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Becoming a Design Strategist

Let’s raise awareness about how unprepared designers are to understand and influence strategy, advocate for a new role called Design Strategist, and propose a minimum set of skills required for becoming a Design Strategist.

In the middle of 2019, I posted on LinkedIn about a Design Strategist Multiplier program that my colleague Edmund Azigi and I were putting together per the request of Scott Lietzke, our VP of Design at SAP SuccessFactors. That post was by far my most popular post on LinkedIn ever.

Since there was some much interest in that post, this will be the first of a series of articles in which I will provide more context here by:

  • Providing a bit more details about the challenges designers are facing without a better grasp of strategy,
  • The skills are required if designers want to influence and translate strategy in ways that drive their user experience vision forward,
  • The kind of professional development program could help designers acquire such skills.

TL;DR

  • While designers have made strides in getting a seat a the table, we still seem to struggle to get user-generated insights into products;
  • Designers still struggle with teams starting without a clear vision or lack focus on which problems to solve and for whom.
  • We need a different kind of designer. One that can move pixels and translate design insights into a currency that business stakeholders can understand.
  • We will argue that Designers haven’t found the vocabulary and tools to frame users’ problems in a way that aligns with stakeholder business strategies.
  • If designers want to influence and translate strategy in ways that drive their user experience vision forward, they must become both business-savvy analysts and synthesizers.
  • There cannot be a good strategy without a strong vision.
  • To become business-savvy to influence and translate strategy in ways that drive user experience forward, designers need to add other skills to their practice: thought leadership, stakeholder analysis and management, facilitating decision making, and project management.

Introduction

As a designer, you feel you’ve made it. You got a seat a the table; stakeholders want your opinion while prioritizing features; you think you finally can bring the user needs to the center of innovation practices and product development decisions.

However, you feel these user needs are not making their way into your projects/products roadmaps. Teams start without a clear vision or focusing on which problems to solve and for whom. You catch yourself in the middle of a project asking people you work with, “why are we working on this?”

Meanwhile, even when projects have a clear vision and focus on which problem to solve, the execution gap seems to widen as the release date approaches.

Suppose the design discipline is growing in importance, and more and more business leaders are embracing design as a competitive advantage. Why are users’ needs still not making their way into projects/product roadmaps?

Design Shift

I’ll argue that designers haven’t found the vocabulary and tools to frame users’ problems in a way that aligns with stakeholder business strategies and priorities.

From that perspective, the role of designers must change. We must move from focusing only on specific innovation projects and design briefs to involvement in strategic decisions that influence and shape organizational strategy.

While in the past designers would concentrate on enhancing desirability, the emerging strategic role of designers means they have to balance desirability, feasibility and viability simultaneously. Designers need to expand their profiles and master a whole new set of strategic practices.”

“Strategic Designers: Capital T-shaped professionals” in Strategic Design (Calabretta et al., 2016)

If designers are to take a more active role in shaping organizational strategy, how can they do that? Further, what skill set do they need to acquire to think more strategically?

Strategy & Design

Strategy is a relatively young discipline, therefore can seem mystical and mysterious. It isn’t. A firm creates a sustainable competitive advantage over its rivals by deliberately choosing different activities to deliver unique value.

Strategy is a set of choices about winning that uniquely positions the firm in its industry so as to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition.

“How Strategy Really Works” in Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., 2013)

Designers must engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry and the choices they are making to achieve such objectives and positions.

Six Strategic Questions, adapted from "Strategy Blueprint" in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020).
Six Strategic Questions, adapted from “Strategy Blueprint” in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020).

As a result, designers will be better prepared to influence the business decisions that help create such an advantage and superior value to the competition.

banking business checklist commerce
Learn more about Facilitating Good Decisions (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Consequently, we need to move away from discussing how many features when can squeeze in one release. In short, we need to change the conversations to what features bring the most value to the users and our business.

That’s why designers must engage with stakeholders early and often to make sure we’ve got the correct framing of the problem space around the three vision-related questions (as per the Six Strategic Questions illustration above):

  • What are our aspirations?
  • What are our challenges?
  • What will we focus on?

What are our aspirations?

Aspirations are the guiding purpose of an enterprise. Think of Starbucks’ mission statement: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit–one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.” Or Nike’s: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.” (The additional note, indicated by the asterisk, reads: “*If you have a body, you’re an athlete.”) And McDonald’s: “Be our customers’ favorite place and way to eat.” Each is a statement of what the company seeks to be and reflects its reason to exist. But a lofty mission isn’t a strategy. It is merely a starting point (“What is Winning” in Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., 2013).

