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The Skills of a Strategist

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. What are the skills of a strategist designers need to become both business-savvy analysts and synthesisers?

I’ve previously posted about a Design Strategist Multiplier program that myself and my colleague Edmund Azigi were putting together per request of Scott Lietzke, our VP of Design at SAP SuccessFactors, the need of a new kind of designer, and I’ve hinted on the skills one would need to become a design strategist

Business Savviness and Design Synthesis

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)

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.

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

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

What comes next are my recommendation based both:

Skills of a Design Strategist

If we were to go back to the challenges that designers face to influence and translate strategy in ways that drive their user experience vision forward, I would say they begin with:

  • Designers haven’t found the vocabulary and tools to frame users problems in a way that align with stakeholder business strategies.
    • Our user-centered methods have served us well in capturing the user voice by translating user needs and pain points into design insights.
    • However, we need a language, a tool, or a framework that can translate design insights in a currency that business stakeholders can understand.
  • Designers may have naively mistaken position with influence.
    • While there are more and more Chief Design Officers (CDOs) leading innovation activities and fuelling internal design culture (“The increasing importance of strategic design” in Strategic Design, Calabretta et al., 2016), strategy cannot be effectively executed top down.
    • Meanwhile, Even if a company has great design officials or design managers, we still need to translate strategy into something that teams working on products can turn into reality.
  • Designers may have naively believed that the user perspective could be provided as simply one input at one point of the product development lifecycle (e.g. during project/backlog/sprint planning phase).
    • In reality any product that makes into the the world it’s actually the outcome of a set of dozens, hundreds or — at times — thousands of decisions along the way (“Meet the Elements” in The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond, Garret, J.J., 2010).
    • From that perspective, we need to “move upstream” and influence strategy, but also ensure we are all pedalling in the same direction during execution.

With these challenges in mind, one could argue a new role is needed, which might in tandem with the operations side of design: the design strategist.

Design ManagersDesign Strategists
Skills– Motivation and mentoring
– Internal and External communication
– Culture creative and management
– Cross-department alliances
– Budgeting
– Bi-polar: analytical and intuitive
– Thought leadership
– Empathy with corporate pressures
– Ability to produce tangible, engaging and stand-alone deliverables
Collaboration– Mobilising resources / alliances across the portfolio in response to the strategy blueprints
– Internal and External communication with senior leadership
– Bringing visibility to both internal and external challenges and opportunities by looking at Strategy Blueprints across the portfolio
– Come up with recommendations / plans to address common challenges and opportunities
Adapted from McCullagh, K., “Strategy for the Real World” in Building Design Strategy: Using Design to Achieve Key Business Objectives, Lockwood, T., Walton, T., (2014), Publisher: Allworth Press; 1 edition (November 11, 2008)

From that perspective, we need a different kind of senior designer. We need designers working on user experience teams must first advance from a tactical designer to a strategic designer. They can not only move pixels, but translate design insights in a currency that business stakeholders can understand. After that, he or she can get teams to paddle in the same direction.

With these requirements in mind, I will argue that the skills required for a design strategist should take senior craftsmanship and leadership to a new level.

I suggest beginning with four: thought leadership, facilitating decision making, project management, stakeholder analysis and management.

Thought Leadership

Thought leaders stay on the beat of current trends and are the go-to source for others within their industry. When a thought leader speaks, people take notice. Thought leaders challenge the status quo, and begin powerful trends that others follow. Through their content and presence, they command authority on industry-related topics.

Why become a Thought Leader?

Thought leadership is influencing a narrative by understanding what needs to be done. A Thought Leader can be recognized as an authority in a specific field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded, that can be an expert, a historical figure, or a ‘wise person’ with worldly impact (Wikipedia, 2021).

Do you want to become someone who can move and inspire others with innovative ideas, turn those ideas into reality, and then create a dedicated group of friends, fans, and followers to help you replicate and scale those ideas into sustainable change?

“What Do You Want to Be Known For”, in Ready to Be a Thought Leader?: How to Increase Your Influence, Impact, and Success, Brosseau, D., (2014)

Obviously, designers aspiring to become a strategists should realize that such presence — apart from natural talent — may only come with experience and exposure.

That should not stop design managers and leaders to try to nurture and coach strategists with Leadership potential.

Stakeholder Analysis and Management

Most projects in global companies — an area of design that I’ve been practicing for more than 20 years — are plagued with communication issues. An effective strategist will need to continuously review and agree on stakeholder expectations. Therefore, strategist will need Stakeholder Analysis and Management skills to:

  • Mitigate issues caused by virtual, international projects
  • Find effective channels of communication
  • Ensure stakeholders are communicating effectively

The single most important thing you can do to improve communication between you and your stakeholders is to improve those relationships, earn trust, and establish rapport (“Stakeholders are People Too” in Articulating Design Decisions, Greever, T., 2020)

That involves a few key soft skills, particularly influencing without authority.

The True Measure of Leadership is Influence – Nothing more, Nothing less.

