(Photo credit: Prestige Singapore)

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In a more complex world, A 360 design-led approach to generating growth will be more effective than the typical business management method.  

In May, with one swift stroke, 6,000 employees of Malaysian Airlines (MAS) were axed from their jobs. MAS’ new CEO, Christoph Mueller, whose profile on Wikipedia is listed as the ‘Terminator’, declared that the airline is “technically bankrupt”. Applying the typical playbook of business management, he announced that the solution is cutting costs to focus on turning profitable in three years. Market analysts were not surprised at the move but have said that this is just the first steps. But, to cut is straightforward. The tougher question is: How do you restore confidence, generate conviction and revive growth?

Consider another high profile company nearly went bust – Apple – and how it turned the corner. In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to the company he founded but was later ousted from. Jobs made peace with his nemesis Bill Gates in order to secure an investment. He reviewed the organisation to identify the talents that he could count on; told all staff that their best days were still ahead, then focused all their resources on a single, winning product. The candy-themed iMac was launched in 1998 to resounding success, providing the fuel to rebuild Apple.

That Apple is now a powerful company is beyond anyone’s doubt; it is after all the world’s largest company by market capitalisation today and is heading towards the unprecedented valuation of a trillion dollars. Yet, what was incredible was, Jobs did not just revive one but two companies; before Apple, there was Pixar. When the small crew at Pixar approached Jobs, they too were also on the brink of bankruptcy. But Jobs saw value, backed the creative team and signed a deal with Disney. Pixar began to produce one animated blockbuster after the other. Soon, Disney acquired the company for USD$7.4 billion.

How did a man like Jobs, who had little education – the only credit Jobs cited for his education was a typography course at Reed College – create more wealth than any of his peers ever did within 20 years?

Many thinkers and leaders in business and management, including Gates, credit Jobs with vision and the ability to understand the power of design, which ultimately gave Apple the edge. But what did Jobs himself think about the subject? Jobs once explained that for Apple, design is not about how things look but how they work. This belief that every element has to be designed to work in sync, to deliver a thoughtful and effective outcome, shapes everything at Apple. From how the organisation thinks, to how they develop ideas, build supply chains, organise culture, and how products are shaped and presented – everything is done with purpose and in harmony. Apple’s current CEO Tim Cook once said in an interview that the late Apple chief’s most significant contribution to the world was “the company and its culture.”

Understanding and defining the impact of design when it is not used as a tool for expression, but rather as a tool for growth, has been our life’s work. Applying design comprehensively in strategy, organisation and experience, we have helped many companies in their growth strategies in over 18 cities throughout the Asia Pacific. One might ask, what is the difference  between a design-led strategy versus the typical business management approach?


Here are 3 distinct differences:

First: Assuming a clear-cut approach versus finding the creative engine

The typical business management approach has an almost fanatical belief in looking at business in a clear-cut manner: the company is not growing because costs are high, so focus on trimming the fat and you will naturally see growth and a return to profit.

For anyone who has run an enterprise with hundreds of staff in different configurations, this is easier said than done. I call this clear-cut approach by traditional management folks, bloodletting. In medieval Europe, if you were sick, doctors would bleed you in the hope of getting rid of the ‘bad blood’ so that you could recover. This ‘bloodletting’ approach – of simply cutting costs and hoping for growth – is dangerous. Since many companies eventually get cut to the core, they are unable to recover since they have lost critical talent who can generate growth.

Conversely, in the design-led approach, the task is to find who the existing creative persons or units that are creating value are, and how best to retain them. One of Steve Jobs’ immediate objective upon his return was to identify the key talents that he needed to retain so that the company will have a chance to thrive again, quickly. This was one of the primary purposes of the investment that Steve obtained from Bill Gates – to pay those people.

In our work, we often spend a lot of time identifying critical talent, the creative engine in an organisation, and focus on repositioning them so that they can be more effective in their work. We identify them in three ways; how many mentions they receive from superiors and subordinates in order to assess their influence; what key areas they are driving and their impact in the value chain of the business so as to assess their value; the depth and quality of their thinking process so as to assess creative thinking.

Whenever we design our strategy around these talents, our chances of success are much higher. It is time-consuming but effective. From our point of view, any approach which does not seek to understand who and what creates value in the company should be guarded against. A wrong move or cut will damage the creative engines for future growth and set the company on an irreversible course to ruin.


Second: Limited angle versus the comprehensive view

The typical management thinking has a rather limited view on business and tends to look at issues from just the finance or human resource point of view. It is seldom appreciative or even tolerant of other disciplines like marketing, communication and design. This is somewhat like driving a car without rearview or side mirrors.

