169 – A series: Managers as designers in local government. Part 2.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              800 words

rapid prototyping

This is the second post in a series of four. It discusses the second and third principles of design-thinking.

Models can be used to examine complex problems. In this context, the ‘model’ is an artefact of the design process that is used to ‘explore, define and communicate’. Typically this will include diagrams and sketches instead of (or in addition to) the spreadsheets and specifications usually used to analyse and resolve problems. According to Kolko, they ‘add a fluid dimensions to the exploration of complexity, allowing for non-linear thought when tackling non-linear problems”.

There are a number of local government services that routinely use models or design artefacts in their work. It is not a new idea for councils but it is a new application of the idea. For example, engineers and architects create sketches and drawings as two-dimensional models of the object they plan to build. These are used to test the functionality and constructability of the object and enable input and control from supervisors as part of risk management. The same thinking can be applied to corporate thinking about new services.

The work of landscape architects in local government particularly lends itself to cooption for corporate design-thinking because it is much more consultative with users of the ‘object’. Unlike roads and buildings, parks have less technical design elements and can be much more tailored to the needs of users. Typically this happens with ‘butter paper’ sketches and meetings with users, then refinement of the design through success rounds of consultation until the resolved design is displayed for final comments.

Some councils are creating ‘customer journey maps’ as design artefacts telling the story of their customers’ experiences. It is a useful tool for understanding. Kolko sees it as presenting an alternative way to look at a problem.

“ … it (customer journey map) helped us develop a strategic way to think about changing the entire organisation and to communicate the emergent strategy.”

Prototyping is a way to use evolving models to communicate ideas and involve users.   A prototype is simply an early sample built to test a concept or process as a thing to be replicated or learned from. It is intended to test and try a new design and serves to provide specifications for a real, working system.

Prototypes are used to explore potential solutions. Kolko describes them as existing in the ‘solution space’, as compared to customer journey maps that exist in the ‘problem space’. This is an interesting way to think about the progression of ideas in problem solving. Prototypes can be digital (e.g. the alpha or beta version of computer software), physical (e.g. the maquette made to show how a public artwork could look) or diagrammatic (e.g. a plan or scale model produced by architects).

In an ‘open minded’ culture, Kolko says that prototypes will be displayed everywhere and demonstrate a focus on exploration and experimentation rather than ‘rule following’. He cites innovation expert Michael Schrage in calling it ‘serious play’.

“ … only the act of prototyping can transform an idea into something truly valuable – on their own, ideas are a dime a dozen.”

The third principle of design thinking is that in a design culture there is a tolerance of failure. There is a recognition that it is ‘rare to get things right the first time’. That is not to say that failure is encouraged, rather it is tolerated as part of the process of learning.

Kolko says that people at all levels of the organisation need to be able to take ‘social risks’ in putting forward their ‘half baked’ ideas without ‘losing face or experiencing punitive repercussions’. People learn what to do in the process of doing it right.

Finally, Kolko discusses the need for ‘thoughtful restraint’. He says that many products or services built on an emotional value proposition are simpler. This is the result of deliberate decisions about what the product or service should and should not do. He describes this simplicity as being the simple that exists on the ‘far side of complexity’.

“By removing features, a company offers a clear, simple experience.”

This approach is the opposite of much of what you see happening in local government. We tend to think that if something works, let’s do more. A timeless example is the park seat with each seat slat painted a different colour. As Robin Boyd pointed out in the ‘The Australian Ugliness’,  Australians don’t have a strong design sense. As a result, the cluttering of the user experience with non-value adding ‘features’ is commonplace. The old saying ‘more is less’ is seldom heard in local government.

“Design thinking is an essential tool for simplifying and humanising. It can’t be extra; it needs to be a core competence.”

The next post deals with the some of the challenges to design-thinking.

Boyd, Robin, 1960. ‘The Australian Ugliness’.

Kolko, Jon 2015. ‘Design Thinking Comes of Age’, Harvard Business Review, September.