What is Winning

Unless winning is the ultimate aspiration, a firm is unlikely to invest the right resources in sufficient amounts to create a sustainable advantage. But aspirations alone are not enough. Leaf through a corporate annual report, and you will almost certainly find an aspirational vision or mission statement. Yet, with most corporations, it is very difficult to see how the mission statement translates into real strategy, and ultimately strategic action (“What is Winning” in Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., 2013)

Too many top managers believe their strategy job is largely done when they share their aspiration with employees. Unfortunately, nothing happens after that. Without explicit where-to-play and how-to-win choices connected to the aspiration, a vision is frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling for employees.

“What is Winning” in Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., 2013)

We must first clarify our enterprise’s purpose, mission, or winning aspiration to develop a great strategy. The term “winning” means different things to different people, so the first step in creating a great strategy is to be clear about what winning will look like for us. You can clarify those by answering the following questions:

  • What experience do we ultimately want to deliver?
  • How will we impact our customers’ work and daily lives?
  • How does our solution transform what they can do and who they ultimately are?

Importance of Vision

A global study conducted in 2012 involving 300,000 employees found that just over half did not really understand the basics of their organizations’ strategies (Zook, C., & Allen, J., Repeatability, 2012). Given the effort applied to strategy development, there is a massive disconnect here. The opportunity to reconnect a firm with its strategy lies in how the strategy is communicated and understood (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016).

In my practice, I’ve found that — more often than not — it is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of the problems they are trying to solve.

To make sure there are no misunderstandings: it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated. The result is the same: the team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.

A clear and meaningful vision of the future to which a business is aspiring will help to engage people and unlock energy and commitment. It also guides actions and decisions at all levels of the organization and helps to promote consistency of purpose so that everyone works towards the same goal.

Kourdi, J., Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making (2015)

Designers should advocate for the importance of vision and facilitate the creation of product visions that explain a strategy’s complex connection and express the product’s future intended destination. (Fish, L., Kiekbusch, S., “The State of the Designer” in The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision, 2020).

I’ve recently asked professor Roger Martin if one can create a strategy without a vision. His answer gave me confidence that designers are in the right place to help craft strategy: “yes, one can create a strategy without a vision, but it will probably be much harder!

The other reason my vision is so important is that it will not only shape the choices we need to make to win but also motivates people during execution.

The beauty of a shared vision is that it motivates and unites people: it acts as the product’s true north, facilitates collaboration, and provides continuity in an ever-changing world.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.,  Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 2017
beach bench boardwalk bridge
Learn more about creating product vision in The Importance of Vision (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

What are our challenges?

Strategy implies the need for change, a desire to move from point “A” to point “B.” What are the hurdles to doing so? What opposing forces must you overcome to reach the desired outcome? In other words, what is our problem space?

In my experience, the most significant disconnect between the mindset of designers and every other team member in a team is usually about how quickly we tend — when not facilitated — to jump to solutions instead of contemplating and exploring the problem space a little longer.

It’s tempting to appear decisive by jumping straight to the conclusion and making rapid decisions. But the chances are that those rapid decisions are predictable courses based on existing assumptions and prejudices, and that another chance for innovation as escaped.

Sloane, P., The leader’s guide to lateral thinking skills (2017)

When your team can’t agree on a solution, it’s probably a good time to take a step back and align on the problem you are trying to solve. I believe that designers should facilitate the discussions and help others raise awareness around creative and problem-solving processes instead of complaining that everyone else is jumping too quickly into solutions.

yellow letter tiles
Learn more about problem framing techniques that can help you get team alignment by creating clarity of what problems they are trying to solve in Problem Framing for Strategic Design (Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com)

What will we focus on?

Once we’ve stated our aspirations (“what winning will look like”), we need to identify a playing field where we can realize our aspirations. No company can be all things to all people and win, so where-to-play choices – for example, which markets, customer segments, channels, and industries – narrow our focus. 

Arriving at a Common Definition of Value

As I mentioned in a previous post, designers must become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach, and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make decisions critical in the business world through effective processes. Few decisions are more challenging than deciding how to prioritize.

I’ve seen too many teams deciding by asking, “What can we implement with the least effort” or “What are we able to implement,” instead of “what brings value to the user.”

From a user-centered perspective, the most crucial pivot that needs to happen in the conversation between designers and business stakeholders is the framing of value:

  • Business value
  • User value
  • Value to designers (sense of self-realization? Did I positively impact someone’s life?)

The mistake I’ve seen many designers make is to look at prioritization discussion as a zero-sum game. Our user-centered design tools set may have focused too much on the user’s needs at the expense of business needs and technological constraints.

That said, there is a case to be made that designers should worry about strategy because it helps shape the decisions that not only create value for users but value for employees. And here is why.

Companies that achieve enduring financial success create substantial value for their customers, their employees, and their suppliers.

