-or-flight response and craft a deliberate, thoughtful plan.

Human evolution has probably honed a survival instinct for making quick decisions. Prehistoric humans who engaged in slow, thoughtful problem solving probably didn't survive encounters with saber-toothed tigers, giving an evolutionary advantage to quick problem solvers.

Usually, decisive action serves us well; a pretty good decision that is made quickly is generally worth a lot more than a great decision made slowly. Most of us, however, regularly face design problems -- a particular class of problems for which quick, decisive action is ill-advised. Three characteristics mark design problems: First, they tend to be posed ambiguously. Second, the product of designing is generally a plan and not a direct action. Third, the consequences of that plan are likely to persist for a very long time. Because of the long-range consequences, substantial investment in getting the plan right is justified. And quick, decisive action can result in chronic underperformance.

Most of us think of design as involving physical objects like buildings, products, or graphics. But nonphysical design problems pervade managerial life. Here are three design problems that I have faced recently:

1. How can we at Nova Cruz Products facilitate the development of a passionate, interactive community among our customers?

2. How can we deliver a customized product directly to our customers without alienating our dealers?

3. How can we build a great brand with a small-company budget?

In these cases, the resulting designs will most likely be plans for human actions and information flows -- and not for physical artifacts.

The design problems that pervade today's economy are likely to become even more prominent within the next decade, as disruptions caused by globalization and information technology create opportunities to reconfigure companies' supply chains, organizations, and communications networks. People who develop proficiency at design will excel in that evolving environment.

Most good designers I know have honed two basic skills: They are adept at converting poorly structured expressions of need into well-formed problems. They ask lots of questions. They peel back layers of causality. They demand precision in problem definition. When asked how we can build a great brand, they ask (sometimes annoyingly) in response, "What purpose do brands serve in the marketplace? What characteristics of a brand would constitute greatness? What ends do we wish to achieve with this great brand? How would we know if we had built a great brand?"

Good designers relentlessly generate lots of ideas and open-mindedly consider alternative solutions. At no time are good designers frightened to entertain a crazy, competing, or uncomfortable idea. And when posed the brand problem, they ask questions like "How did Patagonia build their brand?" and even "How do cults develop followers?" Once they have a list of dozens or hundreds of possible mechanisms, they will consider which subset is most likely to form a coherent, effective plan.

Managers cannot be designers all the time. For most problems, a bias for quick action is optimal, and good design is not quick. However, when facing poorly structured problems with long-term consequences, the evolutionary tendency to act quickly must be suppressed long enough to understand the core problem, to consider alternatives thoroughly, and to formulate a coherent plan.

Karl Ulrich (karl@novacruz.com) is the CEO of Nova Cruz Products. Ulrich is on leave from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches product development.

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