Management needs design

To make the case for why management needs design, I first need to clarify what I mean with the terms management and design. That’s the first part of this short essay. The second part then explains why management needs to change and how design can help.

What is management?

Peter Drucker describes management as

…the organ of society specifically charged with making resources productive, ie, with the responsibility for organized economic advance.

He goes on to describe managers as

…the dynamic, life-giving element in every business. Without [their] leadership the resources of production remain resources and never become production.

Gary Hamel perhaps puts it most eloquently when he says

Management is the technology of human accomplishment.

In essence, management is what makes organizations function, ie, it enables people with different talents to come together and jointly achieve what would be far beyond any individual’s possibilities.

The management model as an organization’s operating system

The way managers go about their job, ie, how they practice management, can be described as an organization’s management model. It is the set of mindsets, beliefs, tools, practices, frameworks and processes managers rely on in their work. As an example: how you build a team, how you develop and execute strategy, how you set objectives, how you manage performance, how you hire and develop people, how you communicate, how you set priorities and how you make decisions are all aspects of your management system.

I like to think of a management model as an organization’s operating system, similar to a computer or other electronic device operating system. It heavily influences two key characteristics of the organization:

  1. What an organization can achieve — just like the operating system heavily influences what you can do with a particular device
  2. How easy and fun it is for people to get stuff done — just like the operating system influences how easy it is to use a device and develop applications for it

What is your management model?

Every organization has a management model — but only a few are able to articulate it.

In most organizations some aspects of the system have been put in place explicitly while others implicitly emerged over the years. Coherence is thus often missing. And so is fit for purpose.

Very rarely is a management system reviewed to verify it is fit for purpose. And even less rarely is it reviewed for ease of use — although instinctively most people in most organizations know that its “user interface” could be greatly improved.

Finally, it is not uncommon to have several competing management systems in place at the same time. Managers from diverse backgrounds all have their own ideas — yet very rarely discuss them in an explicit attempt to bring coherence to management.

Maybe Peter Drucker had a point:

Most of what we call management today consists of making it difficult for people to work.

And so did Gary Hamel:

Management is probably the least effective and efficient activity in your organization.

I’ve written more about the problems associated with how management is practiced today in “Management is failing people and institutions” and “The shareholder value maxim has dehumanized management”.

What is design and design thinking?

Tim Brown very nicely captures the essence of design:

Design integrates what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.

What is commonly referred to as design thinking is using the tools and mindsets of the designer to solve difficult business problems.

Design thinking is

  • deeply human-centered
  • about tackling the right problems and aspiring to make the world more accessible, more beautiful and more meaningful
  • a creative process with a desire for innovation
  • an iterative process with an innate drive for learning and a high tolerance for failure

Today, design thinking is very successfully used as an approach for product and service innovation.

But I believe design thinking holds even greater potential when applied to management.

The case for designing management

There are at least six reasons why design is good for management — and indeed why we need to design management.

  1. Management needs to work for people and thus needs to be designed for people. Great management lets people thrive and use their full potential instead of getting in their way. Design can help since it is all about understanding and serving human needs.
  2. Management needs innovation. Most of what we know and practice in management dates back to the 19th century organization where the primary focus was efficiency and scalability. Today organizations are about learning, flexibility, knowledge, collaboration, innovation, speed. New management approaches are required. Design can help because it is all about innovation.
  3. Management is context-sensitive. For many management challenges (especially for your most difficult ones), there are no ready-made solutions that work out of the box. Managers need to customize existing ones or even create entirely new ones that are truly fit for purpose. Design can help because design is always clear about which problem is being solved and then ensures the solution is just right.
  4. With imperfect information (the reality of human systems is infinitely complex) an organization and its management system need to be open for pluralism and allow for change. We may be wrong today and learn how to be better tomorrow. Design can help because it is all about prototyping, learning and improving.
  5. Managers need to take responsibility for and ownership of their management models and make them fit for purpose and easy to use — not letting history and default run the show. Design can help because it is all about making things and consciously creating a better, more beautiful world.
  6. Managers need a coherent, purpose-driven end-to-end view of their management systems, not random acts of introducing a tool here and making an announcement there. Design will help because it always takes an integrated view and knows that simply changing the color of an object does not change its function.

Design, with its focus on human needs, creativity, innovation, tackling the right problems, prototyping, learning and last but not least taking action and making things, has a lot to offer for managers who truly want to make a difference.

I’ve written more about the benefits of better management in “Does better management improve performance?” and about the positive influences of design in “What if managers thought more like designers?”.

Let’s use the power of design. Let’s create better management and learn an awful lot about it in the process.

This essay was first published at on November 7, 2014