Oberholzer-Gee, F. (2021). Better, simpler strategy (2021)

Therefore, a strategic initiative is worthwhile only if it does one of the following (Oberholzer-Gee, F. (2021). Better, simpler strategy. 2021):

  • Creates value for customers by raising their willingness to pay (WTP): If companies find ways to innovate or to improve existing products, people will be willing to pay more. In many product categories, Apple gets to charge a price premium because the company raises the customers’ WTP by designing beautiful products that are easy to use, for example. WTP is the most a customer would ever be willing to pay. Think of it as the customer’s walk-away point: Charge one cent more than someone’s WTP, and that person is better off not buying. Too often, managers focus on top-line growth rather than on increasing willingness to pay. A growth-focused manager asks, “What will help me sell more?” A person concerned with WTP wants to make her customers clap and cheer. A sales-centric manager analyzes purchase decisions and hopes to sway customers, whereas a value-focused manager searches for ways to increase WTP at every stage of the customer’s journey, earning the customer’s trust and loyalty. A value-focused company convinces its customers in every interaction that it has their best interests at heart.
  • Creates value for employees by making work more appealing: When companies make work more interesting, motivating, and flexible, they are able to attract talent even if they do not offer industry-leading compensation. Paying employees more is often the right thing to do, of course. But keep in mind that more-generous compensation does not create value in and of itself; it simply shifts resources from the business to the workforce. By contrast, offering better jobs not only creates value, it also lowers the minimum compensation that you have to offer to attract talent to your business, or what we call an employee’s willingness-to-sell (WTS) wage. Offer a prospective employee even a little less than her WTS, and she will reject your job offer; she is better off staying with her current firm. As is the case with prices and WTP, value-focused organizations never confuse compensation and WTS. Value-focused businesses think holistically about the needs of their employees (or the factors that drive WTS).
  • Creates value for suppliers by reducing their operating cost: Like employees, suppliers expect a minimum level of compensation for their product. A company creates value for its suppliers by helping them raise their productivity. As suppliers’ costs go down, the lowest price they would be willing to accept for their goods—what we call their willingness-to-sell (WTS) price—falls. When Nike, for example, created a training center in Sri Lanka to teach its Asian suppliers lean manufacturing, the improved production techniques helped suppliers reap better profits, which they then shared with Nike.
Oberholzer's Value Stick
The Value Stick is an interesting tool that provides insight into where the value is in a product or service. It relates directly to the Michael Porter’s Five Forces, reflecting how strong those forces are: Willingness to Pay (WTP), Price, Cost, Willingness to Sell (WTS). The difference between Willingness to Pay (WTP) and Willingness to Sell (WTS) — the length of the stick — is the value that a firm creates (Oberholzer-Gee, F., Better, simpler strategy, 2021)

The Value Stick is an interesting tool that provides insight into where the value is in a product or service. It relates directly to Michael Porter’s Five Forces, reflecting how strong those forces are: Willingness to Pay (WTP), Price, Cost, and Willingness to Sell (WTS). The difference between Willingness to Pay (WTP) and Willingness to Sell (WTS) — the length of the stick — is the value that a firm creates (Oberholzer-Gee, F., Better, simpler strategy, 2021)

This idea is captured in a simple graph, called a value stick. WTP sits at the top and WTS at the bottom. When companies find ways to increase customer delight and increase employee satisfaction and supplier surplus (the difference between the price of goods and the lowest amount the supplier would be willing to accept for them), they expand the total amount of value created and position themselves for extraordinary financial performance. 

Organizations that exemplify value-based strategy demonstrate some key behaviours (Oberholzer-Gee, F., “Eliminate Strategic Overload” in Harvard Business Review, 2021):

  • They focus on value, not profit. Perhaps surprisingly, value-focused managers are not overly concerned with the immediate financial consequences of their decisions. They are confident that superior value creation will result in improved financial performance over time.
  • They attract the employees and customers whom they serve best. As companies find ways to move WTP or WTS, they make themselves more appealing to customers and employees who particularly like how they add value.
  • They create value for customers, employees, or suppliers (or some combination) simultaneously. Traditional thinking, informed by our early understanding of success in manufacturing, holds that costs for companies will rise if they boost consumers’ willingness to pay—that is, it takes more-costly inputs to create a better product. But value-focused organizations find ways to defy that logic.

When companies find ways to increase customer delight and increase employee satisfaction and supplier surplus, they expand the total amount of value created and position themselves for extraordinary financial performance.

berholzer-Gee, F., Better, simpler strategy (2021)

Instead, we need objective ways to value design solutions to justify the experience investments. We need to look at the different points in the strategy creation and execution and identify the discussions strategists should facilitate while tracking and tracking its implementation to ensure we bring value for customers and business.

Design is the activity of turning vague ideas, market insights, and evidence into concrete value propositions and solid business models. Good design involves the use of strong business model patterns to maximize returns and compete beyond product, price and technology.

Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., Testing business ideas, (2020)

For such a conversation to pivot to focus on value, designers will need to get better at influencing the strategy of their design project. However, some designers lack the vocabulary, tools, and frameworks to influence it in ways that drive user experience vision forward.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not in this (only) for the money: I feel my work needs to mean something, create value, and change people’s lives! For the better! We need to bring users’ needs to the conversation and influence the decisions that increase our customer’s Willingness to Pay (WTS) by — for example — increasing customers’ delight so that we can create products and services we are proud to bring into the world!

Feasibility, Viability, and Desirability

As a design manager, I’ve always strived to help stakeholders define the Product Design vision to ensure cohesive product narratives through sound strategy and design principles. That said, I’ve always found that how priorities are defined can create a disconnect from vision, especially when we need to make tough choices around the scope. We must facilitate discussions around priorities, so we can confidently decide while taking into account not just feasibilityviability, and desirability.

To understand the risk and uncertainty of choices you’re making while discussing your idea, you need to ask: “What are all the things that need to be true for this idea to work?” This will allow you to identify all three types of hypotheses underlying a business idea: desirabilityfeasibility, and viability (Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., Testing business ideas, 2020):

  • Desirability (do they want this?) relates to the risk that the market a business is targeting is too small; that too few customers want the value proposition; or that the company can’t reach, acquire, and retain targeted customers.
  • Feasibility (Can we do this?) relates to the risk that a business can’t manage, scale, or get access to key resources (technology, IP, brand, etc.). This is isn’t just technical feasibility; we also look need to look at overall regulatory, policy, and governance that would prevent you from making your solution a success.
  • Viability (Should we do this?) relates to the risk that a business cannot generate more revenue than costs (revenue stream and cost stream). While customers may want your solution (desirable) and you can build it (feasible), perhaps there’s not enough of a market for it or people won’t pay enough for it. 
A Veen Diagram representing the intersection between Desirability, Viability and Feasibility.
The Sweet Spot of Innovation in Brown, T., & Katz, B., Change By Design (2009)

Design strategists should help the team find objective ways to value design ideas/ approaches/ solutions to justify their investment from desirability, feasibility, and viability perspectives.

Value and Desirability

When customers evaluate a product or service, they weigh its perceived value against the asking price. Marketers have generally focused much of their time and energy on managing the price side of that equation since raising prices can immediately boost profits. What consumers truly value, however, can be difficult to pin down and psychologically complicated (Almquist, E., Senior, J., & Bloch, N., The Elements of Value, 2016).

The Elements of Value Pyramid: in the lowest level of the pyramid, Functional; one level higher, emotional; one level higher, life changing; in the upper most level; social impact.
“30 Elements of Value” in The Elements of Value (Almquist, E., Senior, J., & Bloch, N., 2016)

When assessing a business idea, we must always start by assessing desirability because — as we established in the overview section —a failure to address their customers’ needs and find a product-market fit with a solution is the first hurdle that most business ideas fail to get past (Wong, R., Lean business scorecard: Desirability, 2021).

How can leadership teams actively manage value or devise ways to deliver more of it, whether functional (saving time, reducing cost) or emotional (reducing anxiety, providing entertainment)? (Almquist, E., Senior, J., & Bloch, N., The Elements of Value, 2016)

Discrete choice analysis and similar research techniques are powerful and useful tools, but they are only designed to test consumer reactions to preconceived concepts of value—the concepts that managers are accustomed to judging.

Almquist, E., Senior, J., & Bloch, N., The Elements of Value (2016)
measurement-millimeter-centimeter-meter-162500.jpeg
Learn about ways to objectively measure the value of design in The Need for Quantifying and Qualifying Strategy (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)
Value and Feasibility

Maybe I’m an idealist, but I believe everything is feasible — given enough time and resources. Then the task of design strategists is to understand stakeholders’ expectations, facilitate the discussions necessary to identify the gap between the vision and the current state, then work out what needs to be true to get to that vision.

That said, the gap between the current state and vision can only be filled by the people that are actually going to do the work, which is why I think many projects fail: if we make decisions (e.g., roadmaps, release plans, investment priorities, etc.) without involving those people that are actually going to do the work, it is hard to get the feasibility perspective clear.

We need to ensure feasibility before we decide, not after. Not only does this end up saving a lot of wasted time, but it turns out that getting the engineers’ perspective earlier also tends to improve the solution itself, and it’s critical to shared learning (Cagan, M., Inspired: How to create tech products customers love, 2017).

calculator and pen on table
Learn more about facilitating investment discussions by finding objective ways to value ideas, approaches, solutions to justify the investment on them (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)
Value and Viability

Similarly to Feasibility, we need to validate the business viability of our ideas during discovery, not after (Cagan, M., Inspired: How to create tech products customers love, 2017).