“The Law of Influence” in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, Maxwell, J.C., (2007)

Patience and flexibility are key. Cross-cultural effectiveness takes time. Developing your own ability to recognize others’ reactions and adapt accordingly will help you be increasing persuasive when working internationally (“Why versus How: The Art of Persuasion in a Multicultural World” in The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, Meyer, E., 2014)

Facilitating Decision Making

Skilled facilitators are valuable guides when individuals and groups need to make decisions that are critical in the business world. These professionals are asked to respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they take members of an organization through effective processes. 

To clarify, facilitation here does not only means “facilitate workshops”. Above all, it means facilitate the decisions regardless of the activities required.

Judging from the practices – and all the stakeholder management discussions we’ve had so far – in most organizations today, a few lessons have taken hold (“The Importance of Facilitation” in The Facilitator’s Fieldbook, Justice, T., & Jamieson, D., 2012):

  • Participation in important.
  • Teams generally perform better than individuals (if they work effectively).
  • Process (how something is done) affects outcome (what is accomplished).
  • With greater complexity comes the need for more expertise and additional perspectives.

Creating Shared Understanding

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

Shared understanding is the collective knowledge of the team that builds over time as the team works together. It’s a rich understanding of the space, the product, and the customers.

“Creating Shared Understanding” in Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience, Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J. (2013)

It’s very easy to verify if the team has a shared understanding around the problem the team is trying to solve. Just ask — in your next backlog grooming or planning meeting — some fundamental questions around strategy “what is the problem we are trying to solve”? “And for whom”?

If you get different answers from key stakeholders, it is probably a good indication that you should jump in and help facilitate the discussion that will help the team to align.

The Mindset of a Facilitator

Facilitators are here to enable groups to succeed by (“A Few Reasons to Hire a Facilitator” in Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Include Meetings. Smutny, M., 2019):

  • Asking questions. Creative questions allow a composite picture of the organization to emerge before a strategy event. This listening prepares the consultant to facilitate with knowledge and skills.
  • Designing a planning process that is unique to the team they are working with. An experienced facilitator creates a meeting designs from a wealth of methods, tailored to the objectives to the team.
  • Helping the group get specific action plans. She or he will not let teams get stuck with vague generalities.

It’s All About Decisions

There is more to a decision than deciding which option to choose. A good decision also must be communicated to others, explained sufficiently well to persuade people to agree, and carried through to successful completion. Which on of these is most difficult for you?

Failures in decision making occur most often not because the decision maker was weak-minded or inexperienced, but simply because they invested their energy poorly across all the different decisions they had to make.”

“How to Make Good Decisions” in Making things happen: Mastering project management, Berkun, S. (2008).

Who in your life do you debrief your major life decision with? Why do you pick them for this important role? 

Project Management

While Strategists are not expected to fully manage design projects in their area of responsibility, strategists should be knowledgeable enough about strategic and business management skills to be able to (“Strategic and Business Management Skills” in A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge PMBOK guide, 6th ed., Project Management Institute, 2017):

  • Explain to other the essential business aspects of a project;
  • Work with the project sponsor, team, and subject matter experts to develop an appropriate project delivery strategy; and
  • Implement the strategy in a way that maximises the business value of a project.

That is to say that to make the best design decisions regarding the successful delivery of their projects, Design Strategists should be knowledgeable enough to explain to others the following aspects of their organization:

  • Strategy
  • Mission
  • Goals and Objectives
  • Products and Services
  • Operations
    • location, type, technology
  • The market and the market conditions
    • customers
    • stake of the market (i.e.: growing or striking)
    • time-to-market factors, etc
  • Competition
    • what
    • who
    • position in the market place

In addition, Design Strategists should leverage on project management skills to apply the following knowledge and information to the project to ensure alignment:

  • Strategy,
  • Mission,
  • Goals and Objectives,
  • Priority,
  • Tactics, and
  • Products or services (e.g., deliverables)

Design Strategist Multiplication Program

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

In order for this kind of profession development program to work — in my opinion — should be practice-based, accompanied with a series of seminars, corresponding required reading and reflective practice journaling to create the opportunities for people to grow.

In the next few posts, I’ll be deep diving in each of these skills and challenging you with questions that will help you think of ways to how to pick up these skills yourself.

Recommended Reading

Berkun, S. (2008). Making things happen: Mastering project management. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Brosseau, D. (2014). Ready to be a thought leader?: How to increase your influence, impact, and success (1st 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)

Garrett, J. J. (2010). The elements of user experience: User-centered design for the web and beyond (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: New Riders Publishing.

Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J. (2013). Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media

Greever, T. (2020). Articulating Design Decisions (2nd Edition). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Justice, T., & Jamieson, D. (2012). The Facilitator’s Fieldbook (3rd ed.). Amacom.

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.

Maxwell, J. C. (2007). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

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)

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

Smutny, M. (2019b). Thrive: The facilitator’s guide to radically inclusive meetings. Civic Reinventions.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, March 2). Thought leader. Retrieved March 16, 2021, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia website: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Thought_leader&oldid=1009753080

By Itamar Medeiros

I'm a Strategist, Branding Specialist, Experience Designer, Speaker, and Workshop Facilitator based in Germany, where I work as Director of Design Strategy and Systems at SAP and visiting lecturer at Köln International School of Design of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, I've helped truly global companies in several countries (Brazil, China, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, The United Arab Emirates, United States, Hong Kong) create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles.

During my 7 years in China, I've promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

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