Improvising Design - The Book

 Boundary-Spanning Design: How Information Systems Evolve Through Improvisation


Change Management and Organizational Design


How to approach the co-design of business-process and information technology (IT) systems is one of the most critical issues facing organizations today. Both fields have an extensive management literature and both are located firmly in the 20th century, when business process change could be considered separate from IT systems development. Now, the two areas of change are inextricably linked, presenting a "wicked problem" that requires managers of change in both business innovation and information systems to collaborate. In our internet-enabled, global economy, organizational innovation is not only complex, but it is a fundamental part of ongoing strategic management. It requires that both strategic and middle managers immerse themselves in organizational and IS design: evaluating the organization against constantly-changing business goals, trawling the business environment for changes that require proactive business process change and anticipating the potential impact of emerging technologies. Most organizations are extremely bad at this. They approach it as a one-off initiative, constantly forming new "troubleshooting" teams to deal with what they perceive as a distraction from daily operation of the business. They come up with "point solutions": one-off solutions to static problems, whereas what is needed is an appreciation that both problems and solutions are systemic issues, that should be revisited in terms of the organizational "whole." So the idea that change is disruptive permeates down the organization, limiting what can change and constraining the improvisational potential of the organization. But what organizations need most is that improvisation – albeit in a coordinated manner. The business that does not improvise is dead in the water.

viewing organization as a system
Figure 1.1 – Viewing The Organization As A System

Thinking systemically requires that we understand the interrelationships between the global system that constitutes the business organization and the subsystems of business and work processes.

Implications For Change Management and Organizational Design

When we think about design, we most often mean the product of design. We talk about "innovative design" in terms of cool features and new product applications. But we rarely think innovatively about the process of design. This book is aimed at changing that. It examines design, not as a mysterious technical process of invention, nor as a creative process that requires special talents or attributes. Instead, design is considered as a process of changes to what exists now. In particular, this book explores the type of design that is required for organizational change management, in particular, the co-design of business-process and information technology systems.
Design is a process of discovery that requires coordinated investigation across departmental and group boundaries. The most difficult part of design is defining the problem to be solved. Much has been written about how to tackle "wicked problems," problems that consist of a mess of interrelated problems, that cannot be disentangled and so cannot be defined objectively. The lack of an objective definition is important: without this, no criteria can be defined for a solution and no agreement on what is to be changed can be defined. So designers and change managers muddle through. We know that successful designers understand how to manage wicked problems, by means of a mental repository of  patterns through which they recognize, explore, and reframe elements of organizational problems. Experienced designers employ a repertoire of techniques that elicit different aspects of the problem situation, to provide a multilayered view of the problem, and to coordinate debate at the boundaries between various organizational domains of knowledge and action. But when we involve inexperienced or non-technical people in collaborative design, we need to use techniques that develop a common language for the design.  We need methods and approaches that allow design participants and other organizational stakeholders to negotiate problems and solutions across the boundaries of their expertise. This book focuses on how we achieve that end.

How designers think: the problem of the problem

If we ask an IT system designer what problem they are trying to solve, they will talk in terms of technical solution-fragments, rather than what most people would consider a work "problem." This is largely because of the way IT professionals are trained. They are taught to be experts in producing software solutions to data processing problems. If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. We train IS designers with a set of analogous examples; when they encounter a complex software problem, they access those examples to provide partial solutions. When they cannot find sufficient solution fragments to solve the problem, they ask colleagues and other contacts. When they cannot ascribe elements of the data-processing problem to accessible solution fragments, they re-structure the problem according to the solutions available (Ball and Ormerod 1995)
So the IT designer's concept of problem inquiry is to infer a low-level, data-processing structure that can be solved from a known repertoire of solutions. Complex organizations consist of “process systems,” incorporating multiple knowledge domains, skills, and competing definitions of best practice. Assemble five design stakeholders in a room and you will uncover ten problem definitions, all of which are interrelated. Successful designers understand how to manage these “wicked” problems, coordinating understanding with boundary objects to negotiate problems and solutions across these expertise boundaries. They build up a mental repository of problem structure patterns through which they recognize, explore, and reframe elements of organizational problems. They employ a repertoire of representational techniques that elicit different aspects of the problem situation, to provide a multilayered view of the problem, and to coordinate debate at the boundary between stakeholder’s domain knowledge.

arrow Waterfalls and out-of-control speedboats

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