How design thinking can improve your strategy

Friday, 01 February 2019


    Encouraging clarity and discipline through design thinking could improve your strategy, says Business Models Inc Australia strategist Michael Eales.

    At the heart of any business strategy is a vision and purpose that underpins the steps you’re taking, now and into the future. Yet unless it is effectively communicated, this vision remains a sleeping giant that perplexes rather than inspires. While it may be tempting to lean on detail for a sense of clarity, I’ve observed clarity can be achieved through two efforts: simplicity and validation. As the saying goes, it’s not that difficult to make something simple, complex; but making something complex, simple, requires great effort.

    Clarity and simplicity

    As a strategy designer, my job is to ask better questions and facilitate the application of creativity to help clients navigate complexity and give them creative confidence. Part of this involves encouraging people to get comfortable with reframing their thinking and breaking down their strategy into smaller, more digestible pieces. The other is having them zoom in to analyse their organisation’s current state — what works and what doesn’t — then zoom out to view the broader picture of where it is that they want to go.

    In 2009, I was introduced to the Business Model Canvas by Robert Sutton, author and professor of management science and engineering at the Stanford University School of Engineering.

    Creating a one-page visualisation that frames the mechanics of your business (or that of a competitor) will allow you to easily communicate this back to the team and identify potential areas for innovation and transformation. The challenge is to shift your thinking from what the strategy looks like to how it is created. This is an iterative design process — idea

    A good strategy is like good design. It isn’t everything to everyone, it is specific and disciplined.

    Mark Leung, Rotman DesignWorks

    Mark Leung, director of Rotman DesignWorks, worked with then dean Roger Martin in developing the business design initiative at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. Leung says most of the strategies he sees are “unfortunately operational plans or a series of short-term tactics”.

    “A good strategy is like good design,” he says. “It isn’t everything to everyone, it is specific and disciplined.”

    Martin says its important to ask the right questions when designing strategies — ones that lead to real decisions.

    Communicate your strategy on a page

    These four steps were created to help fast-track the process to effectively articulating your strategy — on a page. Each requires a piece of work in themselves.

    1. Vision
    2. When we design or simplify a strategy, the vision and purpose must move beyond a statement and become the central guide that shows up in practical and realistic ways. With the vision as a compass that leads your bold strategic choices, you can tell a story and inject life into your narrative. Having this story on one page makes it even easier to share.

    3. Context
    4. The value of engaging others and sharing different perspectives is second to none. You will need to zoom out to develop a deep understanding of the broader context surrounding your business by looking at the different trends, customer needs and uncertainties within the market. Develop a relentless curiosity within this space before tackling potential solutions. You should see how your vision shows up in the world today.

    5. Design criteria
    6. With your understanding of context and vision in place, you can begin to prioritise the elements of your strategy that are non-negotiable and those that are a bit more flexible using the MoSCoW method: categorising every element under “Must”, “Should”, “Could” or “Won’t”. Your context and vision only make up part of the story of your business. Now you can align with your current (or future) business model — remembering it doesn’t exist in isolation. Don’t forget your design criteria will need adjusting over time, so be specific and spend time refining and quantifying them. Developing priorities that are measurable will help you to determine your direction, maintain focus and recalibrate if necessary.

    7. Validate
    8. Validating (or invalidating) your assumptions should happen every step of the way. You do this by using the tools and templates to inform one another and avoid approaching any one step in isolation. Good design is not built upon hypothetical notions. Instead, it solves practical challenges and does so with positive impact.

    Michael Eales is a partner and strategy designer at Business Models Inc Australia.

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