Collaborative Design to Support a High Performance System

The space between people working together is filled with conflict, friction, strife, exhilaration, delight, and vast creative potential.” – Bruce Mau, An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth

Designing high performance workplace environments involves designing everything in tandem, focusing on three distinct domains of design practice: the physical facilities, the organizational work process and the IT systems.

Over the past year I have been in a dialogue with two colleagues who are also designers in these different domains, an Organization Designer and an IT Systems Designer. After some challenges, the three of us are learning to communicate and collaborate across our domains of design[1].

In our more generous moments, whether we are facilities designers, organization designers, or IT systems designers, most of us would agree that “No domain of practice exists in isolation from the other.”  More importantly, we might admit that each of our respective domains, in isolation, cannot realistically supply the expertise to provide a truly systemic design approach for our clients.

Opportunities for Cross Disciplinary Designing

As designers, we all share a goal of creating environments that “work great, and are great places to work.”  Recognizing that what is designed in one domain affects the others, we’ve found common ground by beginning to appreciate each other’s Elements of Design.”  We’ve articulated these specific elements in the environments that we create through the design of:

●     Form and groupings of spaces; public, private, gathering, and connecting

●     Technical details that support the function and use of space

●     Adjacency and proximity of people within spaces

●     Flow of people (patients, family, staff), information, and materials

●     Sight lines and views

●     Materiality and light, color, sound

●     Infrastructure systems that control air quality, energy use, communication, security

●     Flexibility for change

●     Service groupings (for example, by function or by specialty)

●     Roles, responsibilities, and decision-making processes within those groups

●     Deliberation processes and other tools used to deliver service

●     Measurement & monitoring systems

●     Systems for people (hiring, development, promotion, performance management, justice, compensation, and incentive systems)

●     Systems for planning and continuous innovation

●     Interfaces between business domains (HR, finance, marketing, production, etc.)

●     Capabilities for monitoring & decision-making using information

●     Relationships of the modules  (for example, order entry software has to connect with customer module, and modules must connect to each other)

●     Required “uses” for the software and impacts on systems

●     Data

The Glue

To help navigate the challenges of designing across disciplines, we’ve adopted a set of principles from the discipline of SocioTechnical Systems Design[2] that we find helpful as ‘glue’ to hold the multidisciplinary team together:

Performance Principles

When designers follow these principles, the organization as a whole is more likely to move toward a state of higher performance.


●        Provide minimum critical performance requirements – don’t over-specify

●        Optimize requirements of the processes, the people, the organization, and external stakeholders

●        Ensure work is controlled and coordinated at the level where work is performed

●        Support individual quality of working life for all

●        Leverage strengths, both individual and organizational

●        Support process optimization while also supporting innovation and agility

Design Process Principles

Focus on the involvement of those who will inherit the new design, ensuring that these end users are engaged in the design process.


●        Start with shared understanding and purpose of the design process

●        Invite the people who actually do the work to partner with other relevant professionals who bring design content and process expertise (Organization/ICT/Facilities), and other key stakeholders with special knowledge

●        Enable conscious choice among multiple design options

●        Ensure compatibility of processes for designing, implementing, and achieving goals

●        Adjust and adapt by using positive, dynamic in-process evaluation

●        Assume the need for ongoing redesign, and build in capability to accommodate it

When we collaborate at the intersection of design domains, we realize powerful benefits to the client organization and the people within it.  People with diverse areas of expertise are more effective when they can collaborate easily; digital technology now exists to enable such collaboration. Designing based on SocioTechnical Systems  Principles is at the core of this work, and as such, these principles are the glue that holds us, and this work, together.

[1] Bernard J. Mohr/Richard Ordowich/Ron Smith, “The STS Digital Framework for Cross Disciplinary Designing: How Digital Technology and STS Principles Support Systemic Work Design”, STS Roundtable, San Francisco 2016  

[2] SocioTechnical Systems is an approach to complex organizational work design that recognizes the interaction between people and technology in workplaces.

About Ron

Ron Smith has 30 years of experience in leading the planning and delivery of large and small healthcare design and construction projects, with a focus on creating great working environments for staff, and creating therapeutic environments for patients. Ron believes that when buildings are designed with a diversity of expertise and broad, meaningful stakeholder engagement, we can create places that support nimble, resilient organizations and provide a great environment for all of their occupants.

Ron’s expertise includes program management, project management for design and construction, functional and space programming, medical planning, Lean process design workshops, design thinking workshops, community stakeholder engagement, and strategic facilities master planning.

As a past president of the AIA Academy of Architecture for Health, Ron promotes the building of shared knowledge among healthcare architects and clients about design and research on the healthcare environment and its impact on patient care. He is co-founder and an active member of the AIA AAH Research Initiatives Committee.  Since 2010 he has served with the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health on a multidisciplinary advisory group for the National Occupational Research Agenda for worker safety in the healthcare and social assistance sector.  Ron is Board Certified by the American College of Healthcare Architects.  He is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and earned a certificate in Lean for Healthcare from Belmont University, Massey Graduate School of Business.