Idealized Design – To solve a problem, start with the ideal solution

A group of people enter a meeting room. Sales are slowly dropping, they’re told. It’s not dramatic, but it’s happening, and they need to do something about it. They start brainstorming ideas on how to improve sales.

At the same time, another group at the same company goes into another meeting room. They’re asked to imagine that the whole company just blew up. None of the structures they used to have exist anymore. They’re asked to come up with an ideal design for the company and then work their way backward to actions they can take today to improve sales.

Which group do you think would come up with better solutions?

Idealized Design

Russell Ackoff, a pioneer of systems thinking, has formulated the latter approach and calls it Idealized Design. Idealized Design solves problems by first thinking about the ideal solution and then working back from there to today. Doing it how we most often do it, starting from today and moving towards the ideal, can be limiting. We have assumptions about the current state of things, which might not hold true. By removing the constraints we clear our minds to think creatively.

There are only two constraints we should limit ourselves with. The design must be technologically feasible. The technology doesn’t have to exist or be readily available, but it does have to be more in the realm of the real world than that of science fiction. The other constraint is that the design must be capable of surviving the current environment. It must respect current laws and relevant regulations.

The idea behind having these two constraints is that we are creating a design for today, not the future. It’s not a 5-year plan. It’s something we could have today. Of course, most probably we’re not there yet, but once we know where we’re lacking we can start moving.

Give it a small test. Next time you need to solve a problem, by yourself or with a group of people, start by imagining an ideal. Instead of “How do we solve this?” ask “What would be the ideal situation?”. It’ll be different.

For further reading, I recommend Idealized Design by Ackoff, Magidson and Addison.