Design as a Continuum: A Message to F500 Executives

By Brian Burke, CEO

Design and Design Thinking have been a very hot topic this decade (though not new to anyone in creative industries), and as many executives have experienced, it is a conversation piece that is appearing in your boardrooms, at management meetings, during sales pitches, and coming from your trusted advisors at leading management consulting firms. If you are bringing new products, services, and even businesses to market that have some foundation in digital and emerging tech, it is difficult not to hear that design thinking – empathizing with users, problem finding, prototyping and iterating – creates more engaging user experiences and deeper connections between your organization and your consumers. You may also hear that being a design-led business can positively affect your bottom line. There is some truth in this, with design-led businesses outperforming the S&P 500 Index for over a decade as identified by Motiv Strategies and the Design Management Institute in their Design Value Index report (DVI).

Most likely, a part of your company is already dedicated at some level to UX/Human-Centered-Design as a practice, but in many cases, design is considered a function more than a mindset and is organizationally siloed from the true heart of product development. For guidance and integration of design into the heart of orgs, the majority of Fortune 500 orgs work with outside firms – management consultancies, IT professional services firms that claim to have a design arm, or traditional design firms. Many management consultancies and IT firms have been active in M&A efforts and are bolting on design functions to expand their role and influence as full-line generalists in their industries. In effect, all play a part in the Design Value-Chain Continuum, including your own team (and hopefully, yourself).


The Design Value Chain Continuum

The Design Value Chain consists of Strategic Value upstream and Execution Value downstream. These diagrams illustrate how design alignment is often structured (with poor results) and how strong integration of design creates a smooth continuum of value creation (with successful results). The diagrams highlight external partners’ roles in the chain, but these roles can also be internal within your company.

Design Value scales at the intersection of Point A and continues through to Point B and beyond when seen through to final build. Both points are critical in the chain and historically have represented traditional handoffs from consultancy to firm to partner. Unfortunately, this often creates disparity in value when not managed efficiently. As a design and innovation partner to numerous Fortune 100 companies, we have seen the issues (and have been brought in to correct) that take place at these intersections, when well-intentioned outside firms handoff beautiful plans, presentations, and prototypes that will never see market realization, and if they did, they are a less desirable, less market-viable version of what was intended. This can create design-value misalignment and fatigue for the practice when external partners have a “here-you-go” mentality at handoff, leaving their clients to figure out the execution. It requires a different mindset and understanding of the role that design plays in the transition from strategic to execution value at “build”.


Design Intent: Research to Realization

A successful Design Value Chain must be a continuum, wherein design is applied at equal measure throughout each area in the chain regardless of its perceived value by the participants in the chain. The role of each party, both internal and external, is to assure that design intent is realized throughout the process. Internal design departments may have support at some level through Point A to B, but if they or their design firm partners are not represented further upstream and downstream through to product-in-market, the continuum breaks. The ideal situation is when the C-Suite has a Chief Design Officer or another leader that understands that business strategy and design strategy must intersect with rigor. We at Smashing Ideas have seen that an essential component of our “research-to-realization” value proposition is to see evidence and insight-driven products through to market, and to release subsequent iterations after market insights are generated. Validating early hypotheses in opportunity identification and value propostion definition with market data at scale is a sure way to determine future investment in a product and whether it aligns with strategic business imperatives.

If digital transformation is at the forefront of the conversation, with a focus on systems and technology at scale as the means to the end, assuring design sensibilities and direction early on can frame the effort to determine what is truly best for the organization, its products, brand, and ultimately its customers. While external design partners may not always be welcome in the boardroom, their objective, informed recommendations, and participation can help define a culture that understands design value as an integral component to strategy and execution. If that partner also understands what it takes to bring that initiative to market and help you realize the full continuum with minimal disruption at the intersections, you are even more likely to succeed.


Three Effective Elements for Design Value Chain Success

The Design-Value-Chain Continuum is most effective when there is:

Advocacy for design throughout the organization. Design is not a line item – it is the thread throughout your strategy; to execution, to market, and beyond. This includes your partners also understanding its value.

Inclusion of all relevant disciplines and offices in the effort. Not everyone is a designer, but in order to assure the continuum, they must play a part and be included in the process – this may include your C-Suite, engineering, operations, sales, customer service, etc. Design Thinking and associated workshops are a good way to introduce concepts and ways of working as a start.

Alignment with your partners. If you are working with management consultancies, design firms and IT professional services partners, all must communicate effectively. This includes ones that are under the same umbrella – just because they are part of a global firm, it does not mean they approach design in unison. If not, the handoffs can, and often will, result in misalignment, unrealized opportunity, wasted effort, and budget.


In summary, if you as an executive are being pulled into more conversations and presentations around the value of design in your organization or you are already investing in this area, ask yourself if you have the right advocates and whether they (and yourself) truly understand the Design Value Chain and their role in creating successful outcomes. Create an environment where design is respected as a craft, but also understood as a mindset throughout your organization. Ask more of your consulting partners and firms downstream and architect alignment between all that play a critical role in the value chain. Assure the continuum is realized so your teams, your customers, and the market respond as designed.

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