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Managing As Designing: A Worthwhile Discovery

While I cannot quite recall where I came across it, most likely in one of the two dozen or so design-oriented blogs that I follow, I recently discovered the book Managing as Designing. First published in 2004, it was edited by Richard Boland and Fred Collopy, two faculty members at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. The book itself is the product of a Managing as Design Seminar that took place at the then recently completed Peter B. Lewis Building, home of the Weatherhead School. What triggered the seminar, book, and even a DVD about the seminar, was Boland’s experience working with Frank O. Gehry on the design and construction of the Lewis Building. In the first chapter, Boland and Collopy write:

During the four and one-half years of working with Gehry Partners on the planning, design and construction of the Lewis Building, we experienced an approach to problem solving that is quite different from our own, from that of the managers we study, and from what we teach our students. We refer to this mind-set and approach to problem solving as a “design attitude”…What is needed in managment practice and education today is the development of a “design attitude” which goes beyond default solutions in creating new possibilities for the future.

As you read this chapter you can feel how impressed Boland and Collopy were with what they were learning about the design attitude from Gehry and his associates. It had such a profound impact on them that they became determined to radically change the nature of business education at Weatherhead. The term “design thinking” is used here and there in the book, but Boland and Collopy seem to prefer their own design attitude. Perhaps if they were writing this book today they would use the term design thinking. As I read different chapters I kept asking myself how I could have missed this book for so long? When I first became interested in design thinking in 2006 there was far less material being generated about it, and having this book would have been a big help in shaping my thinking. It was actually in the collection at the library I was working at back then; I just missed it.

In the first chapter, Boland and Collopy expand on the differences between their traditional “decision attitude” and the design attitude they were learning from Gehry. The decision attitude, which was the long-held focus of management education, towards problem solving was “overwhelmingly dominant in management practice…and solves problems by making rational choices among alternatives and uses tools such as economic analysis, risk assessment, multiple criteria decision making, simulation, and the time value of money.” The design attitude by contrast “is concerned with finding the best answer possible given the skills, time, and resources of the team, and takes for granted that it will require the invention of new alternatives. The decision attitude assumes there is already an optimal solution to the problem, and that managers just need to be rational and analytical in order to identify that solution. The design attitude allows for the possibility that the solution doesn’t already exist, and that a team will need to create a new, untried possibility. One can’t help but make a connection between these ideas and Martin’s “opposable mind” and “knowledge funnel” models of how design influences decision making so that it is a blending of the rational and intuitive mind in which the goal is to neither choose solution A or B but rather innovate solution C.

You don’t need to read every essay in this book. Some are highly theoretical, others may be more design specific than desired. One chapter to explore is the one titled “The Role of Constraints” by Vandenbosch and Gallagher. They discuss how dealing with constraints impacts the work of artists and architects, and that it is important to acknowledge that constraints are fundamental to the design process. Designers must constantly deal with constraints, and appreciating them can lead to improved creativity. There’s hardly a project in the academic library that is free of constraints, be it time or money. I think this is an area where we can learn a great deal from design in learning how to turn our constraints in thinking opportunities – and I hope to write more about this.

If you don’t have time to read Managing as Design you can get the gist of the ideas and applications by watching this interview with Richard Boland or you can now view the original DVD made to accompany the workshop. It is found in seven parts on YouTube. Start with this video. By the way, discovering these videos has also been a great part of this find. I hope you will enjoy learning from them.

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