A few weeks ago I had lunch with a friend who introduced me to the concept of design charrettes (no, it’s not a classy version of Chat Roulette). A design charrette is a way to super-charge the planning phase of the project by collecting a group of cross-functional stakeholders together in a series of workshops to vet different design options. My friend works for a company that helps implement sustainable development projects, in many cases, building projects. In these types of projects, planning is tremendously important because design choices become locked-in and are costly to change. Also, when designing to simultaneously optimize for natural ecosystems, the usability of public spaces, and aesthetics, there is a great deal of complexity, both from a sustainable planning perspective and from a stakeholder perspective. Complex systems result in more long-term unintended consequences (see Complexity and Wikinomics), so a project plan that maximizes feedback and expands options and scenarios earlier in the process is desirable.
Interestingly, the same could be said for many of the platform design projects currently underway in the Enterprise 2.0 space. In many cases, IT teams are designing and implementing collaborative software without the benefit of collaboration. Yet, collaborative business platforms suffer from many of the same challenges as sustainable building projects. They try to optimize for interactions across complex business ecosystems, usability of digital tools, and aesthetics. They also involve multiple stakeholders and risk costly lock-in if poor architectural or design choices are made early in development. I’m convinced design charrettes can enhance the performance of platform projects as well.
Here’s how it works. In a typical project, as time goes on, the ability to make changes that greatly impact resource allocation and design diminishes. At the same time, the cost of implementing changes increases as successive design choices create inflexibility and lock-in. The effort consumed by stakeholders and the allocation of resources typically follows a bell curve, so a large portion of the project unfortunately takes place during a time of diminishing impact and rising costs. Moreover, if you don’t get people involved early you tend to have a long tail of resource expenditure on after-the-fact customizations, modifications, and revisions.
In a design charrettes, the idea is to shift the project curve to the left so that more time and resources are devoted to planning and a significant portion of the decision-making occurs when the impact of changes are high and the cost of implementing changes is relatively low. Ideally, at the end of the project, the need for modifications would much lower since input from relevant stakeholders was baked into the original design. Since I’m a pretty visual learner, creating the graphs helped me understand how beneficial this approach can be.*
One of the arguments against charrettes is that they result in “design-by-committee” outcomes (usually meant as a derogatory statement, invoking images of the Homer car, designed for the “average” American) and design delays brought on by conflicting egos. In fact, we’ve seen some leading examples of where design-by-committee works great, including Local Motors and CrowdSpring. A good, recent post advocating for design charrettes is “A Camel designed by committee is a camel,” by LEED architect Rob Fleming, where he argues that, given the current state of the World, what we need is design-by-committee “camels,” not “race horses” by impresario architects. In terms of managing conflict, independent, third-party moderators and mediators also play an important role in steering collaboration for productive charrettes.
* Kudos to Jeff Ranson for his leadership in the area of design charrettes and his back-of-the napkin graphs that helped inspire this post.