Good Design

“I don’t care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do.”   (Gene Kranz, as played by Ed Harris, in “Apollo 13”)                                                                                                                                                         

Modern business concept

Ah, Ed Harris in a white waistcoat barking out orders while remaining oh-so-cool. It’s one of my favorite images from Apollo 13, along with the famous “Failure is not an option” line.

The heart of the movie, and more importantly the heart of the story, rests in the workplace that is Mission Control. The entire space program was predicated on good design: design of the space craft, design of the astronaut selection and training processes, design of the mission plan, design of everything that directly or indirectly touched each mission.

In spite of good design, things can fail. Not always with the level of tragic consequence that met the crew of Apollo 13, but with consequence nonetheless. Yet when an undertaking is poorly designed from the start, it can be a sad, sad thing.

Poorly thought out design was the hallmark of the start of my professional life and something that took me years to overcome.  I remember my first few jobs after college. In the six years that stretched between undergrad and grad school, I bounced around a bit. I picked jobs that were primarily convenient and unchallenging, and not well designed for my talents and interests. In fact, during the interview for my very first full-time job, the HR guy looked me square in the eye and said, “You really shouldn’t be here. This job is under your skill level. Go across the river to Wall Street and see what you can find.”

I didn’t listen to him and instead took a job that was too easy and, subsequently, so unchallenging that I languished for a few years. The spill-over effect on my self-esteem, my ambitions, my very sense of a future was profound. I almost resigned myself to a series of jobs, an entire career in fact, of dead-ends. I would have killed myself slowly. I’m sure of that.

I subsequently met a man who is an unsung hero of design – the man who eventually became my husband. He told me of a graduate study program in Corporate Communications and encouraged me to check it out. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. Yet it was his ability to look at my situation in holistic terms that made finding solutions possible. Much like the design-oriented work of Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo. Brown believes in a few key principles of Life Design. They include asking why instead of what, demanding divergent opinions and thinking of life as a prototype.

So what principles can one apply to designing their work experience? Here are some of my own core principles:

1)   Work should be of value, however you define value to be.

2)   Work should happen within an environment that makes you feel enlivened, challenged and accepted.

3)   Work should be individualized – in other words, your work is what you do, not a set of activities that your current employer assigns to you.

4)   Work should be portable because downsizing is a reality, bosses can change and what was once a great environment for you may evolve into something different.

Ultimately, whether you are leading a specific project at work, considering a new career path after years in a particular profession, or asking yourself how you can get the most out of your daily work life, you need to first design the work experience you want. And if, like the team of the Apollo 13 flight, you find it doesn’t quite unfold as planned, figure out what it can do and redesign from there. Don’t worry, just like that fateful flight crew, you’ll make it back home.


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