What if managers thought more like designers?

We need better management

They way we run our organizations isn’t working. Companies (ie, it’s managers) are failing us in every conceivable way. They leave workers uninspired and disengaged (according to Gallup, just 13% of the world’s workforce is engaged in their work).

They’re wasting resources (according to the Deloitte Center for the Edge, productivity of US companies has been on a steady decline since 1965 and is now only 25% of what is was back then). And they turn out mediocre products that fail to address real customer needs (according to the Havas Media Lab, most people would not care if 73% of global brands disappeared tomorrow).

What we’re witnessing is an epic failure of management. And as managers, we have a moral obligation to do much better.

Smarter, or more human?

There was a time in my career when I thought the answer was clear and that all we needed was “smarter” management: better strategy analysis, more sophisticated metrics, better performance management, more efficient operating models, better use of IT, and so on. But is this enough?

Today, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s not about being smarter. It’s about being more human. Most organizations are not too dumb to succeed. They are not human enough. They fail to address the human needs of their two most important stakeholder groups: customers and employees. Thinking more like designers would help managers put the human element back into business — and dramatically improve the organizations they run.

What a “designer manager” would do differently

Let’s start with customers. The reason why so many products and services are mediocre at best is that they are technologically and commercially driven. Managers ask: can we build it and is there a market for it? But what’s most often missing from the equation is a solid understanding of the fundamental human needs underlying the “market”.

The designer, in contrast, places a premium on gaining a deep understanding of the fundamental human needs underlying a given design challenge. Only in a second step comes the careful balancing act of aligning what’s desirable from a human perspective with what’s technologically feasible and economically viable. That’s how truly great designs come to life — and how a company builds a community of loyal customers who love its products and services. Think of Apple, Ritz-Carlton Hotels or Southwest Airlines.

Having great products and customers who are loyal fans also goes a long way towards creating a motivated, engaged workforce. But it doesn’t have to stop there. After all, employees are humans and they have needs, too. Needs that — you’ve guessed it — are typically underserved in almost every aspect we run our organizations today. Why don’t employees “get the strategy”? Why do 9 out of 10 employees (and managers!) loathe the annual performance appraisal process? Why are most meetings a terrible waste of time? Why does “marketing” not talk to “engineering”? Why do most change programs fail? Why…? Because managers don’t bother uncovering the underlying human needs and thus fail to design a better work place.

Keep in mind that we’re not dealing with some kind of natural law here. We can choose to work differently. And as managers we can choose to design a much better work place — an organization that is fit for people. One that lets its people thrive and be at their best every day. One that ultimately turns employees into loyal fans, too — just like customers. Witness Google, Zappos, Semco or W.L. Gore.

Of course there’s much more to how a “designer manager” would do things differently. He would engage customers and employees in an iterative, prototype-driven approach to innovate products, services and even the organization’s design. He would refuse to choose between options A and B, and instead work hard to create a new option C which combines the best of both A and B. He would ask more interesting questions. Questions of the “what might be?” variety — instead of the “are you sure this is correct?”and “where has this been done before?” variety.

I could go on, but for now I’m content with stressing the human element. One I believe is critically missing from the world of business today — and an aspect in which I believe management can learn a lot from design.

So another way of asking “what if managers thought more like designers” is:

What if in business we stopped chasing numbers and started serving humans?

This post is based on a short speech (“How to make customers and employees love you”) I gave at the Swiss Association of MBAs in Zurich in April 2014.