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Designs with roots and wings

By James Hamilton, PA business design expert

Business Design is a complicated affair. Actually let me clarify that, design can be complicated, although I’d argue its role, done well, should be to cut through that complexity and present a clear, simple and compelling design and narrative that just make sense.  Of course, as often as not, real world considerations get in the way of that aim. The existing organisation and its people, its leadership, and the intervention or requirements imposed from the outside (shareholders, regulators) can all complicate or obscure the resulting design.

The subject of this piece is stolen (with not a little pride) from a good friend’s Dad who – in making his excellent “father of the bride” speech at her wedding a few years ago - said something that I’ll never forget, namely that “parents have only two responsibilities to their children – to give them roots and to give them wings”.  At the time I thought I was going to cry.  But having pulled myself (emotionally) together, it’s been kicking around somewhere in my mind ever since.

To me business design needs to adopt this philosophy more – because as advisors we have the same responsibilities to our clients.  Not to behave in a parental way (as that would be sure to irritate!), but to make sure the designs we help to develop have these most fabulous of attributes and motivations.

To give them roots…

The point of roots is to anchor the design in both the organisation’s (market, customer, organisational) reality and its ambition.  That helps it remain true to its values (usually the role of the design principles we develop early in the process).  A design rooted in what the organisation does well doesn’t need to be backwards-looking – it can focus on the organisation’s future with confidence, knowing that it is built on the solid foundations of what the business is already great at, what its people believe in and get excited about.

Here’s an example of what I mean. We are working with a major manufacturing business where the client needs to deliver a complex (and excellent) product better, faster and cheaper than it has done in the past.  It’s a business that has developed over the years, employs a significant percentage of the local community and has been through some turbulent times.  To ignore where it comes from is to miss the point of where it’s going.  What does that mean from a design point of view?  Amongst other factors is the fact that they’ve spent a considerable amount of time learning from past attempts to reconfigure their operation. Some of the learning is really positive, some less so, but by understanding what helped them to succeed and why, they are better able to design a new operating model and organisation to improve how they deliver.  Time will tell if they’ve got it right, but the story about why the new model is right is an increasingly compelling one.

And to give them wings…

When we talk about giving our clients wings, you might think we’ve lost it a little.  But what it means is that we have a responsibility through the design process to explore how we could release the potential of the organisation and the energy of its people.  We can help that by borrowing (creatively and appropriately) from elsewhere – sharing what we’ve learned about what works and doesn’t (and the context within which ideas can work).  We can help to unleash potential by bringing the great people we find to the front line of design and its implementation. We can stretch thinking and inspire the art of the possible.  One client made this an overt objective for us – “I want you to raise us up, not let us drag you down” – what a challenge, what a gift, what a responsibility.

One example of how we did this can be seen in our work with a public sector business whose service delivery model had not changed in fifty years. It was expensive (relied on a national footprint and face-to-face delivery from a crumbling (literally, in some cases) real estate portfolio) and was increasingly irrelevant to its user base.  Using user-centred and digital design and showing them relevant comparators from adjacent sectors, we helped them work out how to transform their service, re-engage with a disenfranchised population and save money all at the same time. The design released their potential to deliver an excellent service that is barely recognisable from where they were just a few years ago.

Maybe if we paid more attention to roots and wings our designs would not just be better, but also more enduring?

Find out more about our work in business design.

Contact the business design team

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