What Disruption is not

BRIEF: I have been invited to a conclave of the Society of Indian Automotive Manufacturers (SIAM) in Goa. To run a workshop – and “shake things up”. The session length is 90 minutes, and the target audience is car designers within large Indian auto manufacturing companies. The question is what value can I provide to highly capable designers, with a long track record (experience), capable of working within complex engineering organisations?

Designing the Workshop

I had a few things I could potentially do. Here were my options:

  1. I could run a session on ‘how to come up with a design that goes viral on the internet’. This would draw upon my experience of teaching car design since 1994, with specific emphasis upon the message of this blog – how to do a campaign project.
  2. I could run a session on ‘how to feed the inner artist’. For the design job could prove to be a joy killer.
  3. I could run a session on ‘cultural capital’ as a way to reimagine who to design for.

On the topic of design jobs being a joy killer – or boring – here is a blog post that addresses this issue through the comments section – priceless. Titled the ‘in house designer’ the discussion centres around the downsides of working in house. Here are some comments:

I find that I spend the majority of my time trying to sell an idea or ideas to the internal team rather than working directly with the client to find that new and exciting idea we both can be inspired by.

You don’t have as much freedom to express your own ideas in a larger organization… at least not without convincing 3 different committees and submitting several forms/documents. Even if you do that, your own ideas could get squashed by another manager in another department who has seniority and doesn’t like or fully grasp your idea (or just doesn’t like you or your department for that matter).

Familiar? Its possible it doesn’t have to be this way.

Disruption theory is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success

Most people in leadership within car companies are familiar with the notion of Disruption. Now even managers can do disruptive thinking – having read Clayton Christensen they can play experts. However its possible their understanding of disruption is incorrect – as is that in much writing (click here to read the article that explains this)

“Disruption” describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses. Specifically, as incumbents focus on improving their products and services for their most demanding (and usually most profitable) customers, they exceed the needs of some segments and ignore the needs of others. Entrants that prove disruptive begin by successfully targeting those overlooked segments, gaining a foothold by delivering more-suitable functionality—frequently at a lower price. Incumbents, chasing higher profitability in more-demanding segments, tend not to respond vigorously. Entrants then move upmarket, delivering the performance that incumbents’ mainstream customers require, while preserving the advantages that drove their early success. When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume, disruption has occurred.

  • incumbents focus on improving their products and services for their most profitable customers

  • ignore the needs of some segments

  • successfully targeting those overlooked segments

Importantly in this article you will encounter the question: is UBER an example of disruption? “According to the theory, the answer is no.”

Then to continue on my options: I could run a session on disruption.

For Disruption is an explanation by Christensen that is part “a posteriori” and part a “post hoc” proposition. What is questionable is whether disruption can infact be designed and implemented at all. By the same measure any paradigm shift can be re-explained as a disruption. Lionising disruption also marginalises maintenance – read “tradition” and the collectivised ways of doing things. If we take food as an example we can ask the question: Does food need to be disrupted? The answer is no – for some of us. So the balance between maintaining current ways and coming up with new ways (innovation) is a fine one. It just so happens that we are in a period where ‘innovation’ is riding a high.

For design a better word (rather than using disruption) is project. Within the notion of the project pre-exists paradigms of ‘listening’, ‘provoking’, ‘nudging’ and simply taking risks. The pre-existence is very old and established. The problem within ‘corporate’ ecosystems is the issue of ‘justification’. The project to the corporate administrator (a bureaucrat who is referred to as the ‘executive‘) is always about getting it ‘right’ – in the dart board analogy thats about getting a bulls eye – hitting the target. The project – some very successful ones and the theory of Christensen argues for this – is often focussed upon a marginal and neglected area. One that is not profitable – or considered to be of value. Radical design often focus away from the centre and pick up themes from the periphery.

The question then is how does a designer within a large enterprise focus away from the target, and make a case for privileging? With difficulty I guess. But I have some ideas.

The Designer as Creative Practitioner

Within the PhD space in my place of work – we have a focus upon privileging the “creative practitioner”. If I were to treat the designer within the car company as a creative practitioner – then I would be able to open a line of discussion around the ‘work’ – the oeuvre – of the designer (artist). What this could do is to focus the work of the designer upon a inner ‘boss’ quite different from the external corporate ‘boss’. This designer wouldn’t need to do what the superior or employee in the organisation with a higher pay says, or what the ‘customer’ survey says. The designer can simply choose to take a risky path – design by designer – in opposition to the “design by designer influenced by many superiors and loud people”.

However the sub-ordinate position of the designer is a problem. Its an issue that has dogged designers for ever.

It is at this point that I have a solution. I may come back and upload – how I did it. Watch this space.

For now I will share a teaser from a video mashup I am working on.