It’s absolutely critical to ensure that the solution we build will meet the needs of our business — before we talk the time and expense to build out the product.

Cagan, M., Inspired: How to create tech products customers love (2017)

Once you have sufficient evidence that you’ve found the right opportunity to address AND you have a solution that helps your target audience do something they couldn’t before, you then need to prove you can get paid enough for this product or service to have a commercially viable business that can sustain itself over time (Wong, R., Lean business scorecard: Viability, 2021)

crop laboratory technician examining interaction of chemicals in practical test modern lab
Testing Business Ideas throughly, regardless of how great they may seem in theory, is a way to mitigate risks of your viability hypothesis being wrong (Photo by RF._.studio on Pexels.com)

Facilitating discussions around value with tools like Jobs to be Done can help streamline the strategy definition process in several ways. When the team engages in endless discussions around which customer/user problems we should focus on, Jobs becomes a unit of analysis that helps teams remove (or at least reduce) subjectivity while assessing value which helps us devise ways to test our hypothesis.

man in red long sleeve shirt holding a drilling tool
Jobs to be Done work as a great common exchange currency between leadership, designers, product managers and developers by helping us discuss problems instead of solutions (Photo by Blue Bird on Pexels.com)

Clearing Bottleneck through Clarity of Priorities

What slows progress and wastes the most time on projects is confusion about what the goals are or which things should come before which other things. Many miscommunications and missteps happen because person A assumed one priority (make it faster), and person B assumed another (make it more stable). This is true for programmers, testers, marketers, and entire teams of people. If these conflicts can be avoided, more time can be spent actually progressing toward the project goals (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).

The goal of prioritization is to determine what to complete next in order to get maximum value in the shortest amount of time and to avoid multi-tasking due to competing priorities (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017)

Priorities Make Things Happen

Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management (2008)

It’s essential to set priorities and remove distractions so that people can get on with providing service to customers, thus increasing profits and the value of the business (Kourdi, J., Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making, 2015).

Product Definition and Requirements Prioritization
Visualizing the impact of user experience of any given use case based on its opportunity score, while helping in the product decision making process by providing a better sense of priorities

While priorities can make things happen, we need to make sure in a prioritising things that are important, by focusing on value.

The build trap is when organizations become stuck measuring their success by outputs rather than outcomes. It’s when they focus more on shipping and developing features rather than on the actual value of those things.

Perri, M., Escaping the build trap (2019)

There are a few things you should ask yourself and/or the team when we keep coming revisiting and renegotiating the scope of work (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017):

  • What is your prioritisation policy and how is it visualised? How does each and every item of work that has prioritised helps get us closer to our vision and achieve our goals?
  • How will you signal when work has been prioritised and is ready to be worked on? In other words — where is your line of commitment? How do people know which work to pull?
  • How will we visually distinguish between higher priorities and lower priority work?

If you have priorities in place, you can always ask questions in any discussion that reframe the argument around a more useful primary consideration. This refreshes everyone’s sense of what success is, visibly dividing the universe into two piles: things that are important and things that are nice, but not important. Here are some sample questions (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008):

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • If there are multiple problems, which one is most important?
  • How does this problem relate to or impact our goals?
  • What is the simplest way to fix this that will allow us to meet our goals?
pen calendar to do checklist
Learn more about Prioritisation in Strategy and Prioritisation (Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com)

Quantifying and Qualifying Experience

If you clearly articulated the answer to the six strategic questions (what are our aspirations, what are our challenges, what will we focus on, what our guiding principles, what type of activities), strategies can still fail — spectacularly — if you fail to establish management systems that support those choices. Without the supporting systems, structures, and measures for quantifying and qualifying outcomes, strategies remain a wish list, a set of goals that may or may not ever be achieved (“Manage What Matters” in Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., 2013).

From that perspective, we need to find ways to:

  • Explore (and preferably test) ideas early
  • Facilitate investment discussions by objectively describing business and user value, establishing priorities
  • Assess the risk of pursuing ideas while capturing signals that indicate if/when to pivot if an idea “doesn’t work.”
  • Capture and track the progress of strategy implementation
Pivot & Risk Mitigation Assessing the risk, capturing signals, know when to pivot Visibility and Traceability Capturing and tracking progress Facilitating Investment Discussions Business /User Value, Priorities, Effort, etc Validating / Testing Ideas Finding objective ways to explore (and preferably test) ideas early
Instead of a single metric to measure ROI, let’s look at the different discussions that need to be facilitated while quantifying and qualifying strategy, such as Pivot and Risk Mitigation, Facilitating Investment DiscussionsValidating / Testing Business Ideas, and Visibility and Traceability.

