Masking Design Competence

Most real organizations have many design problems. This is most explicit in engineering type organizations, but such issues are nearly as common in all organizations. Any organization must make many choices regarding the design and marketing of their product or service, in how it will be financed, sourced, produced, tested, stored, transferred, priced, evaluated, etc.

For most such design problems, most organizations have some standard ideal design criteria. The organization is supposed to search in the space of possible designs for ones expected to do well according to the ideal criteria. And then adopt those better designs. In profit-oriented firms, many key criteria are closely aligned with firm profit.

According to the usual ideal norm in organizations, everything should be arranged to promote good designs according to the ideals. For example, the people who most influence a design choice should be those with the most relevant info and the strongest incentives to get it right. People should be hired and promoted according to their ability to help make good design choices. Designs should be changed when circumstances suggest that the ideal design has changed. And so on.

Real organizations also have complex Machiavellian politics. Coalitions form that promote their members at the expense of rivals. Members are chosen for their loyalty and ability to help the coalition. Coalitions sometimes reform, dropping some factions and adding others. Members must show loyalty to their coalitions by visibly promoting design choices that benefit their coalition, even when that comes at the expense of the organization’s ideal design criteria.

This conflict between design choices that meet ideals and those that help coalitions drives may of the illusions and hypocrisies in organizations. For example, people are often placed in positions of power for reasons other than their superior design competence, such as their info and abilities regarding key decisions. This creates a demand to give those people the illusion of design competence.

For example:

When I started at Lockheed Research in 1985, my mentor was a veteran who explained his secret for getting funding from the other Lockheed divisions:

Find an idea for a project we could do for them, but don’t tell them the idea. Instead break the idea into a few key parts, describe the parts to them, and let them put the parts together into the total idea. They will be much more willing to fund a project that is their idea.

A related strategy is to design a solution but then weaken it to a space of nearby solutions. Tell your manager “I think something in this space should work but I can’t figure out what” and let him reinvent your particular solution point. He then owns the design more, and can claim more credit for design competence.

As another example, as I’ve mentioned before people often pretend to ask people for advice as if they wanted info, but in fact they are seeking allies. In general, boards of advisors are rarely actually asked for their advice; they are mainly chosen to add prestige to an organization.

Meetings in organizations often take the appearance of searching for design proposals and evaluating proposals presented. But in fact proposals have usually been selected beforehand, and the meeting is to create an appearance of support form them, and for the story presented about who deserves credit. If a problem is presented for which a solution isn’t offered, that is probably because they don’t don’t see a solution with which they’d want to be associated, and would rather someone else take on that failure area.

Powerful people can also create the appearance of more design competence than they actually have by pushing vague design philosophies that others can then claim to adhere to without actually greatly constraining their choices. Also, powerful people can claim that complex organizational considerations require them to keep the reasons for their design choices secret. Others can then just assume they must have great design competence regarding such considerations.

It helps to have a culture of assuming that the people with the best credentials in terms of education and prior organization and positional prestige have the most design competence. Since these people happen to the those that are most useful for coalitions to put into positions of power, the conflict between power and apparent design competitions is reduced.

Can readers think of more examples? If so, I’ll add good ones to this post.

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