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The design mindset and how organisations manage uncertainty

Don’t forget how fast things change, how quickly people change what they do as they conform and shape themselves from all that’s around them. — Tony Benn

The biggest challenge an organisation faces is what it doesn’t know.

Back in 2019, I first wrote about the idea of what it means to move to a design mindset. This is the foundation of my thinking on how organisations can change how they work, and how they can design and deliver better services.

More recently I’ve been helping with some thinking for FutureGov projects around what design maturity looks like in different public sector institutions. Most organisations are somewhere on the journey of design adding value to how they work, and how they organise their priorities and processes. Ultimately, this determines the type of impact they have when meeting people’s needs in different everyday situations.

The idea I keep coming back to is that the value of design is found in how organisations manage uncertainty.

This can be as simple as asking “how does this organisation manage not knowing?” To reframe this slightly, managing uncertainty might be more a question of “how do we decide what to do next?”, or “how do things need to work?” And probably most importantly, “what needs to change?”

The idea of change and uncertainty being constant is everywhere. Whether that’s the lived experience of a worldwide pandemic, the Climate Emergency, or living though the last few decades of digital disruption.

Change around us means that organisations have to change. Business models and public services have to change, as does how they meet the existing and emerging needs of society.

Stages of the value of design in managing uncertainty

The good news is there’s a journey that I’ve seen organisations go on here. There are stages of how mindsets and ways of working can shift, just as there are stages of how an organisation can rebuild itself from the inside-out.

You might be thinking that this is about more than design. Everything is always about more than design. But the point is that there’s an approach, and way of thinking here that can help.

The following stages describe moving increasingly towards a point where design is the fabric of how an organisation is held together, and how it works together to manage uncertainty.

  1. Certainty from business as usual (BAU)— when the primary focus is on managing existing technology and processes. Managing uncertainty here is maintaining and optimising for business as usual (ensuring minimum changes are required).
  2. Certainty from requirements — when the primary focus is on making existing technology and processes work more efficiently. Managing uncertainty here is working within the constraints of what you already know, often to reduce costs.
  3. Certainty through optimisation — when solutions are bought or built, but then optimised for usability and accessibility. Uncertainty makes it hard to look at alternative solutions to how things already work, or are expected to work.
  4. Certainty through learning by doing — accepting that the first solutions we put into the world won’t work as we expect. Not knowing is increasingly okay here because teams are invested in continuous learning and exploring new ideas.
  5. Certainty through organising for change — when an organisation recognises that it can’t stand still. Uncertainty is accepted and seen as inevitable. Not knowing opens up different possibilities for how to change. Teams prototype, test and iterate models for how they work, and how they can adapt policy and services to meet changing and emerging needs. Not knowing is okay because the organisation is bold enough to creatively explore new approaches in new situations.

Many moving pieces

Most UK government departments that I’ve worked with are probably somewhere between stage 3 and 4, or at least trying to embed a variation of user centred design that is closer to learning by doing, and increasingly organised around joined up end to end services. The UK government service standard probably only gets organisations to stage 4 of this journey.

These stages of managing uncertainty are intended as first principles for considering where an organisation is now. If you start to look hard enough you will see the many moving pieces that shape and influence where your organisation might be on this journey.

Where we choose to anchor ourselves, and how design is understood to be adding value in our organisations is important. That’s a state of mind.
My point here, as always, isn’t that you need more designers. It’s that design is a good idea. It has to be intentional, and used most effectively it can become the fabric of how your organisation works and keeps moving.

Ben Holliday is an experienced designer, leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.