Do you know the old adage, “a camel is a horse designed by a committee?”
That line nails it for me.
Imagine you’re sitting in a leadership team meeting. At some point, someone mentions the need for a new way of doing things. It might be a new performance management program, a strategic planning process, a bake sale for charity, or one of a gazillion other activities that need to be developed. What happens when someone mentions one of those processes?
Design by Committee
Only you know the truth, but I’m willing to bet that your team rolls up their sleeves, jumps up to the whiteboard, and starts to map out the design.
Zack is right into the weeds, “If we’re revamping performance management, we need a template that fits on one page.”
Jayme follows him in, “Our new system needs to include a lot more about our values and competencies. There’s too much emphasis on the ‘what’ and not enough on the ‘how.’”
She’s interrupted by Lacey who adds another complexity, “If we had an app it would make it more likely that people would submit real-time feedback.”
You try to jump in to tell them that you have a team full of people with master’s degrees who can design the system, you just wanted to get some direction on what the system needs to accomplish.
Watching a leadership team trying to design a program or process is excruciatingly painful and wholly ineffective. Why do they insist on trying?
Why You Delve into Designing
Flashing the opportunity to redesign a process in front of a bunch of leaders is like dumping a bag of Lego blocks in front of kids. They can’t help but start to build things—something, anything! The temptation is too strong. Who wants to just talk about what to build when all those beautiful blocks are there for the taking?!?
What’s Going On?
There are myriad reasons why leaders jump into designing things. Which of these is true on your team?
- You have a strong bias to action and designing something in a meeting seems like the fastest path to getting it done
- You are smart and creative and love the energy of brainstorming and generating ideas
- You have years of experience of what doesn’t work and a vested interest in not replicating those mistakes
- You don’t have confidence in the designers who should be doing the work
What’s Wrong with Designing?
If you’re asking, what’s wrong with designing processes, they’re the backbone of an organization, I get it. It feels like abdicating responsibility to leave these important design decisions to people with less context and experience. It’s not. It’s a terrible idea for leadership teams to delve into design because:
- You likely aren’t up on the latest advances in the given field and won’t have the research on what works and what doesn’t
- It’s been too long since you walked a mile in the moccasins of the people who will need to use the process. You can no longer relate to their experience or empathize with what would be a relief and what would be infuriating
- Designing is a long and involved process and getting into the weeds on one topic will rob you of the time to talk about strategic issues that you ought to be focused on
Leadership teams trying to design processes is a recipe for disaster. How could you add more value?
Don’t Design, Envision
If you’re not supposed to design core processes and programs, what are you supposed to do? I like to refer to the alternative as “envisioning.” Here’s what I mean:
- Discuss the goals or business outcomes that you want the process to accomplish. If it’s performance management, your goals might be better alignment of priorities across teams or a stronger sense of personal accountability
- Anticipate how the business will evolve over the next 3-5 years and paint a picture of the organization the system will need to support. If you’ll be international in 5 years, that’s important to know
- Articulate what you want the process to feel like (not to look like)
- Agree on the risk appetite for the process and whether it needs to be industrial strength or just cheap and cheerful
- Identify other core programs or processes the design team will need to integrate
- Reinforce your organizational values, culture, or guiding principles that you want the process to embody
- Suggest other models or inspirations that the designers should investigate
There are so many benefits of spending time envisioning what’s possible without plunging into the depths of designing or building the process.
- More emphasis on the purpose of the process, which means it’s more likely to support your business success
- A cross-functional view baked-in, which means your core processes will integrate more effectively with one another
- Loftier goals for the process, which means the process is useful and relevant for longer and can grow with your business rather than being antiquated in two years
- Greater alignment upfront, which means fewer iterations and faster implementation
- Room for the experts to add their value, which means you can attract and retain better caliber people
Don’t Skip Envisioning
One more caution. Some teams are good at staying out of the weeds of design but it’s because they abdicate their responsibility for core processes altogether. Don’t miss your opportunity to add value before the design commences. If you do, you’re likely to balk at the draft designs, leaving those poor designers having to regroup, reinvent, and rework. Not only will you lose precious time but you’ll frustrate everyone in the process.
There are countless benefits of shifting from designing to envisioning, including being seen as leaders rather than Six Sigma white belts.
How can you help your team make this shift?