A new leader arrives, delivering a jolt of energy and new ideas to the organization. Meetings are held, committees are formed, and consultants are hired. Slowly, over several months, a consensus vision begins to emerge. With much fanfare, a presentation is made and documents are broadly distributed. And then? The strategic plan goes to collect dust on a shelf … right next to the one that preceded it.
If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans. – Woody Allen
The typical strategic planning process is nothing if not an exhaustive review of “the way we’ve always done things.” Heavily reliant on analytical thinking meant to assure reliable outcomes, strategic plans pretty reliably fail to leverage an organization’s initial burst of momentum into lasting systemic change. Why?
The justification for having a strategic plan is valid. One would no sooner go on a long road trip without a GPS than cook an unfamiliar meal without some sort of recipe. Except, things aren’t going to go exactly as planned. Life is not linear.
Strategic plans tend to be rigidly focused on achieving specific, measurable, realistic goals – not on increasing the capacity of the organization to adapt to changing conditions along the way. The risk of inaction grows when control over direction and implementation of a strategic plan is consolidated under a few senior executives.
Without developing creative problem-solving skills throughout the organization, and explicitly encouraging and supporting new ideas (a.k.a., risk), people are less inclined to embrace new initiatives. In this scenario, the best that can be hoped for is a slightly – and temporarily – more polished status quo, an organization that essentially ends up right back where it started.
In order to solve the really tough problems, the ones that increase an organization’s reach and impact, employing only analytical, top-down thinking won’t be enough. Increasingly, the most innovative ideas spring forth where intuition intersects with analysis. We need everyone to start thinking more like designers.
Indeed, the University of Toronto’s Roger Martin, noted author of The Design of Business, argues that “design skills and business skills are converging. To be successful in the future, business people will have to become more like designers.”
By this, Martin isn’t suggesting that CEOs should start scribbling designs on napkins, but rather he is suggesting there is a better way to think about solving problems.
Building capacity for change
Herbert Simon, a renowned social scientist who focused on organizational decision making, said anything concerned “not with how things are but with how they might be” is actually design. An organization that adopts a designer’s mindset expands its capacity for generating and implementing new solutions to challenging problems. Methods include:
- Empathy for the end user Who are you trying to reach? To understand current behavior, you need to understand your audience, their motivations and experiences, and any barriers they have to changing behavior.
After studying students busing trays in a Northwestern University cafeteria, a cross-disciplinary team’s slight change to a conveyor belt reduced water use by more than 40%.
- Multiple perspectives Too often, organizations become insular, looking at problems from a very narrow point of view. Pursuing focused collaborations with smart people and organizations that share your goals, but have different backgrounds and expertise, dramatically expands the probability of unexpected mashups and breakthrough ideas.
Steve Wozniak, an electrical engineer and computer programmer, teamed up with Steve Jobs, a marketing whiz and visionary, to build the Macintosh computer and accelerate the personal computer revolution.
- Trial and error We need courage and resilience to try things that might not work. To reduce risk, the goal should be to learn more by testing ideas quickly and cheaply in a perpetual state of discovery and refinement. People need permission to fail, and to learn from their mistakes.
John Bielenberg, a prominent advocate of using design for a better world, has a tendency to do something he calls “thinking wrong,” which means, “Whatever you’re supposed to think, or make, or say – do your best to do the opposite, and see where it takes you.”
Excuses are always in abundant supply. Almost any effort, any organization, would benefit from additional time and money. If you’re waiting for perfect conditions, then you might as well quit right now.
To build organizational capacity – to turn those strategic plans into meaningful actions – requires more people thinking and working like designers. When we have embraced design as part of our ongoing working process, we can create new processes, systems, products, and services that improve people’s lives.
Business People Need to Become Designers (video)
Building Strategic Capacity by Design