Shaped by environment and history, bearing fruit

Design maturity

We can’t implement maturity, we can only nurture it.

Dear Marc,
I have a fourth question to ask you. Through this book, I want to help managers and company leaders understand what HCD management is about, but I also discuss how HCD is something that everyone in the organization/company needs to commit to. What do you think are the most important factors for organizations to mature in HCD and design?

Dear Shino,
Oh this is a complex question! We can’t translate successful recipes directly from one organization to another. I will offer what I hope are useful points of view, and leave their application to your readers.

What does it mean to be mature?

In English, we use the word “mature” to describe responsible, capable adults who are not driven purely by self-interest. What does maturity look like? It varies, because maturity has to do with full expression of each person. Saying someone is “mature” is saying, “They are a full version of themselves.” We also talk about plants and animals as being mature. In the case of plants we usually mean “ready to bear seeds or fruit.”

What does maturity mean for design in an organization? It’s not easy to speak generally about this. Maturity for a global corporation is different than maturity in a hundred-person business. The details and context matter.

For me, design maturity is an organization’s ability to do four things:

1. Form an intention that is…

a) true to the realities of life and the world,

b) true to the values and deep intentions of the organization, and

c) in service to mutual thriving of all stakeholders in the ecosystem.

2. Able to discover “right things” to create that are true to their intention.

3. Able to “build things right” without losing those essential qualities: a, b, and c.

4. Foster and maintain the conditions needed for these things to happen.

Able to bear fruit!

Two signs of maturity: integrity and connection

My point about intention is about integrity — the degree to which our processes and results align with our deep values and purpose. If we say we are human-centered but the driver of our offerings is competitive advantage, we have not reached design maturity.

Another sign of maturity is connection. Great design depends on real relationship with the people it serves. So maturity requires working in right relationship with people outside the organization. Otherwise we project our own beliefs and experience onto the lives of others. We are not acting in maturity, and we are likely to do harm.

Organizations are alive. Maturity is a quality of life

How do we increase maturity? This is the real question behind all this talk about maturity, yes? Managers want to know how to increase design maturity.

It is useful (and I argue it is also accurate) to see an organization or team as a living thing in itself. When something is alive, a command-and-control approach is inadequate. Patterns we don’t like can’t be improved by commanding our organizational organism to behave differently. New policies and processes, new staff and training will be ineffective if they are installed in the same old social operating system.

Anyone who has raised children will agree. When something is alive, we can’t predict how it will receive our interventions. We can’t reliably direct it to produce a specific result.

For our organization to become more mature, its patterns of behavior and relationship must change. Some of its current patterns will weaken, and new patterns form and become stronger. If command and control, process and training are inadequate for this, then what works?

We need to see differently.

Maturity develops, it is not implemented

I’m not sure how the word “development” translates to Japanese. I see it translated in several different ways, so I’ll say I’m not talking about “kaihatsu” — making something, as in “software development.” Maybe a better translation is “ikusei” — growing, becoming, turning into the next version of yourself. (I say this as someone who doesn’t speak Japanese! Please correct me.)

In my work it is more helpful to talk about “developing capacity for human-centered design” rather than “increasing maturity.” For two reasons.

One is that it invites us to speak to the higher potential we see in people, teams and organizations. The possibility of something greater is already present in everyone. Let’s provide what’s needed for that possibility to develop, to come to life.

The other reason is that it is more true to the living nature of organizations. People, plants and animals develop into maturity. Maturity isn’t “managed” or “implemented.” We can tend the conditions for development, and we can support growth into maturity. But we cannot mandate that it comes to life.

In this way, organizational maturity is more a matter of gardening than carpentry.

Happily there is good science available about the stages people go through as they develop new skills and capacities, as they leave old habits behind and develop new ones. And that science is social — it teaches us how we can better develop together.

It would take too long to write about development stages here, but I can at least introduce them. To support development or maturation of people and teams, pay attention to these stages, and tend the conditions needed for people to move from one stage to the next.

Stage 1. We can’t do it, we don’t even think about it
The idea that we need new skills or processes is strange. We’re not even sure that’s true! Stop bothering us about it.

Stage 2. We think about it, but we can’t do it
We are very new at this. We’re learning to notice when we could see or work differently, but we don’t think of it until we look back at the past. When we do notice, we can’t do the new methods by ourselves. But we’re interested in learning, we want to try!

Stage 3. We can do it, but we have to think about it
Now we notice when the need for new ways in the moment they are needed. And we’re getting better at doing them for ourselves. But we have to pay careful attention when we do it. We make a lot of mistakes, but we’re getting better at learning from those mistakes. We need patience and time to practice.

Stage 4. We can do it so well we don’t think about it anymore
We’re good at this. It’s our natural way of doing things. We often do it without talking about it, because it is so woven into the fabric of our life and work.

Nurture development

The natural process of moving through these stages is happening throughout any organization. Each person, each team is developing at their own pace. A developmental view of maturity works with that fact. It asks,

  • What is already happening? Where are teams or projects already behaving with more maturity?
  • How can we connect them (make them aware of each other)?
  • What small things can we do to support their learning and practice — give them what they need to further develop?
  • What is making it harder for them to learn and practice? What can we remove from their environment to better support their development?

These are examples of a gardener’s view of developing maturity. As someone said, “No gardener ever made a rose.” We can’t make teams come to creative maturity. But we can tend the conditions in which they will grow it for themselves.

Banner image: Marc Rettig in conversation with

This is part of a collection called Hello Shino: Short essays on design management. You can learn more about the author, Marc Rettig, from his personal web site and his place of work: Fit Associates.



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Marc Rettig

Marc Rettig


Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Carnegie Mellon School of Design