April 1, 2015

Purposeful, focused creativity for organizational change

Kipum Lee
Kipum Lee is a doctorate candidate in the department of design and innovation at the Weatherhead School of Management and head of design at Microbac Laboratories, Inc.

When IBM asked over 1,500 CEOs worldwide in a 2010 study what the single most important leadership competency organizations needed, the response was creativity. Not the pie-in-the-sky type of creativity that is so utterly detached from the reality of management, but the type of creativity governed by a controlled imagination that critically asks if something can be other and better than what it is today.

What the study points to is a desire by executive management for the engine that fuels the change needed to chart their way across the landscape of an increasingly complex and uncertain world. Managers shape the environments in which we work and live. And for ones who seek opportunities to improve their organizations and themselves, the principles of design offer a powerful skill set for flexible thinking and creativity. Design is a rich concept that captures the idea of purposeful and focused creativity.

When people hear the word "art"--another term that comes to mind when one thinks of creativity-- they might think of self-expression or "art for art's sake;" design, on the other hand, conveys something more grounded, inherently containing notions of utility (although not excluding the beautiful) and making in order to accomplish a particular purpose.

Despite this ability to be down-to-earth, design is typically understood in the narrow sense as stylization, the final embellishment of something that has already gone through rounds of decision making at higher levels. Design as stylization might be valuable in helping to explore a product feature, e.g., presenting an assortment of fanciful color or layout options on a corporate website.

While there are quite a number of senior managers and executives who actively participate even at this level of production – most notably, the late Steve Jobs – most managers are perfectly fine delegating end-of-the-line work to so-called Creatives. When design is taken more seriously, Creatives are given greater responsibility over the product development work of the organization.

At this point, the organizational challenge is to manage design. Creatives are a unique group of individuals with distinct needs, and management's task is to motivate and protect them so they can produce great work. The most mature form of design occurs in organizations that ask, "Is creative work limited to just the Creative group?"

So far, design has found it comfortable to nest in areas in which one would expect it to fit almost naturally, such as product development or customer service. But what about the other areas of an organization? Is there a way to develop vendor relations with methods different from those of today? How might managers discover unconventional ways to create and reinforce a culture of safety? How might managers innovatively close the gap between what brand and marketing communicates to customers and what really happens within operations?

If one begins to realize that everything within an organization is designed, the idea of designing management emerges. In fact, another way of stating the insight from the IBM study is that organizations are in need of managers who are designers – of meetings, presentations, services, processes, plans, organizational structures. Likewise, from the perspective of designers, organizations are large and complex products.

As the head of design for an analytic, chemical testing company, I have the unique opportunity to do my doctoral research on this very topic, design in organizations. There are moments when all three forms of design – stylization, managing design, designing management – converge to present an important opportunity for organizational change.

For example, it took me a while to realize that the custody form that accompanies the submission of client samples is much more than a piece of paper containing fonts and letters. It plays multiple roles: defending our reputation and business when questioned by the authorities, communicating the terms of agreement with our clients, providing the material needed to improve our processes and train our employees, guiding the actions needed by operations and quality assurance teams to fulfill the work, conveying principles of our brand, and embodying a sense of local ownership and pride since each of our facilities has historically crafted its own unique form.

The effort to tame the complexity of multiple versions and make changes to this single artifact required an understanding of the three forms of design. Making deliberate stylistic changes to the document were met with comments such as, "The white space created is a waste. More elements should be added to the form." Working with the IT team responsible for production and implementation of the document in electronic form led to the invention of an approach to making – a new product development process – that would benefit other similar products.

Finally, arguments had to be carefully designed in oral, written, and visual form to persuade possessive senior managers that there is both an internal and client-based need to standardize the form. This would require managers to make appropriate behavioral adjustments from both the front and operational ends of the business. These arguments were accompanied by the crafting of a new client services team that would have to be added to our overall organizational structure.

At the Weatherhead School ofManagement, we continue to have vibrant conversations on concrete topics like this – how things designed within the organization can be used as vehicles to redesign the organization itself. And that is just one theme. We have packaged our understanding of purposeful and focused creativity under the banner of manage by designing, a work-in-progress prototype that has led to the first department of design and innovation within a school of management. For managers seeking change in their career path, realization of their full potential, or positive organizational change, the Weatherhead Executive Education program provides a great place to explore what it means to lead such transformations in concrete terms.

If organizations truly need leaders who live and work creatively – people who know how to manage by designing – it is time for managers to devise new courses of action that change current situations into new and better ones.

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