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To Solve a Problem, Step Away From It

It might sound simple, but taking a step back can help executives look at a problem in an entirely new light.

By Fred Collopy
BusinessWeek

When my colleague Dick Boland talks to an audience about how to manage by designing, there is often a moment where he pauses, usually with a hand raised thoughtfully to his chin. After a long and quiet beat, he takes a large step backward. While doing so, his hands cross his body to rest at either side of his imposing frame, a movement that emphasizes the simple act of stepping back. When he speaks next, it is usually about the importance of such moments, those moments when designers remove themselves from immediate concerns and considerations to look at the bigger picture, the context, the whole; those moments when we step back.

There are two important things about stepping back. The first uses stepping back as a way to get another perspective, to look at the bigger picture. The second is more like stepping away from something, usually assumptions that we have made. Contained in this simple movement are a couple of important lessons for managers who wish to be more innovative or use design approaches in their everyday work.

Dick has been struck by the regularity with which designers actually, physically step back. As if to say: "Wait a minute, slow down, I need to look at this from another point of view." And since he has alerted me to it, I too have noticed it happening, in my own behavior as well as that of others. It seems to me it is an act that both symbolizes and embodies a shift in attitude. It affects all present. It changes the conversation.

Step Back from a "Decision Attitude"

Given the frequency with which Dick and I have discussed the act of stepping back, I imagined that we must have written about it often. But in looking over our writing together, I found only one mention. It occurs in the introduction to our 2004 book, Managing as Designing, when we illustrate the difference between a "decision" and a "design" attitude.

We used an example from the history of operations. For many years, researchers had been refining models so that they could make better decisions about how much inventory to keep on hand. This involved forecasting demand as well as calculating the costs of holding inventory relative to the risks of running out of an item. Eventually, though, researchers began to ask an altogether different question: Would it be possible to design a system that required holding no inventory at all? As we wrote, this design-focused approach "allowed us to step back from the decision making techniques we had developed and ask the more fundamental question 'what are we trying to do?' " The resulting move toward just-in-time delivery and other innovations in supply-chain management produced more dramatic improvements than were possible through focusing on further improving forecasts. And such a rethink of the design of larger systems can also be productive in other contexts.

Step Back from Users

Much current conversation about design centers on the need for user-centered approaches. A notable exception is found in the recent book Design-Driven Innovation, where author Roberto Verganti refers five times to the idea of stepping back, usually from users. Verganti seems to call for executives to step back from people's current wants to look at a bigger picture that includes what they could want. Because the meanings that users give to things are bounded by what they have already experienced, he argues, companies interested in radical innovation should be careful not to get too close to them. Instead, those companies should "take a step back and investigate the evolutions of society, economy, culture, art, science, and technology."

This idea that understanding users is not enough (and can actually prove a distraction) has been gaining traction for some time. Steve Jobs' observation that "it's hard for them [users] to tell you what they want when they've never seen anything remotely like it" is often repeated. Walt Disney simply declared: "You know what people want and you build it for them." I am particularly fond, though, of Denys Lasdun's way of putting it, saying that the architect's job is to give a client "not what he wants but what he never dreamed that he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time."

Step Back from Your Assumptions

In his 2009 book, The Design of Business, author Roger Martin illustrates the use of stepping back to question our assumptions. He relates that in designing the Aeron chair, designers Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick had to "step back from their own assumptions about form and material to design a totally new kind of chair." This forced them to look at the problem of office seating through new eyes, to observe "the subtle signals of discomfort, the shifts of position as sitters got stiff or the seat grew too warm." Time magazine judged the resulting chair, which some in early focus groups said didn't even look like a chair, the Design of the Decade. It has since become ubiquitous in offices and other workplaces.

I like the embodied nature of the stepping-back image; how it suggests and captures the physical nature of questioning, of considering, of designing. Whether stepping back from our assumptions or from what users are telling us, there is movement in it. It's a simple enough action, but it's a design act in itself. Physically doing it can lead us to look at the bigger picture or remind us to question the most basic assumptions of the problem a group thinks it is solving. In stepping back we step forward, into and toward the situations we serve.

Fred Collopy is a Professor of Information Systems at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University. He has designed several software products and studies the application of design in managing.

 

Posted January 26, 2010


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