Never Delegate Understanding


What’s the best way to change something? There’s no easy answer to this question – but if we’re trying to design changes in the way our organisations work, we need to have a deep understanding of what’s going on in them.

Design thinking in business is a hot topic right now (see the excellent cover story of the current issue of Harvard Business Review by Tim Brown and Roger Martin for an example). And while there is some great work being done on this topic, we can learn a lot from some older examples too.

In 1940, the Museum of Modern Art wanted to encourage the design of furniture that enhanced the quality of life for people, regardless of wealth or class.  They initiated a design contest called“Organic Design in Home Furnishings,” defined as:

A design can be called organic if, within the object as a whole, there is a harmonious relationship between the individual elements as regards structure, material, and purpose.

Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen won the contest with this chair:

Eames Saarinen Chair

This was a high-profile contest, and many people asked Eames and Saarinen what their secret to winning was. Years later, Eames gave the secret away:

This is the trick, I give it to you, you can use it. We looked at the program and divided it into the essential elements, which turned out to be thirty odd. And we proceeded methodically to make one hundred studies of each element. At the end of the hundred studies we tried to get the solution for that element that suited the thing best, and then set that up as a standard below which we would not fall in the final scheme. Then we proceeded to break down all logical combinations of these elements, trying to not erode the quality that we had gained in the best of the hundred single elements; and then we took those elements and began to search for the logical combinations of combinations, and several of such stages before we even began to consider a plan. And at that point, when we felt we’d gone far enough to consider a plan, worked out study after study and on into the other aspects of the detail and the presentation.

It went on, it was sort of a brutal thing, and at the end of this period, it was a two-stage competition and sure enough we were in the second stage. Now you have to start; what do you do? We reorganized all elements, but this time, with a little bit more experience, chose the elements in a different way, (still had about 26, 28, or 30) and proceeded: we made 100 studies of every element; we took every logical group of elements and studied those together in a way that would not fall below the standard that we had set. And went right on down the procedure. And at the end of that time, before the second competition drawings went in, we really wept, it looked so idiotically simple we thought we’d sort of blown the whole bit. And won the competition. This is the secret and you can apply it.

So the trick is: work through 3000 studies of the components of your problem, twice. It might be a trick, but it sure isn’t a shortcut!

Ironically, despite the goals of the contest, the Eames/Saarinen chair couldn’t be successfully manufactured at the time – it was too complex and too expensive. The winning design would have just been a footnote in history, had Eames and Saarinen not both gone on to greater design success.

Eames found this success designing with his wife Ray. They took the failure of the organic chair and delved even more deeply into the problems of design and manufacture. After thousands more experiments and prototypes, they came out with the DCW Chair – which Time Magazine named the Best Design of the 20th Century.

Eames DCW Chair

In Eames: Beautiful Details, their granddaughter Carla Hartman describes the process Eames and Saarinen used, and how Charles and Ray applied it:

While this process might sound arduous – or even exaggerated – to some, to the Eameses, it was simply part of the process of “learning by doing.” Whether encountering a new technology, a new material, or a new idea, they explored its constraints deeply themselves before bringing it into the Eames Office where others joined in. Throughout their lives, they adhered to what Eames Demetrios has called an Eamesian Parable: “Never delegate understanding.”

That final point is crucial – never delegate understanding.

This mistake happens a lot. When we buy tools and expect them to fix our problems, we’re delegating understanding. When we design a strategy and expect others to implement it, we’re delegating understanding. When we ignore experiments, iteration and learning and just expect our first ideas to work, we’re delegating understanding.

Charles and Ray took the failure of the organic chair and used the lessons to build one of the most successful and iconic design firms in history. To do this, they had to rethink their starting point:

In our chairs, we have not attempted to solve the problem of how people should sit. Instead, we accept the way people do sit and operate within that framework. – Charles Eames

When we try to design better organisations and better outcomes for people, there are no shortcuts. We have to start with building a deep understanding of how they are now and operate within that framework. We can’t delegate this work – we have to dig in and do it ourselves.

The reward, of course, is that eventually we might see the change that we hope for.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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