Designing the future of business

Last week I had the privilege to deliver a keynote speech about design thinking (I’m just going to refer to it as design, I think we can drop the thinking already) at the Metropolia Futures Conference in Helsinki.

Here is a short excerpt of my speech:

Imagine that you had been alive and working 100 years ago. What would that have been like? What would your opportunities have been like?

In 1916, we were at the height of the second industrial revolution, and you would have been part of a larger system where mass production and scientific management were the thriving. With that era came the need to drive efficiencies up, and costs down. For many of us, it would have meant working 35 years in a factory at the assembly line. Imagine. If you consider yourself a knowledge worker, or something beyond that, consider yourself lucky.

This era was remarkable in many ways, good and bad. It gave rise to a massive middle class who could afford to move up the needs ladder, stuffing their homes with much needed appliances, cars etc. to make lives easier. The good life had arrived, and it was mass produced. Suburbs popped up everywhere and most people in the middle class enjoyed a pretty similar lifestyle.

Fast forward 100 years and we are now dealing with a totally different world. Hypercompetition, hyperconnectivity, complexity and a relentless need of change are some of our challenges (and opportunities). Add to that new technologies, e.g. nanotechnology, genetics, 3D printing, robots, artificial intelligence etc. and we can probably all agree the future is both scary and exciting.

How long will we live? What kind of work will we do? Where will production take place? What is the role of the organisation? Do we work in offices?

These are some big, fundamental questions we need to start facing, and they could shake up everything. When the whole foundation is shaking, suddenly that 7% drop in sales vs. last fiscal year seems a small concern.

Creativity and innovation is the primary driver of economic growth, now and in the future. Yet, an alarming amount of companies are still trapped in the old ”conventional business thinking” mode, where next year can be predicted by looking at last year, where we have squeezed every drop of creativity and spontaneity out of the system. This business thinking that I am referring to is rational, logical, linear and mostly efficiency driven. The culture that goes with it is mechanistic and people are treated like cogs in a machine. Business is cold offices boring. People behave differently at work compared to at their spare time. Sound familiar?

Even though many companies have moved on, lots and lots of companies are still trapped in that 20th century thinking. The closet is full of old skeletons, of old dogma and ”how we do things around here” mentality. These companies are fatally ill-equipped to take on the future we are now facing. I see this happening before my own eyes in my work.

Hello design.

Without going too deep into the reasons why design is thought of as the latest and hottest business-rescue approach, let me just briefly explain what the hype is all about.

Designers are schooled to think about many possible outcomes, they deal with complex problem solving, they work to make connections between parts that do not seem to relate to each other, they build to think, and they are typically tuned into the emotions of the users they are designing for. And finally, they work to create aesthetics, beauty, stuff people really want without someone pushing it down our throats.

Design is potentially the approach conventional business is desperately looking for, as Total Quality Management, Six Sigma etc. have been exploited so far that both quality and price have mostly become hygiene factors.

So, what if business leaders and managers took this design idea seriously? What could it mean for businesses? Here are five perspectives.

1. It would mean companies would (finally) become customer-centric.

Wait a minute. Aren’t they all customer-centric? That’s what they all claim, anyway. Yes, most claim it, but only very few live it. And I literally mean live it, because customer centricity means culture.

What if we started spending more time with actual customers instead of just ”benchmarking”, looking for ”best practises” and making logical conclusions about customers in meeting rooms, far remote from the real world. This is what designer do. Tip. Don’t just use marketing research, use design research and ethnography to get close to your customers. That is, don’t just zoom in on the herd, go live with the people you serve. It will change everything.

2. We would see strategic planning for what it really is, a creative activity.

Most companies still crunch numbers and analyse their way toward a new strategy – and that means making a logical conclusion about what to do. That leaves out the most important equation of the strategic process – creativity and invention. Strategy is about carving out a place for your business in the future, then making choices about getting there. Anything involving the future involves visioning, and that means using your imagination. And strategy can often be prototyped and reverse-engineered, so let’s stop those internal logical arguments and start building to learn. As a consequence, perhaps we would see some more imaginative offerings and brand experiences in the world. And more excited customers.

3. We would aim at creating beauty and wonder.

Think about what great art is. It is original, bold, often unexpected and irrational, yet often it is remarkable, sensational, beautiful and… very expensive. Sound like what you are looking for?

What if we started thinking about business more as art? Why not stop thinking of business of a mechanistic system detached from humanity, from beauty and emotions. Again, look to designers for inspiration.

4. We would re-design the organisation.

The speed of change today and in the future will call for more collaboration, more horizontally aligned organisations, and for well-aligned cross-disciplinary work. Or to put it more bluntly, we need to kill the silos. They mostly make companies slow, blind and dumb. Great companies and brands deliver well orchestrated, coherent brand experiences that people crave for. Silos are simply the wrong for coherence.

5. We would change the view of humanity.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem in business today is that we do not appreciate and cultivate the true potential of human beings, our employees. We are not successful in motivating and training people to bring out the best in themselves. Designers start with empathy, with trying to feel what others are feeling, then work to satisfy people. But what could this mean for business?

With the risk of sounding naive (I am a hopeless optimist, anyway), letting go of control could do wonders for most organisations. Sure, it sounds scary for our command-and-control conditioned brains, but think about it. We don’t really know where the world is going, so why not let people spend even a little bit more time exploring and playing, making and building potential new business models, organisational and operational ideas etc.

I would imagine that our organisations could be ten times more creative, and as a consequence, the output of organisations would be totally different. Sure, this is a trickly one, as this is a two-way street. You cannot just motivate people in one direction. I know that. But what if we were able to light that passion in people, to cultivate a growth mindset in everyone just by empowering them to create instead of managing people top-down? What if that was the key to unlocking the creativity, flexibility and passion that we so desperately need in the future. A bit more empathy, trust and autonomy could surely not be that bad?

This is an invitation. The world needs you. To change it.

In conclusion – the future is actually not about the corporation. It is about you. It is about you deciding whether you will be a follower or a game-changer. How will you matter? Design is not just about beauty and form any longer. It is a way to design great strategy, great organisations and solve complex, systemic problems. Design is now used to solve those big, wicked problems of the world, like pollution and hunger. Having said that, design is not the perfect cure for everything, it is just a step in the right direction. We need to abandon most of the dogmatic thinking that once propelled us to a new standard of living and adopt a new model. And in the spirit of design, that means constantly searching and being open to new ways, to ”what could be”. This is the growth mindset we need. Not just from designers and other so-called ”creatives”, but from all of us. Design is, after all, too important to be left only to designers.

Come on now. This is an invitation. The world needs you. To change it.

Thank you.


Tobias Dahlberg
Founder and CEO, Wonder Agency

Text first published in LinkedIn Pulse Feb 6
Photo: Stanislav Kondratiev