The design-led approach demands that we respect the problem by looking at every aspect of the business. When we reviewed a national bank so as to transform it, we looked at how bank was organised, the belief systems, revenue generation according to product and services, relationships with customers, how financial products were developed, regulatory limits, how the products were presented and communicated, and how the retail experience was designed to shape the perception of the customer. From this comprehensive view, we understood that the bank was not designed to be close to the customers; they did not have an emotional bond beyond convenience, and this was limiting the bank’s growth. This was because the bank’s staff did not know the cause they were fighting for, nor understand the value they brought to customers.

Unfortunately, this low-value-creation mindset plagues many employees across industries in Asia, and it is usually as a result of the lack of a strategic approach towards highlighting the value of their impact. To do so requires identifying a meaningful purpose for the employees. To overcome this issue and switch on the high-value-creation mindset, we developed sessions to help staff question and discuss their role and purpose within the organisation. We developed a whole new belief system with examples that they can relate; since they too desire to own homes or are parents, they will be able to relate to the thoughts and concerns of customers.

This strategy paved the way for us to introduce a new retail banking experience with an emphasis on staff coming across as the customers’ extended family members. Staff roles were redesigned for employees to act more as advisors rather than just customer service providers. We then designed more spacious advisory cabins for longer conversations, introduced comfortable sofas and roving advisors offering assistance. Wherever the bank introduced this new banking experience, revenue doubled. This is what happens when you respect the problem by not taking anything for granted, by reviewing every relationship and element. A design-led approach requires humility because it is a far more complex world than assuming things will change with just a few adjustments.


Third: Not just surgery but a balanced approach

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. For a design-led approach to work, it requires a comprehensive approach in terms of implementation. In the business management approach, they will likely spend a lot of time looking at the finances and organisation, then rush the soft aspects like branding and service.

Unfortunately, this seems to be happening in the case of Malaysian Airlines. For a business that relies heavily on experience and service, one would think that they would pay more attention to the softer aspects to really get it right. But while detailed plans were being made for finance and organisational structure, it appears they rushed the branding aspect by calling for a pitch with little time for agencies to think deeper about possible solutions. When this happens, it is like assuming that surgery alone is enough for the patient’s recovery, without considering the other important aspects such as mental well-being and home care. Any doctor will tell you that these other aspects matter to ensure a full recovery.

Contrast this to the care and attention to detail that Apple took to launch the Apple Watch. From reorganising internally, hiring the right talent such as the former CEO of Burberry, Angela Ahrendts, to even considering having dedicated Apple Watch shops in high profile places such as Ginza in Tokyo and Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Apple left nothing to chance. It seems, too often, we tend to have the tendency to rush into things and the results are often poor because we are not geared up for maximum success. A design-led approach is like adopting the Yin-Yang philosophy for implementation, both the soft and hard elements matter on an equal basis. You cannot just have a good product, you must know how to create desire and influence in order to shape outcomes.

Whenever we are implementing any project with a client, we often ask them to measure their efforts through this framework to assess how comprehensive they are in maximising their chances for success:

  1. Plans: The extent and sophistication of plans in place that will enable the idea to succeed.
  2. Persons: The quality, competency and rank of the person driving the idea.
  3. Processes: The depth and wholesomeness of the workflow ecosystem that surrounds it.
  4. Practices: The extent of the natural iteration of rituals, the level of participation from customers
  5. Propaganda: The extent and sophistication of communication practices to influence stakeholders
  6. Performance: The measurement and impact of the idea on business

In many organisations, they may have the plans but they lack the ability to follow-through properly in a holistic manner. In other words, many people have ideas but few ideas are designed to succeed because organisations have either no patience or have taken a one-dimension approach, hoping for success.


A far more complex world requires leaders to think different

Apple used to have this tagline: Think different. Our world is shaped rapidly by advances in technology, and the increasing speed of information exchange that at times suggest that different schools of thoughts are colliding. But one thing is clear, it can no longer be business as usual.

Today, a company such as Uber does not own any taxis but is one of the world’s largest manager of private drivers; a social network like Facebook has a reach greater than a singular religious faith.  And Apple, which was dismissed by many in 1997, is now the biggest company in the world, exceeding even the oil companies. The question that leaders have to confront is this: can our traditional lenses provide us the vision we need for the future?

An edited version of this article, available here in English and Chinese, appeared in the August Issue of Prestige Magazine, Singapore.

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