Design Thinking Needs Org Design

This post was written by our Founder, Bud Caddell.

THE GIST: Even the most exceptional ideas and most beloved prototypes don’t stand a chance against institutional dysfunction. If you don’t want your ideas to end up on the ash heap of history, if you don’t want to kick yourself every time someone beats you to executing an idea, and if you don’t want to watch your revolutionary startup implode, it’s time to rethink how your organization works together just as fervently as your design process.


A Personal History

I got my first computer when I was 5 years old and by 12 I was building computers and websites to pay for my rapidly-increasing comic book habit (building a RAID server or a website for the local aikido dojo was so much better than mowing lawns in the Houston heat). By 14, I got my first real job by designing a Flash game to teach oil field workers the ins and outs of directional boring. By 17, I was the sole software engineer at a $6MM-venture funded startup. By 18, I tinkered on a football helmet that registered collisions and could alert players to the possibility of a concussion (this was 1999, #humblebrag). By college, I arguably built the first combined CRM and inventory management systems for managing listings on eBay.

In short, I was fortunate to grow up in direct contact with digital technologies and, as I entered the workforce, I was beginning to truly grasp their ability to reimagine the world around us.

But then I started supporting large organizations …

A few years back, I suffered a professional breakdown while running a product design unit. Our client, one of the largest retail companies in the U.S., had given us a crystal clear brief. We followed the gospel of Design Thinking to a T: We had generated dozens of ideas, winnowed these down based on user feedback, and had begun prototyping an end-to-end solution for further testing. Their CEO raved (and demanded tens of thousands physical products in less than four months). Our CEO, too, was excited. This was THE idea. It could change their business and put our team on the map.

Then, the reality of organizational dysfunction set in. The project imploded as each C-level client executive lampooned the idea because it failed to support their silo’d incentives. The idea demanded IT resources, yet those resources were divorced from any activity that occurred in stores. The idea also demanded retail space, but because it was a new idea it couldn’t afford the same predictability of the usual merchandising footprint (a declining ROI was still preferred over a less certain one). The idea also required marketing dollars to spread the word, but it cut into the expected TV impressions the CMO needed to unlock his bonus.

Most damning of all, none of these people seemed to like working together.

Our idea was DOA and so was my patience.


The Birth of a Category

I love developing new ideas. I love talking to customers. I love sussing out their actual problems, not the ones we dream up far removed in an office. I actually love the marathon of iteration, the sweat-beads of user expectations, and the stark reality of their behavior.

I hate that this work can be killed by a disgruntled employee. I hate when internal opinions kill an idea before it can be tested with customers. I hate that the way organizations structure their teams can be a barrier to doing anything new. I hate that employees are often incentivized against collaboration.

Right now, there are world changing ideas languishing in committee. This isn’t hyperbole. This is fact.

In response, I started NOBL to ensure organizations could unlock new ideas.

We call what we do “Org Design” and it’s a critical partner to anyone pursuing Design Thinking. We obsess over how teams work together.

Plain Fact: if you’re investing in Design Thinking without investing in Org Design, you’re going to have a rough time.


A Stark Contrast

We encourage failed product ideas, but punish failed ways of working

How we’re taught to design products: listen, test, discard, test again, discard, test again, fine tune, fight the inclination to rest on your laurels, and question each and every assumption. The user is your God, feedback your gospel, and post-it notes your communion wafers. Hallowed be thy prototype!

How we’re taught to work together: this is how we’ve always done it here, if you don’t like it maybe you’re not a culture fit. Status quo is your faith. Inertia, your flagellation. Galileo’s house-arrest will seem quaint in response to what we’ll do to your career opportunities if you buck how leadership expects work to get done.

The irony: If a product or service doesn’t fulfill our user’s needs, Design Thinking teaches us to be ruthless in our destruction and reinvention. If work itself doesn’t fulfill our needs and the needs of our teammates …. well, that’s our fault for not adequately assimilating.


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