What Can Cool Design Firms Teach IT Managers?

Design Firms Can Help IT Mangers Look At Difficult Problems Differently
Design Firms Can Help IT Mangers Look At Difficult Problems Differently

Each and every IT manager has problems. These problems run from the simple (“How can I meet that deadline”) to the more complex (“These people don’t like each other, how can I get them to work as a team?”). Sometimes we run into problems that despite our deep belief in ourselves, we just don’t seem to be able to solve. What to do then? I’m afraid that all too often we have a habit of just letting the problem linger. We believe that we are the only ones who will eventually be able to solve it and so we just let the problem sit there because we think that we’ll eventually be able to dream up a way to solve it someday. Well guess what, that’s probably not going to happen. Some innovative firms are doing something about this problem – they are reaching out to those really cool design firms that you are always reading about and asking for management help.

One great example of this was reported on by Phred Dvorak in the Wall Street Journal. Dvorak found out that the extremely cool design firm IDEO (they came up with the concept for Apple’s first mouse and apparently also the first soft-handled toothbrush) was contacted by the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to help find ways to make chemotherapy easier on patients. Instead of doing what pretty much any IT manager would do – which is to document and study the process of treating patients, the kids at IDEO instead decided to look at the process from the patients point-of-view. The IDEO team had Sloan-Kettering staff follow patients from their home to the clinic and then all the way through their treatment. Before IDEO had been brought in, the Sloan-Kettering folks had naturally assumed that waiting time was the biggest deal to their patients and had been trying a bunch of tweeks to reduce it. It turns out that they were wrong.

The IDEO team discovered that there is another step in the process that caused more concern than all the waiting time in the world. There is a test that patients need to take in order to find out if they are strong enough to be treated on a given day. Waiting for the results of that test is what really concerned their patients. When the clinic started offering this test the day before the treatment so that patients would know if they really were going to be treated, then customer satisfaction soared.

So what does all of this cancer treatment stuff have to do with IT leadership? Simple, the IDEO team has a great deal to teach us about solving people problems. We love technology and we often feel that if we have enough metrics than we can solve any problem. However, sometimes what is really called for is for us to stop playing ourselves and instead start to play the role of our staff and our customers. Taking the time to see the world from their point-of-view and understanding the constraints that they are living with can go a long way towards helping us to find new and innovative ways of solving those problems that have been lingering for too long.

What problems does your IT department have that despite multiple attempts you have not been able to solve? Have you ever brought in an outside design firm to help get a fresh look at a problem? Were they able to come up with a solution that you had not though of? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.