Thursday, 2 December 2010

Design obstacles and capacity

One of the questions that arose during my PhD was “Which characteristics allow an organization to do good design?” I like the notion of capacity, according to Wikitionary “ability to perform a task; power to learn; potential/ faculty for growth and development.” So which characteristics make up design capacity? There are some concepts in the literature, such as organizational readiness or absorptive capacity but I found them all in one way or the other limited.

I found it helpful to turn the question on its head and ask: “What are obstacles to being able to practice good design?” And I found that these have a hierarchy (although it can change). Change is impossible if there is no agreement on that something needs changing. If people agree that things need to change but do not have the authority to carry out the change, the project also dies. If we have both agreement and authority but cannot agree on a common goal, the change project might kick off but probably die on the way. Another major obstacle which will usually impede lasting change is fear. Change always triggers fear and there will be people who do not embrace the change and are worried. If these worries and anxieties are not addressed and dealt with, the change will only happen on the surface and things will revert to type pretty quickly. Finally change can also be inhibited by a lack of knowledge to underpin the revamped service. This is usually a lack of awareness of research and evidence and/ or the inability to internalize this knowledge. Finally if everything else is given, if we agree that something has to change, have the people in power on board, know the goal of the change, have addressed everyone’s fears and know how the changed service should look like our project might still fail if we do not have the skills to carry out the change process.

So what does this tell us about design capacity? Well, firstly we need to be able to reach agreement. This is fundamentally about values, which can be implicit or explicit. We thus we need a way to articulate and reflect on our values and engage in a discussion about them. Thus the first element of organizational capacity is an open culture with the necessary skills to have these reflections and discussions. Secondly design capacity consists of supportive power structures. Many organizations which are successful in doing good design have flat hierarchies which means it is easier to drum up support from the appropriate authorities for change. This is not to say that a more hierarchical organization cannot have design capacity but it might need more planning and attention to ensure access to authority. Thirdly to define common goals the organization needs the facility to negotiate a common interest. Interests of different stakeholder group usually differ but through negotiations it may be possible to identify a common interest to drive the change. Fourthly, to address fear it is important to demonstrate that the change is managed and not completely out of control. Of course it is usually impossible to predict in detail where the journey is going to go but often at least the boundaries are clear, which is reassuring and can help reduce anxieties. Fifthly, the lack of knowledge can be addressed through building absorptive capacity [1]. And finally, building capacity for action [2] will overcome possible lack of skills.

Design capacity is cumulative. It builds bit by bit , every successful design project helps build knowledge, skills and tools. It is also a property which extends beyond the individual. At early stages individual leadership might be necessary but eventually it should become part of the organizational culture and/or the community of practice [3].

Of course there are more factors which determine if an organization can do good design, particularly external factors (such as laws, policy, institutional environment and also the built environment) will very likely play an important role. However I decided to focus organizational capacity on the internal elements which can be addressed by the organization itself.

[1]   W.M. Cohen and D.A. Levinthal, “Absorptive Capacity: A New Perspective on Learning and Innovation,” Administrative Science Quarterly,  vol. 35, Mar. 1990, pp. 128-152.
[2]   R. Greenwood and C.R. Hinings, “Understanding radical organizational change: Bringing together the old and the new institutionalism,” Academy of Management Review,  vol. 21, 1996, pp. 1022–1054.
[3]   J. Lave and E. Wenger, Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

I am in the process of writing this up for my PhD and a journal publication. Once it’s (hopefully) accepted I will post the link here, so if you find this useful you can properly cite it. I am also open for suggestions of potential journals which might be interested in this.

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