Balance is a state that people perceive as an ideal of particular attractiveness. If something is evenly distributed, in balance, then we attach a high value to it. Equilibrium of forces, of markets, of forms and structures, of opinions or even of values in themselves, is something “beautiful”. It is not without reason that Justicia carries a scale with which she can ensure that the facts can be weighed – in balance, and therefore just.
In its design work, nature also seems to pay attention to balance and symmetry; we find examples of this in the animal kingdom and ecosystems. And so balance is also an aspect that we humans take into account in shaping our world. We feel – across all cultures – that things are incredibly successful when they are balanced, for example, when they are symmetrical or well-balanced. That is why balance is not only symmetry but above all harmony: a Yin needs a Yang, black needs white, Tintin needs Snowy and action needs a reaction.
When things get out of balance, there is usually the threat of chaos, a shift of weights, values and forces, which leads to our designed world getting out of balance. Whether in climate, health, society or the markets: as soon as one side gains the upper hand, and thus upsets the equilibrium, a snowball effect sets in and everything slides towards it. This fact may seem tempting to those on the receiving end, but we know that an imbalance isn’t future proof. Karl Marx recognised this and called for an equilibrium between capital and labour. However, he probably also realised that a constant levelling is taking place: sometimes one side dominates, then the other. But as long as we strive for the ideal of equilibrium, a balance, we come closer to perfection.
Thus the shaping of the world, if well done, involves a constant striving for balance, and not the lashing of a single position. The continuous weighing between opposites is an art, as in the example of Justicia: not one side is right, but the right balance of both sides leads to the understanding of the problem. Because often problems are such complex and underlying opinions so far apart that achieving a balance seems nearly impossible. German designer and researcher Horst Rittel called these ‘Wicked Problems’. He discovered that they are exceptionally resistant to solving attempts and that the very nature of the problem is only recognised within the solution process itself.
It seems evident that the corona crisis is such a wicked problem. We might only solve it through achieving an equilibrium of various opinions and evidence and by infusing these into an extensive problem-solving process. Are we doing that? Instead, it seems we aim to eliminate the problem by applying simplistic deduction techniques.
Even in organisations, achieving balance is crucial to success. Companies are continually looking for the right balance between costs and revenues, between what the company needs and what the customers need. Because if one side is favoured over the other, the system the constitutes a ‘company’ will not survive in the long run.
Balancing is exceptionally valid for managing companies and organisations. In leadership, too, it is essential to continually weigh up the opinions that flow into decisions and objectives. Leadership aims to find an ideal balance between what can secure the company on the one hand and what can sustain it on the other hand. In other words, a balance between management and design!
The ideal balance also applies to design and management. While on the one hand, administrative competency ensures that resources and means are available when needed; on the other hand, design competency allows creating those offers that are desired by customers and acquired accordingly. Should management dominate leadership, there is a risk to lose effectiveness and customer loyalty. If design has the upper hand, there is a risk to lose efficiency and resources. In both cases, the result is the same; the organisation is not viable in the long run.
Most managers find it extremely difficult to strike a balance. Not because they don’t know what makes for success, but rather because they don’t have the necessary competency – many managers cannot comprehend design! They focus their management work on administration because that is what they do best. It is not without reason that they have completed an MBA. The organisation is mirroring this preference: it prefers to be managed. Most employees also choose to be managed, as it secures their income and reduces the risk of making mistakes. Who wants to be punished because an urge to design could create new realities that might turn out to be failures? Instead, do what the boss says, and continue with whatever, which does not get anyone any further.
Successful and resilient organisations and leaders recognise this and act accordingly. They consciously take the risk that designing may result in an uncertain outcome, but that it will create new potential. At the same time, they secure the organisation in such a way that sufficient resources are available to implement any new potential. They strive to achieve the ideal balance; by weighing seemingly contradictory opinions and facts to design a solution that can solve their wicked problems. In this way, they not only secure the present but also shape their and our future for the better.