Strategy Challenges

These challenges for bringing desirability, feasibility, and viability perspectives together are due to many reasons:

  • Designers feel that projects start without a clear vision or focus which problems to solve and for who
    • Our user centered design tools set may have focused too much on needs of the user, at the expense of business needs and technological constraints.
    • We need to point at futures that are both desirableprofitable, and viability (“Change By Design“, Brown, T., & Katz, B., 2009).
  • Projects that do start with clear vision start slowing stray away as the product development lifecycle goes on
    • Designers may have naively believed that they can provide the user perspective at only so many points of the product development lifecycle (e.g., during the project/backlog/sprint planning phase).
    • In reality, “any product that makes into the world is actually the outcome of dozens, hundreds or thousands of decisions along the way, each decision building upon each other, informing and influencing all aspects of the user experience.” (Elements fo User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond, Garrett, 2010).

Strategies that don’t guide behavior

One of the reasons why this slow process of stray away happens it’s because some strategies just don’t enable teams to make good decisions.

Strategy is, at its core, a guide to behavior. It comes to life through its ability to influence thousands of decisions — both big and small — made by employees throughout an organisation.

Heath, D., & Heath, C. “Sticky Advice” in Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die (2009)

A good strategy drives actions that differentiate the company and produce financial success. A bad strategy drives actions that lead to a less competitive, less differentiated position. A lot of strategies, though, are simply inert. Whether they are good or bad is impossible to determine, because they do not drive action. They may exist in pristine from in a PowerPoint document, or in a “strategic planning” binder, or in speeches made by top executives. But if they don’t manifest themselves in action they are inert, irrelevant. They are academic (Heath, D., & Heath, C. “Sticky Advice” in Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die, 2009).

garrett_elementsofuserexperience_fiveplanes_01
Jesse James Garrett’s Five Planes—strategy, scope, structure, skeleton, and surface—provide a conceptual framework for talking about user experience problems and the tools we use to solve them (Garrett, J., Elements fo User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond, 2010).
garrett_elementsofuserexperience_FivePlans_02
Jess James Garrets argues that some choices in lower planes should enable (or eliminate) choices in the higher planes (Garrett, J., Elements fo User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond, 2010).

It’s not a lack of effort or good intentions that renders a strategy inert. Every executive wants their team to understand. But there are three nasty barriers that make strategic communication more difficult (Heath, D., & Heath, C. “Sticky Advice” in Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die, 2009):

  • Curse of Knowledge. It leads executive to talk about strategy as though they themselves were the audience. It temps them to use language that is sweeping, high-level, and abstract (The most efficient manufacturer of semiconductors! The lowest-cost provider of stere equipment! World-class customer service!) Often leaders are not even aware they are speaking abstractly. To thwart the curse of knowledge, leaders need to “translate” your strategies into concrete language, and storytelling is a great way to do that!
  • Decision paralysis. Most people in an organization aren’t in charge of formulating strategy; they just have to understand the strategy and use it to make decisions. But many strategies aren’t concrete enough to resolve a well-established decision bias called decision paralysis. Psychologists have uncovered situations where the mere existence of choice — even choice around several good options — seems to paralysis us in making decisions. How can strategy liberate employees from decision paralysis? When people are about to talk about strategy, they are more likely to make good decisions than when the strategy exists only as a set of rules.
  • Lack of common language. Good strategic communication is like Esperanto. It facilitates communication among people who have different native languages and carves out turf that people can share. Employees relay on leaders to define the organisation’s game plan. Leaders rely on employees to tell them how the game is going. For this dialogue to work, both sides must be able to understand each other. Here is why creating shared understanding, and facilitating two-way negotiations around outcomes become super critical!

Strategies that don’t communicate Value and Why

One of the easiest way to help teams stay focus is to make sure they understand the “why”. To emphasize how transformative this conversation pivot around value and vision can be, author Simon Sinek (Start with Why, 2011) created an illustration that he calls “The Golden Circle”, with concentric circles as WHY, HOW, and WHAT. 

"The Golden Circle" by Simon Sinke with three concentric circles as WHY, HOW, and WHAT
The Golden Circle (Sinek, S., Start with Why, 2011)

He stresses that all conversations should start inside out. It all starts with why.

The Why is the purpose, cause, or belief that drives every organization and every person’s individual career. Why does your company exist Why did you get out of bed this morning? And why should anyone care?

“The Golden Circle” in Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (Sinek, 2011)

We must clarify the “why” or the value users perceive from our product. Therefore designers need to find the vocabulary to communicate to stakeholders both user needs (desirability) and business needs (profitability).

measurement-millimeter-centimeter-meter-162500.jpeg
Learn about ways to objectively measure the value of design in The Need for Quantifying and Qualifying Strategy (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Strategies that don’t have a strong Shared Vision behind it

Finally the biggest challenge — in my opinion — is create a strategy without a strong vision. If the team doesn’t not what is the future we’re trying to create, it’s going to be hard to come up with a framework to define the choices we need to make to get there.

