How to build and assess canvases for business design

6 minutes read

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In an earlier blog post, we argued that canvases, if well designed, support a new way of solving management problems.

But how can we design a good canvas? In this blog post we propose a few design principles – drawing on literature but above all on our experience of using the canvas format as part of our Kits.

Principles for canvas design


1 Scope and perspective of a business design canvas

A well-designed canvas should reflect a thoroughly thought-out decision regarding the field, management topic, or business issue that is being covered. This requires making choices. In order to be useful, a canvas should represent a model of a pertinent business challenge, while simultaneously offering a perspective on this challenge that supports collaborative problem-solving and knowledge creation.

Take Osterwalder’s business model canvas as an example, specifically looking at what it does not do. It is not a model for business strategy, nor does it support the design of an execution plan for such a strategy. If you tried to extend the canvas itself to those questions, the complexity of the canvas would increase and its core value proposition would get lost. No wonder then that the highly successful and intriguing sequel to the business model canvas, the value proposition canvas, was a zoom-in of the original version, rather than an extension.

It’s similar with the canvas underlying our Organizational Structure Kit. Among other things, it reflects a conscious choice not to represent an overarching organization design kit all by itself. This is mainly because organization design is a much broader field, which goes beyond the basic structural blueprint of an organization – a field that is arguably too broad to put into one canvas alone.

On the other end of the spectrum, can the scope of a business design canvas be too narrow? A canvas that is too broad can become merely a list of relevant aspects within a certain field without offering systemic insight and access to the interconnections between those aspects (“management”, “strategy”). A canvas that is very narrow, on the other hand, can still be a useful worksheet for a particular business aspect. Again, the value proposition canvas in this sense is a useful tool to zoom-in on two crucial fields of business model design.

2 Elements of a business design canvas

A typical business design canvas breaks up its field into distinctive elements. These elements together should cover the respective field or business design challenge (e.g. business model generation, organization structure design, team setups, or leadership development initiatives, in a complete and non-overlapping manner. (Buffs of consulting jargon may think of the MECE criterion, demanding that the structure of the elements should be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.)

Additionally, the elements should, in order to feed into a well-designed canvas, have a comparable level of granularity and relevance for the business design challenges they seek to address.

3 Model qualities of a business design canvas

Within the chosen scope, the canvas should define several elements that represent a model of the business design challenge in question, including interdependencies and links between the elements and patterns in the configuration of the elements.

In a more abstract fashion, Avdiji et al. speak of “developing an ontology in which the main components of the problem [in our terminology: a business design challenge] and their relationships are modeled.”*

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To qualify this further and make it practical: Each relationship between any two elements on the canvas should give rise to a non-trivial discussion of this connection and the ways it is established – implications, interdependencies, or fit. Some interfaces may be more relevant than others (each field on the business model canvas clearly relates to the value proposition center piece), but no element should be an “orphan” in the sense of only somehow being relevant to the wider challenge.

Beyond the 1:1 relationship between any two fields, a well-designed canvas should allow meaningful patterns across multiple fields on the canvas to emerge. A meaningful pattern is a combination of values across multiple fields. For example, when discussing the Leadership Development Kit with a senior L&D executive from a large Swiss industrial company, he said that most classical leadership development programs only build on the elements of strategy, platform, and resources, and neglect key dimensions of how LD has been shown to work effectively.

Finally, a canvas, even in its empty form, should convey a meaningful order or arrangement of elements (this is not the same as showing patterns based on those arrangements). One seldom-noted stroke of genius about the business model canvas is its structural resemblance to a balance sheet. In the Leadership Development Kit, it’s the two key dimensions of “organization” and “individual” – and the relationships between these two dimensions – that capture key insights of leadership development.

Relationships between fields, patterns across the canvas, and an underlying meaningful form together indicate that canvases do not determine “logical” sequences. At any given point in the work process, you may iterate between fields, jump back and forth, and note ideas with regard to another element of the canvas.

4 Knowledge base of a business design canvas

Speaking of key insights: A well-designed canvas should have a solid base in evidence and research. This can be a translation of a validated scientific model or the generation of a practical model based on a particular strand of research.

We have discussed elsewhere where we position the Leadership Development Kit in relation to different schools in leadership research. The Organizational Structure Kit builds on extensive, first-hand experience in designing organizations in combination with an intimate knowledge of the most relevant literature in the field. The Agile Organizing Kit is a more cautious effort, in that the notion of “agile” has been hyped for some time now, but we (a virtual community of business designers, managers, and researchers) still need to learn a lot, and are in the process of doing so, of understanding what actually works here. Building a Kit in this space of agile organizing means making sense, step-by-step, of those learnings (including practical learnings from experiences and progress in researching all sorts of agile organizations).

Beyond the basis in research, a canvas needs to be validated by the practical value that users get out of it. The knowledge that is learned and the knowledge that is created in working with the canvas for particular use cases is a touchstone for the canvas design.

5 Usability of a business design canvas

A powerful canvas should facilitate collaborative problem-solving and design work in real time. The more intuitive the design, arrangement, and naming of fields within the canvas, and the deeper the understanding of the potential peculiarities of every field, the easier it is to have users work with it. Getting there will typically require extensive user testing and iterations.

Let us know your thoughts on canvas design in the comments sections. You can get to know more about the canvases we developed for our Kits here.

* Avdiji, Hazbi; Elikan, Dina A.; Missonier, Stephanie; Pigneur, Yves (2018): Designing Tools for Collectively Solving Ill-Structured Problems, Conference Paper.