Levels and actors in the design process

I was stimulated by two recent inputs.  One was my two day course Designing Operating Models which ran at the end of April.   Great inputs from participants.  The second is a discussion on LinkedIn about the difference between architects and engineers in a group discussing Enterprise Architecture.

So the issue is about levels of design and actors in the design and implementation process.  Why is this interesting?  Because there are different actors and the handovers are tricky and deciding where one starts and the other stops is tricky.

So my first analogy is a play.    A play will have a producer who is really the owner of the production (the business person).   The play will be written by a playwright (the designer or architect or …).   The play will be directed by a director (not sure what the equivalent here is – but maybe the project manager).   Then there are actors who perform the parts of the play (employees!).   As the play is being rehearsed, the actors may well have suggestions about how the play can be improved.  The director will clearly have a big influence at this stage as well.   So the play is designed or influenced by a number of people at different levels.

When the play is being performed, then the actors are doing what the director wants and what they have agreed to do.  Design has stopped.  Except that, based on audience reaction, there are often minor changes made.

Second analogy is a house.   A house will have a client the owner (normally the people who will live in the house).   A house will have an architect.   A house project will have a number of building trades involved each of which will do some lower level design work with regards to the electrical wiring or the plumbing or …  There will be on site employees who will come up against snags and problems which they need to resolve or refer to higher levels.  Finally once the house is finished the people start living in it and they may make further adjustments to the design as they live in it.  Again, the design of the house is influenced by people at different levels.

So can we create an idea of levels of design linked to types of people?   Just like when a worker hits a snag, he or she may be able to solve it at that level or may need to refer up to his or her immediate boss or the problem may have to be referred up to the building trade designer or it may have to go back to the architect or the architect may even have to take the issue back to the client.

Level one could be the client level – the level of strategy and design principles

Level two could be the architect or designer level – the rough sketch, the concept, the high level blue print

Level three could be the detailed designer level – the detailed blue print, the drawings to scale, but of the whole rather than of sub-parts.  At this level you will produce a process architecture, an organisation structure, a capability map, etc.

Level four is the  “trades design” level – the job descriptions by HR, the building layouts by Property, the draft contracts by Legal, the recruitment plans by Recruitment, the detailed process maps with swim lanes by Business Processes, etc.

Level five is the “execution level”.  The thing is being built.

Level six is the “user level”.  The thing is being used.

Three observations of this.  First, levels one and two are often given too little attention.  Hence my blogs on design principles for example.

Second, there is not much clarity about when level three stops and level four starts.  Maybe this is OK.  But often level three stops too soon and the “trades” level has to make guesses to fill the gap.

Third, it can be really helpful to get down to level six on some aspects in an experimental way, even before level two has been finalised.   Hence, the use in Design Thinking of mock ups that you can give to real customers, of role plays, of war games, etc.   These are techniques for getting down to level five or six before the whole thing has been designed.   In fact none of the levels should be finalised, until level six is complete: changes should be expected (within reason of course).  So the design process must make it possible to loop back based on new information provided by a lower level.

As you can imagine, this makes the running of a design project quite a challenge.


About Andrew Campbell

Ashridge Executive Education Focus on strategy and organisation Almost retired!
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