Can organizations be beautiful? That was a recent question posed by Tim Brown, CEO of design and innovation firm IDEO, on his blog, Design Thinking. His book, Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, discusses how thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy (see our earlier article about IDEO’s work with design for social innovation). Tim’s blog explores design thinking, and we thought we would share two recent posts about organizations and networks – what are your thoughts on his perspectives?

Can organizations be beautiful?

At IDEO we have been working on the topic of designing organizations for a while, most specifically the design of organizations to be more innovative. My struggle with this particular domain of design thinking has been one of aesthetics. Great design thinking results in functionally and emotionally satisfying solutions where the emotional value is generated through the creation of meaning. In design, meaning largely comes from aesthetics and so I have been wondering how to think about aesthetics when considering the design of organizations. Hence the question, can organizations be beautiful? More specifically can organizational designs be beautiful? Is there a ‘designerly-ness’ to the process of organizational design?

I have been wondering about this partly because I believe without an aesthetic component the best design minds will not apply themselves to these kinds of problems and partly because of a frustration with current organizational design practice that seems to largely be about arranging boxes in an organizational chart.

Are there overarching design concepts that can be described as beautiful? I think Shaker communities might be considered beautiful, not just because they created beautiful things but because of the simplicity of structure, clarity of purpose and thoughtfulness for every aspect of the experience.

Is Google, with its twenty percent personal project time, a beautiful organization? Are there organizational archetypes that can be evaluated in aesthetic terms? A bee colony could be considered a beautiful example of emergence. What would a beautiful, innovative organization look like or feel like?

Honeybee_282_

Image credit: USDA
from designthinking.ideo.com

How about networks?

As a follow up, I want to say something about networks as organizations and their aesthetics. I am most of the way through reading Connected, a brilliant book on the science of social networks by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. Among the many insights is that we will be able to intentionally manage social networks as we understand more deeply how they operate. Given the power of networks to achieve many things I think it likely that many more organizations will seek to design themselves as networks.

There is much to admire about the aesthetics of networks including their emergent behavior, their resilience and their ability to evolve to be more fit over time. These are things that classically designed organizations have struggled with. Does this make networks beautiful? I certainly find the social network maps of the Framingham heart study, that the authors use to illustrate contagious behavior, quite beautiful.

Homepage and top image by Dr. Nicholas Christakis, from designthinking.ideo.com

Posted June 28, 2010