Zero-based design (ZBD)encourages people to cast aside assumptions to expand the scope of discovery. It comes from the term “zero-based budgeting,” an accounting principle that implies every line item in a budget is to be reevaluated on an annual basis, under the assumption that nothing should be sacrosanct.
The name was first coined by Paul Polak and Mal Warwick in their 2013 book, The Business Solution to Poverty. The authors delineated their methodology for building a business from a frugal, grass-roots “Zero Point,” that grew to deliver economic value on a societal scale.
While ZBD has evolved since 2013, a few activities stay central to its approach:
- Defining the Zero Point: More than a fictitious “blank slate,” the Zero Point is the suite of capabilities, systems, and processes you would keep if you were to rebuild your business all over again.
- Designing the North Star: A clearly articulated and accepted description of the ideal target state is given for the business, its people, and their customers.
With ZBD, it is necessary that the North Star is visionary. It frames the ambition for business and informs the roadmap of labor required to succeed in this best target state. It helps to elevate the thinking within the business and stimulate the proper designing and activity within the short and medium term.
ZBD starts with an observation, then looks for the simplest and most likely explanation. As a result, it can appear foreign to those familiar with the traditional inductive or deductive thinking that permeates business management. It some ways, it resembles the Lean (Toyota) Method for problem-solving.
For example, ZBD practitioners tend to observe human behavior and distill the most likely insights from what they have witnessed. Abductive reasoning is a form of logical inference which starts with an observation or set of observations then seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation for the observations, and the resulting insights, then inspire designers to generate game-changing ideas and then pose the question “how might we” rather than ask “why can’t we.” Such priming questions are crucial, as they foster the belief that innovative outcomes are achievable and that we can overcome obstacles that would otherwise be considered insurmountable.