What Is a Game-Changing Design?

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By Miriam Grace

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In the beginning was the link.

This simple and yet profound disruptive technology of the internet moved us into the world of virtual relationships and forever changed the accepted organizational form. The web transformed traditional business boundaries from impenetrable firewalls to semipermeable membranes that struggle to control an inherently uncontrollable phenomenon—human-to-human interchange.

The internet was clearly a game-changing design that employed new technology breakthroughs that transformed traditional business practices. There are strong indications that the next horizon of game-changing designs will represent radical shifts in how people think about and perform their work. This economic survival game of keeping ahead of competitors has become much more knowledge driven.

What employees know, and discovering ways to enable them to work together to grow that knowledge into competitive advantage, is the next frontier.

What has been referred to as “discontinuous change” in business contexts increasingly asks: What actually are the viable differentiators in today’s global business environment? What enables a company to continually reinvent itself? What are examples of game-changing strategies that will disrupt business-as-usual enough to shift outmoded paradigms?

A lesson from the world of education might apply here. In doctoral research, there are both quantitative

and qualitative paths to knowledge. Perhaps we could apply that model to the world of business and combine the institutionalization of a design culture (a qualitative value) with competitive analytics that serve fact-based decision-making (a quantitative value).

A balance of these models, supported by a robust learning infrastructure and a deep understanding of systems and their dynamics, might prove to be a strategy disruptive enough to our established organizational forms to allow us to escape the groove we find ourselves in and strike out in new directions.

Clearly, we’re drowning in data. We have data about data about data (meta-metadata). Data is straining the capacities of our databases and repositories. But the critical data, the data that gives us a competitive edge, is difficult to identify.

The ability to mine and exploit data is actually quite a recent phenomenon. As computing power grew   exponentially, the marriage of analysis, graphic images and massive data volumes became feasible.

Business intelligence has been identified as the No. 1 priority for IT organizations. Companies that have moved beyond data mining and management to quantitative and qualitative analysis and visualization techniques integral to the corporate strategy are exploiting knowledge for competitive advantage.

To change the game, we have to look through to the skeleton of values that supports the corpus, study

the interconnections, and look to the revealed trends and patterns to understand what holds the whole structure in place. When we see this deeply into a phenomenon, we can begin to influence it, but this requires a powerful will and a sustaining vision.

A desire for increased market share won’t support this kind of long-term strategic direction shift. If we are looking to change the game, leadership must design a vision that will address the whole system and the hidden connections.

Boeing business leaders already hold up continuous learning as a foundational corporate strategy that assists us in the ongoing shift from bounded organizational views to a whole systems paradigm.

To be knowledge-driven may mean that having to know more is a business imperative. But knowledge alone won’t fast-track us at the speed we need to travel. A knowledge incubator is needed—an organizational and contextual hothouse for growing that rarest of flowers, which is sustainable success.

Through data analytics today, organizations are gaining new insight into areas of leverage and potential advantage in a particular competitive arena. An integrated system of explanatory and predictive analytics structured through dynamic simulation and scenario-planning, strategic analysis is a powerhouse of knowledge acquisition tools.

These tools can not only be turned on to out-know the competition about a particular technology or product direction, but also can be leveraged toward revenue generation. Knowing the customer, being able to provide customers with critical predictive information on, for example, elements that disrupt their income stream, not only enhances the customer relationship but can, in some instances, be offered as a new product line.

The idea of design thinking may be the single most important business concept to emerge from the 20th century. Design thinking is a perfect complement to the earlier efficiency movement. While the scientific method of management, espoused by Frederick Taylor and later refined by Joseph Juran and Peter Drucker, provided a key framework for how work should be done, design thinking answers what, as well as why, a given thing should be done.

In 1996, on the 100th anniversary of the New York Stock Exchange, it was noted that of all the original companies that had started up the Exchange, only General Electric had survived. This speaks to the fragile nature of business sustainability and to the imperative for a company to know “why” they are in business (a design question).

But the game keeps changing, and game-changing strategies have to be aware of, and work with, this natural systems oscillation. We have to keep in mind that humans don’t learn much from success. When we are successful, we tend to keep doing what we have been successful doing. Yet, experientially, we know that the deepest learning emerges from failure because the shock of failure triggers us to shift our thinking, which leads to different behavior and tends to reverse the failure spiral.

A focus on the cultural element inherent in all human activity allows design-conscious leaders to set a design agenda that is sustained through a design culture and continuously renewed through a systems approach to knowledge creation.

