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Alternate to McKinsey

Happy spring and welcome back Humantific Readers. This week we are sharing some reflections on the question of redesigning design departments. As many of you know, over the past 15 years or so we have had the opportunity to work with many internal design departments, design teams, design leaders inside various large corporations.

Most often we have been asked to help make the department, the team more strategic, meaning more capable of going out into their complex organization to help others with diverse fuzzy challenges that are unknown at the outset.

We often get hired by folks who want to learn how to move away from the presumptions that every challenge that an organization faces is product, service or experience related. As complexity of organizations rise, as complex adaptive systems, so too does awareness that such a presumptive orientation does not make a whole lot of sense. Savvy leaders recognize that fulfilling this need to help diverse others internally and externally requires a different set of co-creation oriented skills.

Basically we are teaching how to become equipped to move from a reactive downstream orientation to proactive upstream orientation. It is not a shift that everyone in the design community of communities has appetite for, however many internal design groups often see signals within their organization that they need to be proactive in adding more value to their company in order to survive in continuously shifting times.

With that experience in mind we viewed the recently published McKinsey Report entitled “Redesigning the Design Department”. For us it was a bit of a soft-ball snoozer but what was a little startling to see was not what the report contained, but rather what was abscent, what was missing.

Clearly the McKinsey Report was an expensive undertaking. One might wonder how after “studying data from 3 million designers across more than 100,000 design departments and 30 Senior Executives in design companies” there could be such omission but from our perspective the McKinsey Report missed most of what could have been, should have been helpfully articulated regarding redesign of design departments to become more adaptive in the new emerging normal of 2022. We wondered if that was a result of strategic omission or just lack of awareness? You decide.

In general, we do find that design industry “literature” often has a tendency to dance around and around what the real issues are due to deeply embedded marketing orientations. That dance-around is clearly visible in the McKinsey Report. Savvy readers have to read between the lines to decipher the real issues, the real opportunties, slightly buried and oddly redepicted there. Can you decipher the dance code?

If we were to choose a few of most important passages in the report it would be these:

Text #1: The McKinsey Report states: “You can’t wait for marketing to bring you a design brief and then complain about how poor it is; the designers need to go out there, engage with the business, and play a role in creating the brief for themselves.”

Decoded Translation: This Text #1 implies a type of challenge framing skill that is still not widespread in the design community. This implies the presence of Open Challenge Framing skill beyond product, service and experience design assumptions. Currently briefs and discipline-based framing dominate product, service and experience design. A service designer’s methods recognize service problems and prescribe service outcomes. A product designer’s methods recognize product problems and prescribe product solutions. Thus decoded Text #1 is really less about “unlocking designs potential” and more about acknowledging need for change in how designerly folks typically frame challenges. An objective observer, not drinking any design thinking kool-aid, might ask how being brief-based (framed problem given) and discipline-based framing oriented makes designers master problem solvers? There seems to be a few disconnects there.

Unknown: Does Text #1 mean that McKinsey has recognized this peculiarity, this skill-building absence and has embarked on an internal initiative to build this kind of upstream capacity its design department? This is not revealed in the report.

Text #2: The McKinsey Report states: “Another hallmark of design teams that reported a high level of integration with the rest of the business was the work they tackled. Designers were not only limited to designing products and services for customers but also helped tackle internal strategic and business challenges.”

Decoded Translation: A similar issue in that “tackling internal issues” requires an open aperture upstream orientation. This means stepping away from the assumptions built into downstream product, service and experience design methods. What is missed, side-stepped in the McKinsey Report is that any design team approaching any complex organizational or societal situation assuming they already know what the challenge paths and solutions paths is bound to encounter resistance. Outside of the design community, high challenge presumption at the outset before any facts are known, is a well-known formula for disaster.

Unknown: Does Text #2 mean that McKinsey has recognized this methodology and skill-building related redesign need? This is not revealed in the report.

Text #3: The McKinsey Report states: “The design leader needs to be engaging the CEO, the CFO, and the CHRO [chief human resources officer]. There’s no point bothering anyone else until they’re on board.”

