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Design Lock-in and Strategy

Does design shape how we think? How we behave? After reading Jaron Lanier’s book, “You Are Not a Gadget“, I’m beginning to believe that design has a much more powerful impact than I realized.  Design is one of those things that we tend to think of as “making it pretty”, if we think of it at all.  It has greater implications that aesthetics or useability.  Design is both a strategic weapon and a strategic limitation.

Lanier discusses the concept of design “lock-in”.  That is, once we hit a certain point of complexity, inter-connectedness, and perhaps habit, it becomes almost impossible to change a design. This appears to be especially true about programming.

Perhaps that is why the standard university lecture is still the dominant pedagogical tool in our teaching arsenal, despite the fact that it has been consistently shown that there are much more effective approaches to learning. The university system has experienced design lock-in.

Once a design is locked-in, an organization experiences significant constraint in the way it does business. So the question for every organization is what designs (methods, systems, interfaces, structures) do we have in place?  Which ones are locked-in?  Which ones are approaching lock-in? What are the potential downsides of your approaching locked-in design?  Are there any alternatives?

Designs that can be locked-in not only constrain an organization, they influence its’ culture, values and beliefs, sometimes creating unintentional problems. 

The next time you sit down with your colleagues, consider how design is influencing your strategic choices.

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2 replies »

  1. Colleen, You’ve hit a home run with this post. Too often I hear …
    * “We don’t do it that way” … or
    * “That’s just not the way it’s done around here.”

    Obviously companies need procedure to be effective. But do the procedure themselves constrain creativity and ‘potential’?

    Me sadly thinks, “Yes!”

  2. Design lock-in, the never ending, losing battle to thwart progress. It’s only human nature.
    We have a history of flat worlds, centre of the universe, if it ain’t broken don’t fix it design lock-ins and that is just what they are – history. Design lock-ins happen because a change occurred and finally enough people have become comfortable enough with it to figure out how to be comfortable using it and abusing it. Once comfortable with it they will fight tooth and nail to keep it that way because becoming comfortable with it was hell-on-wheels.
    Fortunately, we also have enough geeks, nerds, rebels and anarchists who, when they encounter a design lock-in, will immediately begin the process of finding a way to change it (Progress).
    I do agree, watch for design lock-ins happening and then rejoice because change is not far behind. As Steve Weber asks, “But do the procedure themselves constrain creativity and ‘potential’? “, I’m sure they do. However, I think it is also a cause for creativity and potential.
    We love our comforts and we hate stagnation. A complex lot, we humans.

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