The ability to manifest an idea that fulfills a critical need is the alchemy sought by a knowledge-driven corporation. This capability, combined with making significant improvements to existing products, processes or services, is what constitutes true innovation.

Design is disciplined inquiry. What works in opposition is the culture and complexity of contemporary corporate organizations that are often disincentivizing to those working to make the shift from the era of the expert individual to an integrated and collaborative team working together through a knowledge-creation paradigm. The context where knowledge synthesis is intentionally nurtured to maturity is referred to as a “design culture.”

The idea of a culture of design within an organizational context to foster design reasoning, judgment and practice emerged along with the discussions of the learning organization. Design is an intentionally directed process that motivates individuals to collaborative action and helps to eliminate elements of human interaction that drain energy and human potential. A focus on deep and continuous learning ignites this potential within the conductive containing environment of a design culture.

The combination of a design culture that relentlessly pursues innovation and creativity and the use of strategically driven analytics is a powerful and dynamic duo. Examples of the high value that analytics can bring to a business include measuring the impact of marketing strategies, predicting customer behavior, analyzing historical trends, anticipating future fluctuations in the marketplace, or helping a customer understand and manage disruptions to their value stream.

A core value of continuous learning as a leadership imperative, supported by the deep learning achievable through peer-to-peer, apprentice-style mentoring—especially in leading edge technology areas such as analytics—sets in motion a self-organizing and self-sustaining engine of productivity.

    Changing the Game

    The following disruptive strategies are offered as “game-changing” interventions that companies can adopt to begin to cope with 21st-century knowledge-creation challenges:

    • Synergize the corporate culture with design principles and practices.
    • Adopt and proliferate a deep understanding of systems and institutionalize systems thinking.
    • Catalyze radical change readiness through peer-to-peer apprentice style mentoring and partnering.
    • Maximize understanding, visualization and strategic use of competitive analytics.

    This package of complex, interdependent strategies is not an easy undertaking. Even as we attempt to change the game, the game itself is altered. To change the game, the underlying structures must be fundamentally changed. What holds today’s corporate and civil institutions in place are the connections—one person with another, one culture with another and one idea with another.

    Whole Systems Design

    Whole systems design is the expression of the composition of design and the systems sciences. It is the intentional creation of wholes, the antithesis of the fragmented, silo-like thinking that is at the heart of so many of our modern-day business and social problems.

    Whole systems design is a process of intentional leadership. The outcome is the shaping and influencing of a composition that has never existed before. It is an emergent process that is always collaborative, most effectively performed within a diverse design team, and whose properties arise from the interrelationships of the essential elements (people, processes, structures, information and technologies). A whole systems designer’s focus is on the creation of resilient systems that express the art of making things that fit harmoniously in their context.

    Creating a Design Culture

    The pace and intensity of creating and sustaining a design culture requires integrated design teams and other collaborative forms of team structure that are themselves designed. Members of a design team must be carefully chosen for the qualities they bring and should be assessed against criteria such as their characteristics in the following nine areas.

    Cultural competence

    Cultural competence is the knowledge, skills and attitudes that are required to engage in and carry out mutually satisfying cross-cultural and cross-gender (or other) encounters or dialogues across differences. Collaboration skills allow team members to participate, learn with others, and share, in both word and graphic language, thoughts and ideas that are essential to design action.


    Judgment is the ability to apply wisdom, set and solve ill-defined problems that have multiple sets of interdependent variables (complexity), and learn from consequences, as opposed to an ability to make decisions and solve well-defined problems.


    Empathy allows us to project ourselves forward into the experiences of others in order to gain insight and enable the interpretation of intangible meaning in what others say and do.

    Creativity and innovation

    Design is inclusive of creative thinking and includes innovative activity, which applies creative concepts to real-world situations.

    Tolerance for ambiguity

    Tolerance for ambiguity is an embrace of uncertainty and acceptance of complexity.

    Positive attitude toward error

    Seeing error and failure as sources of learning encourages risk-taking and exploration of possibilities.

    Bias toward service and responsibility

    Bias toward service and responsibility is a view of organizational life as an act of ethical composition on behalf of oneself and others.

    Contextual awareness

    Contextual awareness is a partner with cultural competence. Without deep awareness of the context in which one is operating, design collaboration cannot occur.

    Systems thinking

    Systems thinking is a holistic approach to understanding complex relationships and their feedback behavior, and it is characterized by intentional reflection in, and on, action. It represents the habit of mind that looks for the often hidden patterns of interconnections and interactions that operate among the people, processes, structures, functions, information and technologies within a particular contextual space.