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Smart Thoughts on Smart Design

It's rare that I find something of interest in a business school alumni magazine. But there's a remarkably thoughtful essay on design in the latest issue of the University of Toronto's School of Management alumni mag. It's written, no less, by the dean of the Rotman School of Management, Roger Martin. He convincingly argues that business people don't just need to understand designers better — they need to become designers.

Writes Martin: "They need to think and work like designers, have attitudes like designers, and learn to evaluate each oher as designers do. Most companies' top managers will tell you that they have spent the bulk of their time over the last decade on improvement. Now it's no longer enough to get better; you have to 'get different.'"

So what does Martin suggest? As design skills and business skills converge, here's what we need to consider. "The skill of design, at its core, is the ability to reach into the mystery of some seemingly intractable problem—whether it's a problem of product design, architectural design, or systems design—and apply the creativity, innovation and mastery necessary to convert the mystery to a heuristic—a way of knowing and understanding...

"Traditional firms will have to start looking much more like design shops on a number of important dimensions...Whereas traditional firms organize around ongoing tasks and permanent assignments, in design shops, work flows around projects with defined terms. The source of status in traditional firms is 'managing big budgets and large staffs,' but in design shops, it derives from building a track record of finding solutions to 'wicked problems'—solving tough mysteries with elegant solutions. Whereas the style of work in traditional firms involves defined roles and seeking the perfect answer, design firms feature extensive collaboration, 'charettes' (focused brainstorming sessions), and constant dialogue with clients.

"When it comes to innovation, business has much to learn from design. The philosophy in design shops is, 'try it, prototype it, and improve it.' Designers learn by doing. The style of thinking in traditional firms is largely inductive—proving that something actually operates—and deductive—proving that something must be. Design shops adds abductive reasoning to the fray—which involves suggesting that something may be, and reaching out to explore it."

Makes great sense to me.

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