Everybody wants more

What does any organization want? We want to earn more and spend less. Whether our 'earnings' are measured in terms of financial profit or as public good, we earn more by serving our stakeholders and populations better, even as it gets costlier to do so. Costlier not just in terms of money but also impacts on ecosystems and environments, heritages and cultures, legacies and endowments. But 'more with less' and 'more good than harm' are easier said than done and opportunities to do so come with conflicting choices and compounded consequences.

As societies we have become accustomed to promises of yearly improvements in every aspect of our lives. Then the pandemic exposed structural problems in many of our core infrastructures and services. As demand patterns shifted, supply chains broke down. And now, as political turmoil and economic turbulence make recovery from 'industrial long COVID' even longer, we wonder what will fail next, when and where, and who will it hurt. Truth be told, even as planetary systems approach worrisome thresholds, people in sustainability are continuing to worry about prosperity and growth.

You have a difficult job my friend

You are a civil servant, scientist, or strategist. A policymaker, a programme director, or a product manager. A public official, or the head of a private equity fund. A sales manager or a procurement officer, or their lawyer or accountant. You may be in marketing, logistics, human resources, or regulatory affairs. Or, for that matter, anyone who has responsibility or say in improving the quality of an infrastructure or service, either on the 'buy' side or 'sell' side. You have to keep in mind unintended conflicts of interests of stakeholders or populations. Not everybody will be happy with the changes you propose but you have to bring everybody along. You have a difficult job, don't you?

But you also have determination and a hell-bent sense of purpose. You avoid superficial analysis for the sake of 'quick wins' and focus instead on the 'deep structures' of design in the underlying contracts and agreements. Looking for gaps and conflicts, you analyse dependencies and interactions, reciprocities and reliances, and claims and assurances. The idea that if every promise could change a little then no promise has to change a lot defines your pragmatism. Each change you propose is reciprocal, small, and specific to a promise or its window. Each increases mutual understanding, cooperation or trust. And that's how there will be 'more for less' and 'more harm than good'.

With questions to answer

To frame your structural inquiry you select a few questions. How can we improve value so customers buy again? How might we improve profit margins without having to raise prices? Why are our costs so high despite improvements? Can we charge more? But if we raise prices will they buy again? Who might be an unlikely competitor presently not on our radar? Do they see us if we don't see them? What regulatory action might we face next and what changes will we have to make? And, since everybody has to contribute to slowing down climate change, what improvements can we make to the design of an infrastructure or service to reduce negative impacts?

There are questions on the demand side of the equation too. What exactly are we buying when paying for an infrastructure or service? Are we getting a good deal? Are there any hidden costs? Why is it so painful to use this service? Is that pain justified, and if so, why? Are we paying too much or do the payoffs justify the pains? Did we get less than what was promised? If yes, what compensation are we entitled to? What can we credibly claim? When the market offers options, how can we be sure if a particular solution is a better alternative? And with regards to climate change, what changes can we make to the way we use an infrastructure or service?

When there seems to be potential for a new kind of infrastructure or service, the questions are: If we build, will they buy? What will 'demand' look like? If we buy, will they build? What will 'supply' look like? Having a better understanding of who will promise what, why and how, when and where, is critical to the innovation process. In other words, it is useful to first speculatively design a beautiful contract and work backwards from it. Whether you have to develop new ideas and concepts or change and improve what already exists, there is a new kind of analysis and design to help you answer all these questions.