Design isn’t a Development: It’s an Inversion

There is a lot of talk these days about company orientation. Is your company a Decision (Divided Hierarchy) or Design (Connected Holarchy) company? (Dave Gray). Does it have a Delivery or a Discovery mindset? (Gregerson / Dyer / Christensen) A sales or marketing focus? Is it business process or customer centric?

They all sound distinct, but of course they’re not, in that your understanding of each of those terms is bound to be different from mine or anyone else’s. And there are overlaps. Marketing and design thinking approaches can look very similar on the surface. They even use the same toolkit and language. However marketing is still essentially a solution looking for a problem, whereas having a pre-determined solution is the antitheses of design. (So just to be clear: If you have a clear idea of what the end point looks like and you’re looking for a way to “get buy in” as you lead the flocks to your preconceived vision, it’s marketing. If you know the principle of what you’re heading towards and you allow the detail of that to emerge and to be determined by the people you’re helping or working with, it’s design.)

And what’s the difference between sales and marketing? Sales is more “push” and marketing is more “pull”? Gritty vs fluffy?

There’s no right answer and there are no hard lines. But there are useful distinctions and different orientations that create different experiences.

So here’s a top-line go at expressing those. You may vehemently disagree. If so, feel free to weigh in. After all, it’s a truly wicked space, so the conversation’s more important than the so-called facts. And there are so many different theories in each basket: a SPIN sales approach or a “close fast close hard” mentality is different to a Challenger Sales or a Miller Heiman approach and so on. And the best sales people I’ve met actually started with a marketing or even design approach. So this is more about archetypes than absolutes.

Flipping the difference
Flipping the difference

As you can see, by the time you get from a traditional business or tech-led approach to a design approach, the starting and end points have essentially flipped. Which is why changing a large established company from one to the other is nigh on impossible—the assumptions, processes, systems and infrastructure don’t need to be tweaked, they need to be inverted. It’s also why most big corporate claims regarding customer centricity are really marketing spin.

And it’s not surprising that trying to mash these approaches together without understanding why they are different creates tension. See if any of these sound familiar.

Adopting design approaches in a sales-driven company:
“How can I take all this extra time to understand their business and co-design a solution when I have to make my numbers this quarter and the solution might not include the product I’m being incentivised to sell?”

Introducing a customer/design/innovation orientation in a process driven organisation:
“Surely if we just improve our existing processes to do what we already do better, that will improve our service and the customer will benefit—isn’t that customer-centric?” Or the familiar “We need radical breakthrough innovations! And in order to get funding for each project, we need a full business case (often costing as much as $250,000) proving its ROI before you start developing it”, which is kind of like trying to guarantee your unborn child’s school grades before you’ve even had sex.

Understanding the marketing function in a sales-driven culture:
“What’s the role for marketing? Is it strategic or tactical? Is it brand experience? Brand awareness? Lead generation? And what’s a “lead” anyway? Someone warm enough to talk to or someone ready to sign? And how are the marketing and sales divisions being incentivised? Who’s got the status? Who owns the customer? Who’s supporting who?”

The classic expression of this was Steve Jobs comparing the Microsoft and Apple approaches, essentially saying that at Microsoft, they started with the technology—what clever things they could do and invent—and worked back to the customer experience—why people should like it. Whereas at Apple they started with what was important to the customer. They tried to imagine the ultimate experience they could design for that (that the customer might not even be able to conceive of yet) and then work back to the tech—“So how the hell do we make that then?” Which is why they (and Pixar, who had the same philosophy, based around story) were so relentlessly and ground-breakingly innovative. They weren’t creating better tech, they were creating a better experience. The tech was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

As always, there’s no right or wrong with any of these approaches. It’s a matter of which ones are useful in whatever context you’re in. And the reality is that most organisations will be a hybrid of the above, with teams or divisions of different orientations rubbing along together as best as they can.

And if truth be told, it was all pretty comfortable until so many major markets got disrupted by new business models and approaches like design thinking or human centred design became so popular. There was a sort of rule of thumb that the smaller the business, the more customer centric it was, the more B2C the larger companies were, the more they were a mashup of traditional business and marketing approaches, and the more B2B they were the more they were a mashup of traditional business and sales. Moving from sales to marketing focus was uncomfortable because it meant a fundamental shift in power and direction in terms of who “owns” the customer, and a complete reinterpretation of what both roles meant. Shifting from any of them to a design orientation is harder still, and the bigger the company the harder it is, and the longer it will take, assuming it’s truly possible at all.

So if most organisations are a hybrid, the question then becomes how do you make that a healthy hybrid? How do you straddle these inherently different approaches and assumptions without tearing the organisation and your people apart with mixed messages? Without turning your customers into jaded cynics (telcos and banks are customer centric? Really??)

And how do you do it without eating your creative babies in the process?

Predictably, there’s no single answer and no clear formula. It depends. There are however some very clear principles and a number of questions you’ll probably want to consider. These will sound simple and be anything but.

Get clear on what you want to create.

The only way to judge how useful an orientation is is to assess how well it will help you get where you want to go. So what is your vision? As an organisation? As individuals? As teams? A vision is not the answer or execution of an idea, it’s the impact you want to have. The purpose you want to fulfil. It’s got to be meaningful and an expression of the values you believe in (not the laundry list of ubiquitous success attributes most companies compile). It is NOT about responsible governance or maximising shareholder return or marketplace ranking.

