Why is design improvisational? 

Modern organizations are complex, and the sorts of problems that remain to be resolved using process redesign, IT systems design, or the combination of both that we call the co-design of business & IT systems can’t be defined around a simple set of issues. There are multiple managers and groups of stakeholders, with competing goals for change. Some of these overlap, some complement each other, and some are in conflict with those of other stakeholders. Even a group of people who work together will have differing requirements and goals, depending on their experience, their professional background, and their position in the organization. People understand the parts of the organization they have experience of. Those who have worked in multiple groups will have a much wider – and more complex – view of what needs to change than those who have worked in the same role for years.

There’s a management consultancy joke that says if you get five stakeholders around a table, you’ll have at least fifteen different goals.

The co-design of business & IT systems is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle without the picture. You get an edge here and there, part of a building outline, or a connecting feature, but mainly you are assembling bits and pieces that are tacked together in whatever way makes sense at the time. Most IT analysts fudge this by merging stakeholder requirements for change under a single, vague business goal. But this doesn’t prevent the shift in focus between multiple objectives that stakeholders prioritize, as these become salient to the current area of design. Change analysts have to understand multiple business domains, as stakeholders’ requirements indicate different types of solution and the analyst attempts to integrate these around a coherent business vision.  Even business managers don’t really understand their processes – and know very little of the processes with which their area of responsibility interfaces. Conflicts, priorities, and omissions in change objectives are seldom realized as the logical analysis methods used for IT requirements don’t provide ways to map out the full scope of change – the big picture.

We lack ways to represent the big picture of how the organization “works” in ways that would allow business managers to understand the implications of changing things. Business analysts, change managers, and IT systems analysts are in a no-win situation. They are expected to understand myriad interpretations of the business strategy, reconcile conflicting viewpoints on how business processes work, and somehow define a coherent set of change objectives that pleases everyone. All while the stakeholders they need to satisfy each understand only a fraction of what the business does.

In today’s complex organizations, very few design goals are understood to the point that they can just be stated and agreed across stakeholders. Design-goals are constantly changing between iterations, as shown in Figure 1. The designer starts by designing for the subset of goals they understand. As they explore and test the design with users, they become aware of new requirements and so modify the subset of goals they are designing for. As part of this process, they also discard any requirements that are no longer associated with perceived user needs.

The parabola of process steps introduced by goal emergence in design
Figure 1. Goal-emergence in design

Goal-based design is a myth. Organizational change requires repeated cycles of appreciation, enculturation, inquiry, learning, change, and evaluation – until the design is good enough. Not perfect – and certainly not optimal – good enough is good enough [2]. We talk about design as if it were fixed: as if there were one best way to design everything. We celebrate designers who produce especially elegant or usable artifacts as if they were possessed of supernatural powers. Yet design should be easy. It is the application of “best practice” principles to a specific situation. We can observe how the users of a designed artifact or system work, then design the artifact or system accordingly. Why does that approach fail so often?