Steven F. Freeman

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Idealized Design

Idealized Design

page last modified: 10/08/2022 06:28 AM

What is Idealized Design?

Idealized design answers the question, “Ideally, what would we like the program to be?”

Why Idealized Design?

Most improvement efforts focus on problem solving or what went wrong. At best, this results in marginal gain. More often solving one problem just causes another (bigger) one to pop up.

Image courtesy of Whack A Mole Game

When Do We Do It?

We use Idealized Design if we want to:
  • Make major improvements in a product, process or organization.
  • Incorporate the values, experience and insights of all the stakeholders in a system.
  • Focus on overall purpose rather than performance of individual parts.

The Broader Context

Science and education typically involve analytical thinking, which may reveal how a system works, but not understanding of why it works the way it does.

In contrast, Idealized Design is a systems thinking methodology. It entails a focus on purpose and desired ends and how best to meet them.

Image courtesy of Alan Klement



How Does Idealized Design Work?

Idealized design works by (1) drawing on stakeholder experience/ insight, and (2) eliminating constraints.

What’s not going to happen is: Someone offers a suggestion that an “expert” will silence. Rather, we facilitate, drawing out your experience and insight. And rather than tinkering with current structure, idealized design starts from scratch.

How Do We Do It?

Participants perform two major functions: generate specifications and develop a design.

Specifications state a desired property or characteristic. Specification statements should begin with phrases such as ‘I would like …’.

In the design phase, participants create or draw structures and processes to bring about one or more desired specifications.

Guidelines for Ideation:

To eliminate barriers to idea creation:

  • Imagine that the program never existed, and we were now to create one.
  • Don’t worry about whether resources are available to implement an idea.
  • Suggestions are subject to a single constraint: that they be physically possible, e.g., no time travel. But when in doubt, go ahead and shout it out.

To focus on desired specifications:

  • Stay in design-from-scratch mode.
  • Do not specify what isn’t wanted.
  • If you disagree with someone else’s specification, state an alternative.


Idealized Design was originally conceived by Russell L. Ackoff and his client, Bell Labs, in the 1950's to help the organization get beyond "problem solving mode" and unleash their innovative potential: 

“An idealized design of a system is the design its stakeholders would have right now if they could have any system they wanted.... It is called idealized because it is the best ideal-seeking systems its designers could imagine at the time, recognizing that they and others may be able to imagine a better one in the future.”










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