What If We Design The Business And Not The Technology?

In the traditional approach to business IT, the business asks and the IT delivers. This has some severe downsides for the agility and innovation power for businesses. Flipping this upside down can provide new ways to think about IT and business and to leverage the power of technology for business.

Dennis Hambeukers
Mar 16 · 7 min read

The problem with aligning IT to the business

A traditional digital design project starts with the needs of the business. Those needs are turned into requirements for IT. The IT people build the software according to the specifications of the business. Coming up with the right requirements is really hard for business people because they typically don’t have enough knowledge of IT to know what to ask for. Interpreting the requirements in the right way is really hard for IT people because they usually do not have enough business knowledge to understand the underlying goals. More often than not, this leads to misery in terms of value creation and performance of projects.

Maintenance costs stifle innovation

On top of that, making a lot of custom software for businesses quickly creates a lot of maintenance costs in both money and time. Systems have to be updated, adapted, backuped constantly. Systems are built on top of systems and before you know it you have a big hairball of an Enterprise Architecture that makes your organization rigid, unable to quickly respond, unable to innovate.

The business asks and the IT guys deliver.

Until the IT can no longer keep up because of legacy technical debt and ever increasing maintenance costs.

Turn things upside down

What if we would turn this upside down? What if we would design the business around the technology instead of the other way around? What if we would align the business to the IT instead of the IT to the business?

This might seem ridiculous but bear with me for a minute.

How tech startups do it

If you look at the technology stack of industry-disrupting organizations like Airbnb and Uber, you see that they mainly use proprietary software that they source from IT companies. They leverage the power of ready-built components in the cloud. They innovate by integrating existing building blocks. Their ecosystem of digital components is connected with APIs. This allows them to create services really fast. This enables them to switch building blocks and still run the same service. This makes it possible to turn on and off parts if there is a need to pivot. This allows them to scale up and down fast.

Leveraging standard components

Of course, this is not as easy as I describe it here. Not everything will fit seamlessly together and you’ll still need to build custom software to connect it all and to build the specifics that will give you a competitive advantage. But the core idea is that the company that is the best in leveraging standard components wins. Technology enables new business models, new ways to do business. These companies don’t first determine how they want their business to operate and then create the software to enable it. For a large part, they see what technology is capable of, and build the business around that.

Align business to technology

That is the nature of a tech startup. But maybe other companies could learn from this. Tech startups are built to be agile, to innovate, because they use technology to enable ways of organizing, ways of doing business. The old model that most companies use is to use technology to support the way they do business. This is a fundamental difference. For the largest part, it’s the total opposite. In a tech startup, the business aligns to the technology.

This is how we do things here

“Yes, but this is how we do things here.” Start to ask yourself why is it you organize business the way you do it now. What is the goal you are trying to achieve with the business you designed? A business is something that is designed. A business is a service, a service to its employees, to its owners and to its customers. I have the impression that a lot of people see the organization as a given, not as something that is designed and thus can be redesigned. In IT projects, I see the tendency to design the IT but not the business. The business is fixed and the IT needs to adjust. I don’t think this model works anymore.

Benefits

In recent projects, instead of designing green field custom solutions, I find myself more and more leveraging the power of standard enterprise technology products. I found that standard solutions have much more power than you think if you dive into them and organize around the features that make them powerful. If you are:

  • willing to explore the power of solutions,
  • and if you are able to see the possibilities for new ways to organize business processes,
  • and if you are willing to organize around the systems in the technology,
  • and if you understand the power of using standard solutions,

you can:

  • move faster,
  • become more agile,
  • innovate not by designing the technology but by designing the organization.

The design of the technology is the collection of systems, the connecting APIs, a small amount of customizing and — if necessary — a minimal amount of custom built features. The design of the organization is aimed at leveraging the options, the possibilities the technology provides for new ways of organizing.

Using standards creates less maintenance cost and makes it easier to pivot.

The hacking mindset

Sometimes the design of the technology involves a little hacking, i.e. using the functions for different purposes than intended by the manufacturer. I think the hacking mindset is quintessential for this flipped approach. Hacking is at its core seeing different uses of available functions and systems. If you can apply this mind- and skillset to putting together your ecosystem of standard applications and leveraging the power of functions available inside the standard products, you can unleash the power of standard proprietary building blocks.

Real world examples

This way of working can result in different design interventions. In recent projects, I have:

  • Introduced a proprietary solution for conversational UI (Landbot) that can be plugged into a website to achieve a lot of goals of the website with only a few hours of work. The solution is not only fast to implement but also easy to scale if it is a success. If it doesn’t work out, it can be easily replaced by a similar product without changing the service or taken out entirely if it doesn’t add enough value.
  • Leveraged the power of proprietary software (Confluence) by hacking it a little bit, theming it and by experimenting in iterations to dive deep into the architecture of the software. The deep dive revealed the inner workings and the power of the software. Now we are trying to leverage that power: to work with the grain of the tools so we can get the most out of it. But also nudging the workflows a little bit to better fit the toolset.
  • Hacked a software system (custom built existing intranet) to create a better user experience by using the designed features in a different way and adding a few small easy to implement styling features.

All these interventions will require the business to adjust to the technological solution. I usually don’t go in telling people to change their business, but I will point out that if they want to achieve the things we set out to, technology will not solve everything. If you want the technology to work, you need to start adjusting your business. I will suggest business design changes to leverage the power of the technology. This way business design and technology design go hand in hand as they should.

Mental shift

To work like this requires a rather large mind-shift. To align business to IT instead of IT to business is a Copernican revolution for traditional IT people.

Required capabilities

  • Be able to judge the quality of proprietary software and building blocks (quickly).
  • Be able to see where little tweaks (hacking and theming) can be made to make proprietary solutions more powerful and more aligned with what the business is trying to achieve.
  • Be able to design design systems to align the UX of proprietary solutions to your brand experience.
  • Be able to design the organization to leverage the power of standard solution: build the organization around the ecosystem of tools.

Digital literacy

The thing is, that the success of a digital tool not only depends on how well it is designed but for the largest part on how well people are able to use it, unleash the power. The best-designed tool can fail to achieve its goals if the users are not literate enough to work with the tool. So instead of investing in software, it pays to invest in the education of its users as well.

Find a way

I’m not suggesting here that the alignment of the business to standard proprietary software tools is going to solve all business IT problems. But I think it will help in making organizations more agile and innovative. It’s an interesting way to think about business IT. It opens up new alleys of creativity and new ways to approach projects. If we can open up the business to design as well, we can leverage the power of technology for business much better.

What do you think?


Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :)

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Design Thinker Thinking About Design — Strategic Design Consultant @zuiderlicht. https://www.zuiderlicht.nl/

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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