Building a product is a challenging task. In most cases it ceases to be a one company job since there is so much to think about. Therefore, in many cases the vision, the design and the production is executed by separate companies. We have been considering how we operate in order to add value in these new circumstances. Here is how we think a design contractor should operate in the 21st century.

Oftentimes the product is vague at the beginning and unfortunately, obsolete at the end.

In most product design projects we are bound with time and riddled with vagueness.

  • If we were not time-bound, we would just take the time to research the market and the technologies beforehand. And therefore, we could create a crystal clear picture of what the product should be and how it was going to be built.
  • If we were not exposed to vagueness, we could build and manage an efficient chain of design and production at the first place.

Since we are haunted by both, we are under the tension to compromise somehow.

Many design contractors are still in the illusion that a project should be defined. But as knowledge is being commoditized, definition starts to take precedence over execution.  Therefore, companies are bound to work in the phases of a project where much is still to be defined. This exerts pain for design and production contractors, since they had been under pressure to evolve for higher efficiency rather than complexity.

Here are the 6 things that you should look for in a design contractor:

1) They should strive to get involved early. Really early.

This might sound unsettling. Many would resist the idea of an external party to get involved early on. This is because historically, early involvement was most often perceived as unnecessary intervention.

In many cases this aversion is automatic. It is a cancerous habit. I have observed that true cooperation is rare, but when it occurs, it flourishes solutions. And the earlier it is, the more impact it creates.

One of the best manufacturing suppliers that I worked with tried its best to be involved as early as possible in a project, just to be able to make a difference where it mattered, when it mattered. That's why even after I changed my region of operation, I still called them first when I needed a manufacturing supplier.

2) They should have a solid exploration process.

Although big bodies of knowledge are highly commoditized, they have an ephemeral value at the beginning of their inception. And in high uncertainty it can be the case that a particular tool or technology could unexpectedly aid the common goal.

Therefore, we think that a technology contractor should have an appetite for new developments, should have a budget allocated for that and should take its time to communicate this body of knowledge. Realization of the value of knowledge creation and management is a fundamental distinctive quality.

3) They should be able to operate in high uncertainty.

If a problem is not highly uncertain, it is very unlikely that it has not been resolved already. This century is all about complexity, and we somehow need to tame it to make something useful out of it. And it seems that cutting back on innovation is not a choice in this chaos when all others are charging on. Any company that needs to operate in calm waters but cannot supply that environment for itself will have to adapt.

"If you are going through hell, keep going."
– attributed to Winston Churchill

4) They should methodically eliminate uncertainty, with the client.

Your design partner must know the rules of engagement in this complex world. That being said, it is also crucial that at the inception of the product everything must be as clear and simple as possible. The attention span of the users are low, it is costly to grab attention and therefore the product must be crystal clear. With cooperatively eliminating uncertainties both parties should have a plan to obtain a laser-sharp focus.

5) They should value communication above else.

Human interfaces are the soft spot in most projects. It is not common that a production issue or an environmental condition kills a project. The weak spots are almost always where people communicate. Commonly it is not an issue when a CNC is misaligned or a circuit is plotted incorrectly, due to their high visibility. On the contrary it is a big deal when a collaboration is misjudged, a use-case is misunderstood, or a requirement is invented out of the blue. That is why a contractor is automatically in the business of communication.

Giving extra effort to communication is also unconventional because for most of the problems associated with miscommunication, the other party can be blamed.

That is why in N many problems there is close to 2N many instances of blame. When nobody steps up, the problem is carried onto the next stage without any attempt to resolve it. When goodwill is lost, there isn't much left to discuss anymore.

6) The ball is never in the client's court. There is no court.

Which brings us to another behavioral pattern. In case of limited resources, organizations can strategically stall to buy time in order to avoid confrontation.

On the contrary, a design partner should be active, informative and in some cases even a bit demanding from you. It is hard to guess what good can come from being exposed to this demand, but it can eliminate stages of mutual inaction that leads to the product fizzling out.