Last week, Tony Golsby-Smith, CEO of 2nd Road, the Sydney-based consulting company that focuses on shaping large-scale change, visited Richard Buchanan’s Design, Management, and Organizational Change class. Over the course of three hours, he shared his perspective on design and its role within 2nd Road. What follows are notes and thoughts from that conversation.

Tony is an interesting character. He can easily reach the top of any white board and gives thoughtful responses to the questions put to him. He believes that 2nd Road is fundamentally challenging the world view of organizations. “I’m driven by a revolution in organization fabric,” he says. Organizations have been built for stability and not innovation. They kill innovation. His firm helps organizations build what they call innovation capability.

Essentially, his firm seems to be an alternative to industrial age management thinking. And while design thinking is part of their process and information design is a core skill within the firm, they prefer to call themselves management consultants and work with upper management to create vision and strategy, build skills for new thinking, change systems, and change organizational culture. They are already at the table where designers sometimes desire to be. I’m a bit unclear how 2nd Road got there, but it seems like that’s where they started, or at least very near there. Tony argued that if you start in the marketing and consumer space, it’s harder to move up because you’ve been put into a box.

I wonder if designers in the consumer space really want to be at the table, or at the table in the same way in which 2nd Road participates. Transforming organizations seems like an entirely different wicked monster to deal with. But it certainly does pay well. While I won’t divulge the numbers, a three-day Strategic Conversation costs their clients more than you make in a year. Interestingly, I had a conversation with a San Francisco design consultancy that seemed to suggest their consulting workshops with management did not yield much income.

If I had to pull a definition of design from the way he talked about it, I’d say it is upfront conceptual thinking. “Tomorrow doesn’t exist,” he says, “You can’t analyze it.” Through rhetoric, 2nd Road invents tomorrow through dialogue, creating worlds through words (or visualizations). It seems that conversation plays a large role in their offerings. As much as possible, they want the client to own the process.

In terms of where they operate, Tony says they work in third and fourth order design. If you’ve never taken a class with Richard Buchanan, you likely don’t know what that means, which makes me wonder if it’s useful to describe design in this way. Simply, it means they are using design for services, environments, systems, and the interconnectedness of systems as opposed to design that is concerned with communication and forms. They work on highly complex and highly ambiguous problems that take place over the course of years rather than days, weeks, or months.

I’m curious about how design works in this arena, which is why I am talking to 2nd Road about opportunities to work with them. I’m curious about how this type of firm is different from design consultancies like IDEO, Frog, and Adaptive Path. I’m also curious how similar or dissimilar they are to the big management consulting companies or an innovation strategy firm, like Doblin. Good questions to ask in the next round of talks, I suppose.

Overall, Tony’s visit makes concrete some of the more abstract ideas about the role of design in organizational change that we have been discussing throughout the semester. But it’s noteworthy that they don’t call themselves a design firm. I wonder what that means for the discipline. Is design something that business consultants can consume and make their own, or can it stand on its own, and as Dan Saffer recently said, smash the table altogether?