Make sure it emerges from and is meaningful to the whole company. Make it aspirational. Make sure the world will be a better place for it. And express it in human, not corporateze. Disney’s old vision of “Make people happy” was so much more meaningful than “To be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information. Using our portfolio of brands to differentiate our content, services and consumer products, we seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences and related products in the world.” Gets you right in the feels, doesn’t it? Not. If it makes you misty, you’re probably on the right track.


Who are we?
Why are we here?
Who are we helping? How?
Why does it matter? To them? To us? To anybody else?
How many different generational / social / cultural / economic value systems are in play here? What do they mean? Want? Assume?

Get up close and intimate with your customers.

After all, they are the whole point of the business. If you don’t stay relevant to them, you’re toast. Ask the taxis of the world. Find out what they want and need and why. Have everybody in the company do it, and do it often.


What’s important to them?
What are they trying to achieve in their lives and businesses (irrespective of whether we feature in that space)?
What do they need most to do that successfully?
What is their step by step experience of dealing with us or our competitors?
How do they want to engage with and buy from us?
Where are our systems at odds with either our promises or their desires?

Be aware that these orientations are are fundamentally different.

That they operate on a different set of assumptions and objectives and have very different impacts. That even though they’ll use the same terminology, they probably mean different things by it. Call it all out so you can have a common set of reference points from which to make better informed decisions.


What assumptions do we all have about the project? The people? The systems? Time? The customers? Resources? Trends? Key terms?
What are the implications of each of these modes in our business? (Honestly?) For example moving from a tech driven to a customer driven development process will completely change both processes and how much time things take. It will also mean the dev folk are interacting with lots more people. How will that impact things?

Be aware of which orientations you currently favour, in which areas.


How do they complement each other?
How do they conflict?
What confusion is this causing?
What tension does this create?
What is that costing us?

Be aware of which embedded systems and processes reflect which orientations, and how they enable/conflict with what you’re trying to build.

Realise that highly adaptive systems will feel chaotic. That customer-focused innovation is hard to time-table and estimate ROI. That classic project management approaches will probably kill most innovation and culture change initiatives. That layered approval processes inhibit agility. That prescriptive decision trees and highly controlling areas like customer support groups (telephone support etc) often prevents people from giving decent customer support. That customers generally appreciate good marketing but resent self-serving spin.


What is the ideal version of what we are trying to achieve?
What would have to be true for this to be so? (processes, conditions, resources, mindsets, etc)
How do our current behaviours and processes stack up against this?

Be conscious of what behaviours and mindsets you are consciously and unconsciously rewarding, and again, how they help or hinder your outcome.

Be conscious of the conflict or dissonance they cause. Insisting people be touchy feely when your remuneration discussions are all hard-assed and numbers based. Claiming to be customer centric when you assume you know better than they do what’s good for them. Espousing a “people first” culture when people “know” they’re expected to work late and be available weekends. Talking about being agile when approval processes are a nightmare and there’s no autonomy for making decisions. Declaring innovation is key when people don’t feel safe to try things and fail, and when you hire for conformity not creativity. And so on. And on. And on…


How important is this claim to us?
Does it just sound good or are we willing to be seriously uncomfortable to invest in making it true?
What would have to be true for our claims to be valid?
What current behaviours, mindsets and processes would support this? How can we amplify them?
Which current behaviours, mindsets and processes inhibit it?
How do we minimise, stop or replace these?

If you decide that you want to shift modes on a smaller scale…


Which systems and processes can we change immediately (eg. give everyone in the call centre a discretionary sum such as $200 that they can use to help resolve customer issues without having to go questions on every form etc)?
Which will take a while? (eg. a different way of managing innovation projects).
How could we healthily run both processes in parallel while we move towards the new system?

If shifting orientation on a larger scale, remember that the different orientations are often antithetical.

Succeeding in one area may be actively threatening to another. In this case, consider testing the new model in a separate, shielded division as a skunkworks sort of project, giving you time to work out the logistics, smooth out the mechanics, find the right people and make it successful and magnetic before you start to expand that section and wind down the original model.


How can we run a silo’d experiment with this? (Being located outside of the usual building is usually a good idea).
What would happen if all our usual processes and constraints did not apply? (Worry about how to replicate and scale it later, when you see what works and what effect different elements have.)

And when you are reviewing all of this, be collaborative, candid and transparent.

Will your existing orientation get you where you want to go? Where is it useful? Where is it not? Know that shifting orientations is completely wicked. It will be messy. Full of failed experiments and conflicting viewpoints and agendas. And that’s OK. It just needs to be managed with awareness ad empathy.

If you are clear and candid about where you are (really, not ideally or purportedly), and you are clear and communally engaged with what you want to create and where you want to go, then the process of getting there is a step by step journey fuelled by communication and connection and adaptation. You can’t plan it out: it’s wicked. The landscape will change tomorrow. And what worked in one company or group may not work in another. It’s ad hoc and specific to your situation.

These orientations are not inherently right or wrong. Only you can decide how useful they are, and that will depend entirely on what you are trying to achieve and how much that means to you. Understanding how different the orientations are, what they mean, and how they can help or hinder you in your quest will help you make cleaner decisions as you head collaboratively towards your vision.

And, in the meantime, they will help determine how healthy a hybrid you can manage to be.


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