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Becoming management:Managing risk versus being risk

There was interesting discussion on the Anthrodesign list about positivism control, and the role of ethnographers an designers. This was my response:

What makes it challenging for designers and ethnographers to engage with management is that they have to become comfortable with having direct power and the implications of what that means in terms of its affect on other people. Design and ethnography are often intermediary roles, translating meaning between groups of unequal power relationships.

The transition designers and ethnographers have to make is (1) learning the rituals of management and (2) understanding what it means to not be a source of risk (complicating, unpredictable, independent) to being a manager of risk (what risk do I take on, transfer, eliminate all together, and just mitigate to a socially acceptable level). This transition is required because all of a sudden the impact of your decision has significant ramifications. A poor decision and 10% of the people can lose their job, which then affects their families, the economy, etc. This knowledge in itself makes me more risk averse, which is about caring about people as opposed to seeing them as names in an Excel spreadsheet. But remember, the Excel spreadsheet was designed to make these tough decisions easier on people’s hearts. (Whether it’s made it too easy is a good question.)

The iterativeness of designing and the complexification of ethnography make this transition difficult because its harder to justify rapid iterations of organizational structures when the uncertainty of what is our new business model can devastate morale (as I have seen) or justify a nuanced explanation of the business ecosystem that takes 10 days to process when a delay in decision making can result in people losing jobs.

The Ying Yang of Anthropology and Design make great tools for management. At the heart of all enterprises are people, and ethnography helps you understand people. Design helps rein in the complexification process by identifying what are the key communications/artifacts/experiences that the people need to fulfill the intentions of the organization. Plug: this is part of the focus session that I am giving at AIGA National in Denver on Friday October 12th.

But as a manager, you are not directly involved in any of those processes, but rather figuring out how to manage the risk inherent in those processes. Are you as a designer or an ethnographer comfortable with that new role?

I like management and only seek management roles as a design anthropologist, because it is much more challenging for me than direct research or design. But I’ve had to make my peace with power, and I’m not sure that lots of designers and researchers are ready to do that. Many that I’ve met prefer to defer that responsibility to some MBA, so they are free to “be creative” or “stay grounded with the people.” Now, I find management very creative. You get to “design” with people, money, space, and time as opposed to images, words, and forms. I have to stay grounded with people, but its the top of the pyramid as opposed to the bottom. But you have to begin to see it that way.


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