Book Review – The Design of Business by Roger L. Martin


When people talk about Social Business Design, I find they spend a lot of time focused on the “Social Business” aspect but less on the concept of “Design”. But what do we mean by design? The Design of Business by Roger L. Martin goes some way to help answer this question.

Initially, at least, this book reads more like an extended essay. But give it a chance as I found it gradually builds up to a useful crescendo that builds on the foundational concepts outlined earlier on in the book.

At its core, Martin provides a background on the organisational psychological of traditional analytical thinking, which favours reliability over validity. There is good reason for this, particularly in large or complex organisations, as there is danger is relying on intuition alone.

The “knowledge funnel” is presented as a concept for explaining how organisational knowledge – which might be a product or a process – moves through stages from Mystery, Heuristic and then Algorithm.

The trick, according to Martin, is to look at design thinking as a way to seek balance between rigid analytical thinking and risky intuition. Through design thinking and the skill of abductive reasoning, organisations can remain progressive and innovative. In effect, they can continuously feed the knowledge funnel with new ideas that challenge existing ideas that have stabilised into business as usual.

Personally, I found this funnel concept a little simplistic – it serves it purpose in the context of the book, but its probably worthwhile going off to dip into the ideas of people like Gary Klein and Dave Snowden before you start dropping the funnel into every day business conversation.

However, I did enjoy the Research in Motion (RIM) case study, which provides us with the perfect quote:

“Design isn’t just about making things beautiful; it’s also about making things work beautifully.”

I think its a nice idea that we can think of Social Business Design as being about making organisations work “beautifully”.

In the final chapter – sub-titled, Developing Yourself as a Design Thinker – you finally understand why it was worth working through all the background information. Martin employs a model from his previous book, The Opposable Mind, which he uses to describe the design thinker’s personal knowledge system. He then addresses how to work as design thinker with other colleagues who are not design thinkers.

So the final message from Martin appears to be that it is really the design thinkers who are able to successfully navigate the reliability corridors of their organisation that are the real source of competitive advantage, rather than design thinking alone.

If you are interested in discussing open strategy, the challenges of open leadership and becoming a social business then please join us at the Headshift | Dachis Group Social Business Summit – Over 4 weeks – across 4 continents – 4 Summits will be convened. Sydney,  2 March –  Austin, 10 March –  London, 24 March – Singapore, 6 April.