in Business Design

Is Design the New Management Consultancy? Not Exactly.

Some folks are asking this question. I’ve spent the past two years making the transition from designer to business consultant, jumping a lot of hurdles along the way. Here’s a little of what I learned:

  • Highlight opportunities instead of bitching. As designers, we walk around in the world and feel overly sensitive to everything that isn’t designed well. We watch customers struggle when using poorly designed products. There’s an inclination to highlight these faults to executives whom we think should know about these faults. And maybe they should, but mostly they need help seeing the big opportunities. It might sound like product faults and market opportunities are simply the flip side of the same coin, but it’s the difference between being perceived as a whiny designer and a valued business advisor.
  • Know your limits. When I hear a designer say, “We were doing the same kind of work McKinsey would do” I think “You really have no fucking idea what McKinsey does.” I used to work at BCG (in the IT dept) and I have yet to meet a designer with thinking, methods, and tools nearly as sophisticated as those consultants. Just consider the career path at these firms: they take the top students from the top business schools who in turn have taken the top undergrads, and so on. Then the consultants work in a demanding up-or-out environment where excellence is necessary. This culture breeds great execution much more effectively than the best design studio cultures.

    And I’ve beat the design thinking drum as much as anyone, but it’s naive to believe only designers think this way.

  • Invest in new hammers. Not every business problem is best solved by a product/service design or redesign. Sometimes an acquisition is the answer, or a divestiture, or hedging the financial markets. Business leaders have a lot of tools in their toolbox: marketing, sales, operations, finance, IT, HR, strategy, customer service, etc., and each of these in turn has a deep toolbox, with practitioners who all want more strategic influence. Understanding them — and knowing when product or service design is not the best approach — makes for a more well-rounded management consultant.
  • See the big picture. Sometimes design does have direct influence on business strategy. But describing that influence in terms of customer experience alone can lack the information that executives want to hear. Learning how to describe design’s benefits in financial and strategic language is key.
  • Be realistic about the influence of design. The current barrage of Fast Company and BusinessWeek stories on design can lull us into the impression that design is now king. In my experience, this isn’t anywhere near the case. Sure, there are great changes happening: I see more companies doing field research and more realization of the power of customer experience. But it’ll take years for the generations of business people to change their thinking and practices.
  • Know what you mean when you use the word strategy. Unfortunately, strategy has become a muddled word, the meaning even traditional management consultants don’t agree on (see Strategy Bites Back for an amusing look at the situation). But this is no excuse for us to practice muddled thinking. Here’s a simple way I’ve been clarifying it in conversation:
    • Product/service design: decide how to create something
    • Design strategy: decide what to create, with a perspective beyond the current cycle (e.g. 3-5 years)
    • Business strategy: decide what a business should do, with a perspective beyond the current cycle (e.g. 3-5 years)


  1. having taken the same path as you victor – only from the opposite direction – i am an mba – i could not agree more with what you say.

    there is one fundamental difference though between in the characters of design on the one side and management on the other which is one of the core drivers in the development we are currently experiencing.

    the nature of management lies in the parts – the nature of design lies in the whole. management is about delegating – design is about making all the ends meet. management is about identifying 1000 questions – design is about finding the one solution that answers them all.
    the job of management is to take one task, divide it in a lot of sub-tasks and connect them to numbers. the job of design is to make all those frictions disappear. the difference between management and design is the difference between digital and analog.

    we are right now experiencing a swing into the direction of the analog. and all those ridiculous difficulties management systems (not MBAs in their private time) have with challenge shows us how digital and how fragmented – and to a good extend outdated too – the management world as such is.

    thanks for your inspirational post.

  2. p.s.

    when walter gropius wrote “art and industry a new unity” in his trailblazing bauhaus manifest he meat exactly that: the combination of the analog and the digital in order to use technology AND ALSO delight humans – to fill the world not only with numbers but also with soul.

    well, unfortunately this trail was not wandered by many – and understood by less – i might ad.
    too tempting was the promise of manipulated masses through advertising and other tricks. this was again something one could delegate – to an advertising agency in this case – and it worked – for some time…
    then came the brand – born out of mistrusting consumers who wanted to look behind the promise – who wanted to know who is promising.
    but brand was overestimated as a means to use power over the markets – by some in the industry and by naomi klein.
    and now we are looking through the brand, through the advertising at the products and services… and that is also why design/innovation is so hot right now.
    those who mistake it for a power instrument now might miss the whole picture.
    but the way the discussions are going here and at other places i am utterly optimistic to say with old walter “art and industry a unity” – the time is now.

  3. it is “art and technology” of course. – meaning remains the same:)

  4. Hi Victor,

    Thanks for this illuminating post! Having worked in the offices of architect Rem Koolhaas AND McKinsey I agree wholeheartedly with the points you raise.

