Success Is Always By Design
I have been a Voice and Data Network Engineer for over 25 years, and before that a cost and managerial accountant, tasked with translating reams of business data into indicators of either business success or business failure. Throughout my career, I have spent a great deal of time designing, building, and reflecting on the designs and efforts of others. The abiding lesson throughout all of that experience is the imperative of having not just a deliberate design, but a deliberate and disciplined approach to design. If we are not thoughtful in our designs, we will not be wise in our choices, and we will not get the outcomes we desire.
If we want to succeed, we must design that success. There is no second alternative.
The Science Of Design
Establishing quality design is a fair summation of the varied disciplines of engineering. The close connection between each of the terms, as well as the concepts, is easily intuited by consulting any dictionary (my personal preference is Merriam-Webster) and noting that "engineering" is defined in terms of "design": "the work of designing and creating large structures (such as roads and bridges) or new products or systems by using scientific methods." Although we habitually use the term "engineering" in relation to large construction projects, within the basic definition one can easily see how engineering concepts can be brought to bear in almost any field of human endeavor. "Engineering", to my mind, is the science of design.
The apprehension of any science begins with an understanding of its first principles. When we explore the science of good design we must first examine the principles and the process of design itself.
An excellent depiction of the design process comes to us courtesy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Open CourseWare initiative, which makes a variety of classroom lectures and supporting materials freely available online. In particular, I make reference here to the 10-step design process outlined in ESD.051J Engineering Innovation and Design. As presented in that lecture series, the ten steps in the fundamental design process are as follows:
Identify Needs -- What problem are we attempting to solve? What are our goals and objectives?
Information Phase -- Do any solutions for the problem already exist? What are they? What are their strengths and weaknesses
Stakeholder Phase -- Who desires which specific goal or objective? Why?
Planning/Operational Research -- What's realistic? What limits us?
Hazard Analyses -- What's safe? What can go wrong
Specifications -- What's required? How do we define success
Creative Design -- Ideation
Conceptual Design -- Potential solutions
Prototype Design -- Create a version of the preferred design
Verification -- Does it work? If not, redesign
Note: I do not intend an in-depth exploration of these phases here. I highly recommend visiting the MIT Open Courseware site for a more thorough presentation of this process.
This process is entirely conceptual, and not tied to any particular discipline or industry. One can--one should--apply this process not only to the development of industrial products and technologies, but also to project plans, marketing plans, and even the creation of art; this last point is not as far-fetched as it might seem, as several of the world's foremost industrial designers, such as Dieter Rams and Apple's Chief Design Officer Sir Jonathan Ive began their studies within the world of art, and Dieter Rams' designs have been gathered into a traveling exhibit Less and More, which has been displayed at art museums around the world.
Why This Process Succeeds
This process approach to design succeeds because it is comprehensive. It demands that one reach outside of his or her own thoughts and ideas, and specifically engage with others, solicit input and ultimately feedback from others. Throughout, the design process explicitly seeks connection to the reality surrounding the effort, and, in an iterative fashion, requires constant validation of effort against that reality.
It is this connection of creative thought to physical reality that is the essence of the discipline we call engineering.
Without Design, Failure
In 2012, Dr. Benoit Hardy-Vallee, writing for the Gallup organization, reported on a study published in the Harvard Business Journal that found, out of 1,471 IT projects, average cost overruns of 27%, with one in six projects having cost overruns of over 200% and schedule overruns of almost 70%. Dr. Hardy-Vallee categorized project failure causes into three broad categories:
technical (technology developed, project management techniques)
individual (project leadership, scope management, communication)
stakeholder (user involvement, executive buy-in, goal specificity)
Dr. Hardy-Vallee concluded that project management failure was largely a result of inadequate "emotional" content. His assertion was that project management current literature was rich on process controls and methodologies, but severely lacking in ways to engage various project stakeholders at an emotive and psychological level:
The problem with a single-minded focus on processes and methodologies is that once people are given procedures to follow, compliance replaces results. Everybody is concerned about how to do the job, not about the outcome if the job is done well.
However, when one considers Dr. Hardy-Vallee's causes of failure against the backdrop of the design process outlined above, one can match the causes of failure to particular phases of the design process (and sometimes to more than one phase of the design process), and a different conclusion arises: projects fail from poor design and from poor implementation of a design. Projects fail because of a lack of good design.
Processes that do not produce good results are not good processes; they should be altered and adapted until they do produce good results. Likewise, methodologies that do not yield successful outcomes are not successful methodologies, and should be revised so that successful outcomes are obtained.
Because of the iterative nature of the design process, "compliance" becomes the pathway to results. It is the complement to those results and never its substitute. The "design" response to Dr. Hardy-Vallee's emphasis on a need for "emotional" content within project management would be that by definition, effective stakeholder analysis phase of design engages all project participants at that emotive and psychological level.
Behind every victory is a good plan. Behind every triumph lies preparation, forethought, and deliberation. Behind every success is a good design.