The idea of “HCD Management”

January 2021

Dear Marc,
The theme for this book is HCD management. What are your impressions when you hear the term “HCD management”?

Hello Shino,
I have mixed feelings about this, because my experience with “HCD management” in organizations has not always been positive. I feel a mix of hope and caution.

How people manage design is a reflection of the culture. Is the culture open or closed? When I work with organizations now, this is one of the first things I try to notice.

Closed HCD management

A closed culture wants design to improve existing processes and serve existing priorities.

Ten years ago I was part of a three-month project in a large telecommunications firm. They had made a large investment in design — the design group was almost 100 people. Their initial efforts to improve the web site were very successful. This built management trust in the design team’s abilities. So management invited them to be more strategic — to explore for business opportunities.

We spent three months on the project. We visited homes, analyzed the data, and described themes and opportunities. The opportunity that most excited the team came from this insight: we could reframe “serving families in one area” to “serving the community.” This meant shifting from service buyer as customer to family as customer. When we thought this way, a garden of new offerings, services and categories began to blossom.

That team delivered exactly what executives had requested. But in the end there was no executive sponsorship to continue the work. One “innovation” executive said something that still stands out in my memory. He said, “Our business is selling subscriptions to our services. How does this help us sell more subscriptions?”

This is an example of “closed” design management. The organization was closed to the change in perspective that comes from putting people at the center of the process. There was no willingness to question the basic assumptions of the business. The managers couldn’t imagine something other than what they were already doing. They had created a “human-centered” team, but the management was still business-centered.

When you ask for my impression of the term “HCD management,” this is the story that comes to mind.

I should say that I do not blame those managers. I know they were doing their best to achieve what they saw as important goals. That year, their division was challenged to add millions of new “digital subscribers.” The fabric of the place was woven around this goal. If they achieved the goal they would be rewarded with money and status. The goal was the topic of most meetings, measure, charts, and emails.

“Closed” is more often a cultural state rather than individual resistance. It’s people trying to do their very best, bringing their intelligence, creativity and good will every day into a story they’ve all agreed to participate in.

So there was misalignment between their “researchers” — who had never subscribed to the digital customers story — and the hiring managers, who had. For us to give that report, cheerfully challenging their root cultural story… that must have been strange. I didn’t appreciate that at the time.

Open design management

Putting people at the center of design management means working like a gardener. We tend the conditions in which creative openness can grow. It’s relatively easy to change things on the surface — hire designers or mandate new processes. But those things alone will not shift a technology- or business-centered culture.

It’s more difficult to nurture the soil — the stories and beliefs, the conversations, the incentives — in which a new culture can grow.

This is challenging because it’s invisible and relational. Most corporate cultures value the visible and concrete. They reward managers for bringing projects to a clear outcome on schedule. If they do research, it is in service to that goal.

Cultivating openness means increasing capacity to dance between exploring and deciding. Design is an invitation to see questions as strategic gifts. It wants to stay in questions a little longer than usual. Good design management avoids premature closure. Good design management avoids premature convergence. It is wise in knowing when it is time to make a decision and when it is necessary to continue exploring.

Something that helps me think about openness, for myself, a team, or an organization, is to think of it like a house. Say we are together in the house every day with the doors and windows closed. No one else comes in, we talk only to one another. We are likely to keep having the same conversations about the same ideas. It’s comfortable because we are never confronted by something unfamiliar or disturbing. We can keep pretending our world is sufficient for the world outside. But it’s stale, and it’s risky.

Open the doors and windows. Get as many people as possible into experiences outside the usual rhythms and rooms. As often as possible, for as long as possible.

Some managers set goals for the time their teams will spend face-to-face with customers. At least four hours a month, for example, with a goal of two days a month. This is the “exposure time metric.” There’s also the “surface area metric” — how many different roles and levels of authority have regular time with customers.

Exposure time and surface area provide valuable input, and they contribute to a culture of openness. False beliefs and unquestioned assumptions are less harder to hold. Conversations about people, as opposed to business or technology, become more frequent.

Want to nurture a culture of human-centered design? Nurture people’s openness to be changed by what they see and hear. To celebrate discovery of assumption-busting realities of life.

When the doors and windows are open, human values take their place alongside technical and business concerns. Regular relationship outside the walls affects decision-making. It touches policy-setting processes, planning and strategy, metrics, hiring, training, quality management. The works.

If “Attend, Reflect, Try, Iterate” is your diagram , then that’s what you will manage:

  • the people, processes, tools, and culture needed to pay open attention to life and the world,
  • the people, processes, tools, and culture needed to learn and refine through experiments and prototypes,
  • the people, processes, tools, and culture needed to iterate between those two modes of operation. To connect that iteration to the organization’s larger processes and conversations.

But I still haven’t answered your question. “What are your impressions when I hear the term HCD Management?”

A positive view: HCD management is evidence of growing maturity

My first thought is, “Maybe we are learning.” The fact that we are having this conversation is a sign of the current moment in both management and design history. I hope and expect that in fifteen years, “HCD Management” will sound old-fashioned. “Remember when design was so new that we separated it into its own kind of management? Remember when it was so important to remind ourselves that this is all about people that we put the word ‘human’ in front of our process names?”