    As for the barrage of design features in BusinessWeek and Fast Company, I would pose that design thinking doesn’t necessarily have design as a means of output. By the same token, designers are often not the best design thinkers. Design is not always physical.

    As you rightly say, sometimes the solution to a business design is a new product or service, but this is but one dimension of innovation (delivery) among many others.

    Personally, I think the real answer must come not from ‘MFAs who think more strategically’ or from ‘MBAs who appreciate the value of design’ but from people and advisors who are positioned bang in the middle and truly understand what integrative thinking is all about.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. powerful writing, otto.

    i agree in all accounts – except one: it does not need the middle man.

    rarely has there been anything great accomplished – material or immaterial – with the help of a middle man.

    what it needs though is an understanding in the limitations of the two approaches and an understanding of the fundamental difference of their nature.

    one might argue that some entrepreneur possibly thinks in the same way as rem koolhaas – but a manager never thinks this way.
    still businesses tend to need both – creativity and control.
    And: to master the design challenge the first thing to understand is that design IS NOT management and management IS NOT design. – they are exactly the opposite!

    to combine both approaches any middle man would put a load on his shoulders too heavy to carry.
    what he can do though: he can create the setting in which both can interact.
    (this is a little bit like couple counseling then – but hey! that is a respectable profession too)

  6. Jens,

    Glad you bring up this point. I agree with you: not a middle ‘man’ but an intermediary, facilitating ‘role’ (or indeed, a combination of roles) is a first step.

    With ‘bang in the middle’ I meant to say I think people with multi-disciplinary backgrounds are best placed for such a role (roles). I am sometimes amazed how little use is made of this! So many rich things originate with different perspectives entering a common podium. But additionally, it requires appropriate interactive techniques – and brainstorming is just the start here.

    Good discussion!

  7. and just for the sake of it let me finalize the picture sticking to the two stereotypes:
    a good manager always knows exactly where he is in a certain project. you meet him in the elevator, you ask him, he can always give you a precise answer.
    if in the same situation you address the same question to a designer he will tell you: no idea, ask me again when i am done.
    two fundamentally different approaches. one better then the other? – no. they serve different purposes.
    the quality of a design process you can only measure at the end… solution: produce many ending points – rapid prototyping the ideo style – first launch then test (the google style)…

    but there is also more to it if you look at the reality of how the business world often deals with creative services.
    we probably all know the kind of doomed design projects when a client calls you in to get some fresh ideas and simply has not done his homework. you waste a terrible lot of time, money and energy to find out what the client wants – and by the time you are there all energy has gone to work on a real smart solution.

    so here is the other “window of opportunity” to enhance the productivity of a design process: do it right at the beginning!

    design is – we all know that – an adventure. it deals with a lot of insecurity. and if you look closely at design processes there are two kinds of “insecurity” – “relevant insecurity” and “irrelevant insecurity”. “relevant insecurity” is about all things one can’t know – it is about all things intuitive. and then there is “irrelevant insecurity” and this is about all questions who, what, when, why, where. irrelevant insecurity has to be eliminated to create the safe space where relevant insecurity finds its paths.

    in reality it often takes quite some management guts to put all the facts on the table and then jump into the unknown saying “yes we trust you (and us)”. but there is no alternative. it takes decisiveness.
    that is why i tell clients: design is an open process – but it starts with close.

    be decisive.
    its fun.

  8. Jens, I totally agree. A phrase I like to describe business design project status is “directionally correct”. You may not know exactly what the end product will be, but you should know if you’re heading in the right direction and if you’re making progress, i.e. directionally correct.

  9. Victor – great post, and thread. As a “Management” practicioner in love (yes, love) with Design, I was intrigued by your comparison of the two worlds. My own experience is that management also deals with a lot of insecurity and ambiguity…I’m not sure about giving that precise answer in the elevator (of course, we are dealing with stereotypes here). But I’m convinced that Design can be a powerful agent to introduce a more human side to management, that wholeness that you mentioned. Design can help ask the right questions and break down some of the mental models that too often makes management pedal hard to nowhere.

  10. Wonderful posts on a timely subject.
    I’m happy to have found this place.

    We are looking at trained approaches to problem solving with certain convergences and divergences – and not all attributable to a simple tag of right/left brains.

    I am also a crossover – a designer with an additional set of tools gained with an MBA.

    I agree with Victor’s New Hammer thinking. My time in a B-school bestowed a rich set of options that had no parallel in my training as a designer.

    Jen’s note remarking on designer/innovation addresses the recent spate of business ‘discovery’ articles hints at a very high level bias to the introduction of a different way of thinking to a business environment. Perhaps this is yet another attempt at quantifying, for those who need such data sets, the phantom of ‘creativity’.