Decoded Translation: Being able to help others in the organization frame and tackle diverse organizational challenges, being able to do related skill-building, opens the door to many types of leadership conversations, rather than waiting downstream for someone to have a product, service or experience challenge. Adaptive, inclusive upstream skill opens strategic doors.

Unknown: Does Text #3 mean that McKinsey has recognized this connection between skills and doors and is skill-building in this direction inside their design department? This is not revealed in the report.

In the McKinsey Report we did notice that most of the references regarding need for designers to skill-up were described as additional know-how outside of design rather than need for changemaking inside design and upskilling of design. This is an often seen deflective design industry dance step.

We could not help but notice there was no mention of VUCA as a widely recognized set of change driving forces and no mention of need for design departments within organizations to gear up for the rising complexity of challenges. Complexity as a term of consideration seemed to be oddly absent from the McKinsey Report.

In the big picture sense the challenge that we see for the design community of communities, reflected in the McKinsey Report is that 95% of the combined academic and practice community seems to be focused on selling, selling, selling various versions of current state design and design thinking and only 5% are working on fixing, evolving and redesigning methods to better meet the challenges of rising complexity.

If we gathered and made a stack of design industry/education literature focused on “unlocking designs potential” and those focused on “rethinking design”, the former would by far outnumber the later. It is an imbalance that continues to impact the industry and the McKinsey Report does not alter that trajectory, by largely sidestepping the opportunity and responsibility to be more direct, timely and clear.

If you think opening up your design department and the integration of designers into cross functional teams is meaningful, progressive changemaking in 2022 then you might celebrate the McKinsey Report.


Clearly other folks are working on different design capacity issues.

As a brief, straightforward alternate to the McKinsey Report we are happy to share this Humantific perspective based on our practice experience working with internal design department leaders.

Many of our readers will know that in our last book Rethinking Design Thinking / Making Sense of the Future that has Already Arrived, we shared 10 Secrets of Design Thinkingas well as 25 Change Avenues, suggestions for how to redesign design for more adaptive and complex contexts so we will not repeat all of that here.


Redesigning Your Design Department: 5 Keys for Organizational Leaders

Key 1. Recognize that the era of unquestioned, super-sonic spin around design / design thinking is over. Embrace the new normal era of less spin, more insight, more honesty when it comes to setting expectations around current design / design thinking methods, distinguishing between philosophy and methodology, between ambition/bravado and actual methods. More authenticity, more transparency.

Key 2. Embrace recognition that product, service, and experience design methods were never designed for and are not well suited for complex organizational and societal contexts where the challenges are unknown and cannot be presumed at the outset to be product, service, and experience related. Move away from depicting assumption-boxed methods of product, service and experience design as meta that can be applied to organizational contexts where the challenges are unknown.

Key 3. In order to build an internal capacity for helping others with diverse organizational challenges you will need to upskill a strategic design team with a high level of mastery in Open Challenge Framing skills that will enable them to enter any complex situation and help participants cocreate open, systemic challenge constellations upstream from “briefs”. The vast majority of graduate design schools still teach discipline-based framing. Open Challenge Framing remains a mastery still not taught in the vast majority of design education institutions.

Key 4. Recognize that as complexity of challenges rise, so too does need for a type of multi-disciplinary participatory co-creation mastery, not found in traditional product, service or experience design.

Key 5. Get yourself a design capacity leader capable of doing more than marketing existing methods.


In painting this picture, that we believe to be authentic, we always keep in mind, not only the current participants of the design communities and what is being marketed but also the generations of new student leaders just arriving. To be fair to new generations, we don't want to be among those conveying or implying that the current state of product, service and experience design, often repackaged as “design thinking” is perfectly aligned with their expectations of tackling world peace sized challenges in the new normal.

There is presently a significant gap there, a disconnect that we want to, in fairness to the arriving generation clearly convey. There is work to be done. As the forces of VUCA shift the world continuously Design is not, and cannot be a fait accompli. This making sense helps us at Humantific sleep soundly at night.:-)

Of course the marketing of the status-quo tends to butt up against acknowledging need for change and the actual changemaking going on in many industries including design. Its always good to know where you want to be in that equation.

Hope this is helpful Humantific readers.

Questions?: Send us an email: kickitup (at) humantific (dot) com

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