If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.

Yogi Berra

Designers should facilitate the creation of product visions that explain a strategy’s complex connections and express the product’s future intended destination. (Fish, L., Kiekbusch, S., “The State of the Designer” in The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision, 2020)

A clear and meaningful vision of the future to which a business is aspiring will help to engage people and unlock energy and commitment. It also guides actions and decisions at all levels of the organization and helps to promote consistency of purpose so that everyone works towards the same goal.

Kourdi, J., Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making, (2015).

While our user-centered methods helped us capture the user’s voice and translate user needs and pain points into design insights, we need a language, a tool, or a framework that translates design insights into a currency that business stakeholders can understand

beach bench boardwalk bridge
Learn more about how to create product vision in Strategy in The Importance of Vision (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Enters the Design Strategist

In the real world, strategy emerges through interplay between structured planning and ad hoc responses. In his article “Crafting Strategy” (2001, Harvard Business Review, 65(3):469), Henry Mintzberg advocates about how one should go about crafting strategy according to the needs of the organization and environment.

Mintzberg compares the art of strategy-making to pottery and managers to potters sitting at the wheel molding the clay and letting the object’s shape evolve in their hands.

Feet in the mud, Head in the clouds

Bill Buxton famously described the characteristics of design superstars (On Being Human in a Digital World, Closing Plenary, CHI08, Florence Italy, April 10th, 2008): “Great Designers have to have their feet in the mud, but their heads in the clouds“. We need to be comfortable in this abstraction transition.

If designers want to influence and translate strategy in ways that drive their user experience vision forward, they must become both business-savvy analysts and synthesizers.

McCullagh, K., “Strategy for the Real World” in Building Design Strategy: Using Design to Achieve Key Business Objectives, Lockwood, T., Walton, T., (2008)

And synthesis is a much-needed skill in the strategy domain: in many companies, such strategies are created in a top-down approach and communicated poorly.

Design Strategy and Business Analysis

In traditional software development, the Business Analyst (BA) plays an important role as liaison between business stakeholders and the technical team (software developers, vendors, etc.), ensuring that business needs are reflected in any software solution (“The Role of the Business Analyst” in Business Analyst Handbook, Podeswa, H., 2008). There are a lot of transferable skills here for design to learn from, especially with regards to Facilitating Decision Making and Stakeholder Management. We will discuss them in more details in my next post.

Design Strategy and Design Synthesis

As product leaders and design strategists conduct product discovery and user research-related activities, they generate a large amount of raw data. By itself, this data isn’t very useful in itself. It isn’t actionable and doesn’t help the teams move forward with their creative design process. It needs to be synthesised.

Design Strategy is about controlling the amount of subjectivity in the product or service development process. It provides a decision-making framework and a rationale to stakeholders around which stakeholders can make product development decisions.

McCullagh, K., “Strategy for the Real World” in Building Design Strategy: Using Design to Achieve Key Business Objectives, Lockwood, T., Walton, T., (2008)

We need make sense of data by interpreting it; learn to make sense out of it. Synthesis is about making informed inferences, leaps from raw data to insight. This is a hard skill to learn, and designers are taught several different methods to help them make these inferential leaps (“Design Synthesis” in Exposing the Magic of Design, Kolko, J., 2015)

However, how can designers train themselves to need to become both business-savvy analysts and synthesizers?

In the next post, we will discuss the skills designers need to become business-savvy analysts and synthesizers.

Design Strategy and the Need for Facilitation

It’s been my experience that — left to chance — it’s only natural that teams will stray from vision and goals. Helping teams paddle in the same direction requires not only good vision and goals, but also leadership, and intentional facilitation.

Facilitating is a way to help people move forward together that harnesses contribution, connection, and equity.

Kahane, A. Facilitating breakthrough (2021)

Facilitation is necessary, however, when two conditions are met (Kahane, A. Facilitating breakthrough, 2021):

  • People want to create change: the situation they find themselves in is not the way they want it to be; they think that something is going wrong or could be going better. If this condition is not met–if people think that things are fine just as they are–then they can just carry on doing what they are doing, and facilitation is not necessary or effective. A facilitated change process won’t go far if the participants don’t want their situation to change. Sometimes the way people see their situation is that they simply have a problem, maybe easy or maybe difficult, that they need to solve. One example might be a project that is behind schedule and needs to be sped up. Other times they see themselves as facing a problematic situation: a situation that different people see as problematic from different perspectives and for different reasons, which they can work with and through but cannot neatly solve once and for all.
  • People want to collaborate: The second condition is that people want to collaborate to address this challenge. This means that they don’t think they can (or they prefer not to) address this challenge on their own or by forcing others to come along. If this condition is not met–if people prefer to act unilaterally–then facilitation is not necessary or effective.