    Unfortunately, the emphasis on gaining creativity by forced grafting instead of growing from seed sounds like the next consulting fad, and aren’t we all tired of being run through with that passing lance?

  11. Thanks for your inspiring paper. I am a Professor specialized in service marketing and branding. I am exploring the way of integrating design in service innovation. Trying to find new way of thinking on new service development process i am taking an opposite direction. Business to Design and not Design to Business like yours.
    The major issue about integrating design in service innovation is (i might be wrong) is the fact that services are usually intangible…so i would appreciate if you could enlighted me on the process of making a new service both successful on functions and esthethic.

    Have a nice day


  12. I think this is a really interesting and important discussion in an emerging area with a lot of potential, but where there’s still a lot of confusion!

    One point coming out of this discussion which should be highlighted is that design thinking is an approach that can enhance current business methods. Design is NOT the new management consulting, but it is a toolbox and a mindset that can contribute to management/strategy consulting.

    I particularly appreciated Otto’s point:
    “design thinking doesn’t necessarily have design as a means of output”.

    An example illustrating Otto’s quote in my own strategy consulting work: I use “hardcore” business methods, such as, for example, the strategy map concept and balanced scorecards (Kaplan & Norton). This is a business method/tool to craft (design) strategy, and communicate and execute it. However, this tool works best when executed with a design thinking methods in mind. With that I mean, co-creating strategy with all parties involved, prototyping & visualizing it, doing this in an iterative mode, focusing on the customer experience, etc. The outcome of this is a strategy (NOT a product or service) and an execution plan, but it has been designed by using tools coming from the “design world”.

    To me business & design have an overlap and are clearly not substituting each other which a simple image illustrates better than words:

    The challenge is to explore the potential of the overlap…

    Warm regards from Geneva, Switzerland, Alex

  13. Wow, that was an impressive and unique post.
    I’m currently at one of “those” mgt consulting firms and have also worked at IDEO. Frankly, there’s a massive gap between the approach taken by management consultants and design firms. Each has its merits and downfalls, but honestly, I haven’t seen any design firms doing real business/operations strategy. A lot of it is partly interpreting consumer behavior and then combining that with the designer’s individual creativity/expression – not fully fact based or any consideration for economics. That would not fly here in the mgt consulting realm – all our insights and recommendations need to be fully validated and traced back (quantitatively as well as qualitatively). Finally, the bar is very very high in terms of not just analysis but also execution, presentation, and client interactions. Different world, Different Economics …

  14. Thank you for a realistic view on Design! Is Design Valuable? Yes Are we as important as IDEO will have everyone believe? Not even close.

  15. Design is the act of creation.
    Strategies and systems (core processes + activity systems) are also designed, however design thinking is about what could be rather than what should be, i.e. this is critically important. Even McKinsey are keen to adopt integrative (synthetic) thinking, T-shaped people who can sythesize rather than base decision-making on linear cause-and-effect relationships. Even Kennedy information said strategy is overated…
    More poker than chess. Infact lead indicators for a design oriented firm arn’t too difficult to scorecard. Beside the mind of a freethinking designer is better equiped to handle real-world complexity especially with powerful problem finding tools (e.g. SSM) —after all strategies are concepts based on abstractions of reality as a basis for decision-making.

  16. strategy is overated! – …how do we tell our parents?

    serious question.
    those who believe in strategy will have a hard time letting go.
    tastes like generation gap.

    Rachel, have you got the exact kennedy information quote?

  17. better:
    “those who believe in the superiority of strategy as a concept will have a hard time letting go.”

    those who believe in the superiority of design as a concept will be in for a surprise too.

    it takes both.

  18. People who associates design with aesthetic or experience are far from what design should be seen as.
    Design thinking cannot be the practice of one group of individual. Professional designers are a part of what design represents. Just as professional managers are a part of what management represents.
    People should not compare design firms to business strategy firms in term of design thinking because they can both handle that!
    One of the major reasons why design thinking is that much popular right now is that it promotes new values. I think our society/economy/industry needs a new approach. In the actual context, we have to think in a more creative way, a “problem solving” approach. We also need to grow from an industry who thinks about clients and technology to an industry who thinks about users, about human beings.
    This is not a corporate need, this is a society need. It is needles to say that sales and market are kind of democratic. If people need changes, the industries will have no choice but to change.
    One last thing:
    This is not a war.
    Business’s people should help design’s people to grow in their practice as designers should share their skills with managers.

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  21. Thanks for finally talking about >Noise Between Stations » Is Design the New Management Consultancy? Not Exactly. <Loved it!

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