We can make a long list of activities that involve management. Marketing, research, development, materials, manufacturing, delivery, inventory, quality, employees, facilities…. Each is mostly made of people. Each greatly affects people. They are all sociotechnical systems — entanglements of people, machines, and software. And in each of those areas there are challenges and questions that are best served by design.

As our practices mature and we continue to learn to work on behalf of planet, society, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren, I don’t think we’ll continue talking about HCD Management. Perhaps I’m wrong about how long this will take. Techno-consumerism and arrogance of expertise is entrenched in corporate cultures. I hope we’ll see a tipping point in the next generation.

So HCD Management may be a step on the way to greater maturity in the way our organizations participate in a world of health and belonging. It may foreshadow a change in how we hire and train staff, conceive and create products and services, operate as teams, assess quality, design roles and responsibilities, communicate with collaborators, and all the other activities of management.

But there is plenty of reason to doubt.

A fear: HCD management is business’ attempt to maintain control

I worry. It looks as though we are doing something so very typical of our era: depersonalizing, abstracting, codifying. “Human” becomes “H.”

“Design” — a living process we use to navigate uncertainty, engage creativity, and collaborate together in pursuit of wonder — becomes “D.”

Then, “management.” Control. Order. Predictable. Measurable. “I’m not good with people, but HCD Management is something I can get comfortable with.”

Human-centered design should be an invitation into wilder country. People are messy and unpredictable, especially in large groups. Most of their life is invisible, down in mysterious and inaccessible histories of emotion and relationship. Beyond that, to support human thriving means attending to people in groups! Families, communities, schools, organizations, cities. It’s all so complex.

Then there’s Design with its openness to discovery, iterative cycles, and willingness to embrace and be changed by surprise. How do we manage something so… free?

Combine the two, making people the principle driver of such an open process, and you have a recipe for management discomfort.

Both are true

Both are true. Even in complexity we need management. In the wild, we need management. The drive to control is natural and helpful. AND we are on the sometimes-frightening edge of learning to manage in complexity and uncertainty.

Some resist this. Some grip tightly onto control. Others are excited to expand their management toolkit with approaches for working with emergence.

Sonja Blignaut, a consultant in social complexity, sometimes says this: “It’s hard to survive in the jungle when you’ve been raised in the zoo.” In my experience many managers handle that difficulty by continuing to insist on better zoo management processes, despite the wildness all around.

Courage in design management

I have one more remark about design management. Design — even the “simple” catch-and-try process — requires courage.

The courage to stay in the question: life in the groan zone
Design invites our openness to wider possibilities. But the process alone cannot do this. We must learn to suspend our presuppositions. Let go of fixed beliefs and engage the world with eyes of wonder. If our work is comfortable then we are not seeing well or exploring well. Uncertainty is a fact of life in the garden of possibility. Entering that garden requires the courage to let go of our old familiar ways.

Why do I call it courage? Because it is comfortable to hold onto the illusion of competence and expertise. It takes courage to get in conversation with complexities bigger than your abilities. It’s safer to hold a smaller image of the world — one in which we can “solve problems.”

Design invites us to see the real complexity of the world. Most things that matter are beyond our powers to “fix” or “improve” in a single project. We find we need to grow large enough to meet its complexity. We find we must collaborate with people outside our familiar routines.

Consider the famous diamond of design: diverge and converge. Create choices and make choices:

Sam Kaner, author of Facilitating Participatory Decision-Making, adds something to the diagram. His drawing is more true to my experience of this work.

The groan zone is where different people have different tolerance for uncertainty. Some are eager to keep exploring. Others yearn to make decisions and get to work on the details. What’s best is not clear.

The groan zone is a place of courageous conversation, where we navigate possibility and necessity. We learn to trust the wisdom of the group and the process. The easy thing is to decide and move on. The courageous act is to stay in the question a little longer. Let the question lead to possibilities that could not be seen without waiting, without going deeper.

The courage to learn through exploration
Design is iterative and exploratory. It is a way to create when we cannot yet see what’s needed. The resulting path of our progress does NOT look like the famous “bow-tie diagram” of design. (I added people to show where current practices typically include people outside the team.)

This picture pretends we can know what to do at each point. It says we can work in a straight sequence of decisions. Maybe it’s useful for highest-level management. But it is not a true picture of how exploratory design is actually lived and managed.

A process of exploration in conversation with the world’s realities is more like this:

To work in complexity, we manage a portfolio of experiments. We harvesting learning from both the ones we choose to stop and those we continue. And we arrive at an end result we could not have imagined at the start. Our courage in uncertainty is rewarded by surprise and depth.

“Simple sequences sound manageable, even predictable. They promise tasks we can schedule and budget. That makes them appealing to people who run organizations and worry about minimizing uncertainty and risk. But the creative process resists planning; it’s not a recipe, script, or formula. In practice, the process is messy, iterative, and recursive.”

Hugh Dubberly, A model of the creative process

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.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Marc Rettig

Marc Rettig


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