“More collaboration” is often suggested as a solution to ineffective organizations; but, in reality, collaboration needs to be carefully curated to avoid unintended effects and cognitive overload.

Skelton, M., & Pais, M. Remote team interactions workbook: Using team topologies patterns for remote working (2022)

Research by Harvard Business School published in 2018 found that in the knowledge work context — where there is discovery and innovation taking place — organizations that had everyone talking to everyone else all the time actually performed worse than in situations where teams or groups of people communicated and collaborated on a more occasional basis (Bernstein, E., Shore, J., & Lazer, D., 2018). This supports the idea that we actually need to create more purposeful interactions between teams (Skelton, M., & Pais, M. Remote team interactions workbook: Using team topologies patterns for remote working. 2022)

photo of people near wooden table
Learn more about becoming a skilled facilitator (Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com)

Design Strategist Multiplication Program

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my colleague Edmund Azigi is designing a Design Strategist Multiplier program per the request of Scott Lietzke, our VP of Design at SAP SuccessFactors.

Such a program must be practice-based, accompanied by a series of seminars, corresponding required reading, and reflective practice journaling to create opportunities for people to grow.

In the next post, I will discuss the required reading for each of the skills (namely: thought leadershipstakeholder analysis and managementfacilitating decision making, and project management) and what kinds of activities you could experiment with to nurture design strategists.

group of people sitting on chair on stage
Learn more about how can designers become both Business-savvy Analysts and Synthesizers in The Skills of a Strategist (Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com)

Recommended Reading

Almquist, E., Senior, J., & Bloch, N. (2016). The Elements of Value: Measuring—and delivering— what consumers really want. Harvard Business Review, (September 2016), 46–53.

Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A. (2020). Testing business ideas: A field guide for rapid experimentation. Standards Information Network.

Buxton, B., (2008), On Being Human in a Digital World.  Closing Plenary, CHI08, Florence Italy, April 10th, 2008.

Brown, T., & Katz, B. (2009). Change by design: how design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. [New York]: Harper Business

Cagan, M. (2017). Inspired: How to create tech products customers love (2nd ed.). Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

Calabretta, G., Gemser G., Karpen, I., (2016) “Strategic Design: 8 Essential Practices Every Strategic Designer Must Master“, 240 pages, BIS Publishers; 1st edition (22 Nov. 2016)

Fish, L., Kiekbusch, S., (2020), “The State of the Designer” in The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision, 288 pages, New Riders; 1st edition (August 2, 2020)

Garrett, J., (2010), “The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond, 192 pages, New Riders; 2nd edition (16 Dec. 2010)

Heath, D., & Heath, C. (2009). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. Random House Trade. 

Kalbach, J. (2020), “Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams“, 440 pages, O’Reilly Media; 2nd edition (15 December 2020)

Kolko, J. (2015). Exposing the magic of design: A practitioner’s guide to the methods and theory of synthesis. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Kourdi, J. (2015), Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making, New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., (2013), “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works”, 272 pages, Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press (5 Feb 2013)

McCullagh, K., “Strategy for the Real World” in Building Design Strategy: Using Design to Achieve Key Business Objectives, Lockwood, T., Walton, T., (2008), 272 pages, Publisher: Allworth Press; 1 edition (November 11, 2008)

Mintzberg, H., (2001), “Crafting Strategy” in Harvard Business Review, 65(3):469.

Oberholzer-Gee, F. (2021). Better, simpler strategy: A value-based guide to exceptional performance. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Oberholzer-Gee, F. (2021). Eliminate Strategic Overload. Harvard Business Review, (May-June 2021), 11.

Podeswa, H. (2008). The Business Analyst’s Handbook. Florence, AL: Delmar Cengage Learning.

Project Management Institute. (2017). A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide) (6th ed.). Project Management Institute.

Sinek, S., (2011) “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”, 256 pages, Publisher: Portfolio; Reprint edition (27 Dec 2011)

Wong, R. (2021). Lean business scorecard: Desirability. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from Medium website: https://robinow.medium.com/lean-business-scorecard-desirability-ede59c82da78

Wong, R. (2021). Lean business scorecard: Feasibility. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from Medium website: https://robinow.medium.com/lean-business-scorecard-feasibility-aa36810ae779

Wong, R. (2021). Lean business scorecard: Viability. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from Medium website: https://robinow.medium.com/lean-business-scorecard-viability-de989a59aa74

By Itamar Medeiros

Originally from Brazil, Itamar Medeiros currently lives in Germany, where he works as Director of Design Strategy at SAP.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, Itamar has helped truly global companies in multiple continents create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles. During his 7 years in China, he promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

Itamar holds a MA in Design Practice from Northumbria University (Newcastle, UK), for which he received a Distinction Award for his thesis Creating Innovative Design Software Solutions within Collaborative/Distributed Design Environments.

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