What If Managers Thought More Like Designers?

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The way we run organizations isn’t working. Companies (and their managers) are failing us in every conceivable way. They leave workers uninspired and disengaged (according to Gallup, just 13% of the world’s workforce is engaged at work).

They’re wasting time (according to the Deloitte Center for the Edge, productivity at American companies steadily declined since 1965). And they turn out mediocre products that fail to address real customer needs (according to the Havas Media Lab, most people wouldn't care if 73% of global brands disappeared tomorrow).

What we’re witnessing is an epic failure of management. And as managers, we have a moral obligation to do much better.

Smarter Management or More Human? 

There was a time in my career when I thought all we needed was “smarter” management: better strategy analysis, more sophisticated metrics, stronger performance management, more efficient operating models, better use of IT and so on. But is this enough? 

Today, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s not about being smarter; It’s about being more human. Most organizations aren’t too dumb to succeed. They aren’t human enough.

They fail to address the human needs of their two most important stakeholders: customers and employees. 

Thinking more like designers can help managers put the human element back into business—and dramatically improve the organizations they run. 

What a “Designer Manager” Would Do Differently

Let’s start with customers. So many products and services are mediocre at best because they come from managers asking: Can we build it, and is there a market for it?

What’s often missing from the equation is a solid understanding of the fundamental human needs underlying the “market.”

The designer, in contrast, places a premium on gaining a deep understanding of the fundamental human needs underlying a given design challenge. Then comes the careful balancing act of aligning what’s desirable from a human perspective with what’s technologically feasible and economically viable.

That’s how truly great designs come to life—and how a company builds a community of loyal customers who love its products and services. Think of Apple, Ritz-Carlton Hotels or Southwest Airlines.

Having great products and customers who are loyal fans goes a long way toward creating a motivated, engaged workforce. But it doesn’t have to stop there. After all, employees are humans and they have needs too. 

Managers find themselves asking: Why don’t employees “get the strategy?” Why do 9 out of 10 employees (and managers!) loathe the annual performance appraisal process?

Why are most meetings a terrible waste of time? Why are marketing and engineering operating in silos? Why do most change programs fail?

Why? Because managers don’t bother uncovering the underlying human needs so they fail to design a better workplace.

Keep in mind that we’re not dealing with some kind of natural law here. We can choose to work differently.

And as managers, we can choose to design a much better workplace, an organization fit for people. One that lets its people thrive and perform at their best every day. One that ultimately turns employees into loyal fans too. Look at Google, Zappos, Semco or W.L. Gore. 

I could go on, but for now I’m content with stressing the human element that’s critically missing from the world of business today.

I’ll leave you with a parting question: What changes could happen if we stopped chasing numbers and started serving humans?