171 – A series: Managers as designers in local government. Part 3.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              500 words

design and thinking

This is the third post in a series of four. It addresses some of the challenges to design-thinking.  Jon Kolko has identified several.

His first challenge is accepting that you will be dealing with more ambiguity.

“It is difficult if not impossible to understand how much value will be delivered through a better experience or to calculate the return on investment in creativity.”

He says that ambiguity doesn’t fit well with organisations that value ‘repeatable, predictable operational efficiency’. This will be an issue for councils seeking to use design-thinking. For councils, there is an expectation that value will be created through efficient use of resources without any waste. The strong risk aversion of local government reinforces elimination of uncertainty, or at least pretending it has been eliminated. Embracing a culture or experimentation, customer value creation and risk taking will be very challenging.

Even proponents of customer choice in local government want this choice to be provided efficiently. In some respects they are mutually exclusive ideas if the choice can only exist because there is surplus capacity available. For example, the choice of restaurants available when walking down a busy street only exists because some of them will have empty tables. If every restaurant was flexibly planned to be full at all times, there would be no choice. These businesses charge higher prices to cover the cost of wasted capacity when tables are not full. In the public sector the costs of choice are often seen as waste.

The second challenge is related – transformative innovation is inherently risky. It requires leaps of faith when something that hasn’t been done before is attempted. There is no guarantee of the outcome.

In local government this has a link to contemporary community development practice where mobilising community-led transformation is being contemplated. Starting such a process in the community risks the council losing control and becoming the servant of the community in responding to numerous and unplanned pressures.

The third challenge is that design-thinking is not a solution to all problems. Whilst it does help people and organisations to manage complexity, expectations need to be managed. Kolko says that it is not the right tool to ‘optimise, streamline or otherwise operate’ a stable business. I can only assume that this is because they already have the design right.

Kolko concludes by saying –

“An organisational focus on design offers unique opportunities for humanising technology and for developing emotionally resonant services.”

The last post in this series looks at Roger Martin and Tim Brown’s related but different view of the role of design in organisations.

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