The battle between the numbers and change

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The world is in a constant state of change. Designers are needed to create that change. Change is at the heart of design. Where most people think that design is primarily an aesthetic matter, design is actually a discipline of change. Observing a situation, seeing opportunities for change and creating that change is the designer’s DNA. In a period of continuous change, designers are therefore not just a nice travel companion, but rather a basic life necessity.

The creative versus the conservative

The difficulty is that people generally create change within the framework of an organization and that leaders create chaos in that organization. Managers and designers basically go very badly together. For the managers, the designs are vague and inscrutable. The design process is not very tangible to them, and this makes it difficult for them to surrender to it. Most managers find design very hip and good for the outside world, but internally they immediately start discussing time planning and budgeting.

Conversely, most designers don’t get on well with managers either. They experience that skills is undervalued and that they are driven by assumptions rather than the meaning of the design. Designers quickly find managers conservative (while managers see themselves as progressive), and managers find designers mainly creative but not realistic. As if you could save an organization from possible doom with a pile of post-its?

The two C’s for the creative and the conservative make a very bad cocktail in practice. Roger Martin, described by Thinkers50 as the second most important ‘management thinker’ in the world, even describes it as “a messy shotgun wedding”. In other words, managers and designers cannot do without each other, but certainly not with each other.

Basic schism

Roger Martin refers to this tension as a fundamental schism between the two core principles of research: reliability and validity. Martin argues that managers primarily focus on reliability, while designers focus on validity. Now, it is quite common for reliability and validity to be at odds with each other. For example, in neuromarketing you see that fMRI research in advertising takes place in a laboratory context (reliable!), but you can of course wonder if you look at an advertisement in the same way if you are lying in an MRI machine in a laboratory versus lazing on the couch with a bag of chips in hand (validity issue). The clinch between reliability and validity, says Roger Martin, is also reflected in the dynamic between designers and managers.


Reliability, the manager’s focus, is about consistency of results, and that consistency can only be demonstrated by looking back and seeing if a result repeats itself. Validity in a design context is about creating a desired result and can only be demonstrated in the future. Only when you let time pass do you learn whether the design has actually created the desired result. According to Roger Martin, the clash between designers and managers is so fundamental because “beyond a point it is not possible to increase reliability without sacrificing validity or vice versa” (Martin, 2007, p. 7). This is because reliability is more quantitatively oriented and validity is more qualitatively oriented. It is therefore a battle between the numbers and the qualitative change that people want to create. The manager wants proof and the designer wants experience.

build bridges

Of course, it is possible to bridge the gap between the world of reliable figures and the world of qualitative change, but it is not easy. It requires a lot of effort from both sides. Martin advises the usual, such as delving into the other person and his or her beliefs and learning to speak each other’s language. What I prefer to do in design thinking projects to bring the two worlds together harmoniously is to make the design process visual and tangible. I prefer to work with Lego because it allows you to make 3D models of your mental world.

Because it’s a 3D model, you can walk around it together and see the design from different perspectives (possibly helped by De Bono’s Thinking Hats, see also this column). Together you can point, touch or change things on the spot to see what it does to the final design.

Despite the fact that our brain is mainly visual, since the arrival of the Greeks it has become more important to be able to express ourselves in words than in pictures. But in the clash between designers and managers, the battle takes place precisely on those words. This is because everyone has different images of the same words. Making it visual and tangible automatically creates an invisible bridge between the two worlds because they now share the same image. And that is important. With all the crises happening in the world right now, there is not a minute to lose: We must design change, and we must do it now!

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