What’s the big idea and how are you going to make it real?
Concepts like design thinking and developmental evaluation are best used when they help ask big questions before seeking answers. How we frame the problem is much more important than the solution we generate, but that way of thinking means going into an area that is much talked about and rarely delivered on: strategy.
Many companies and human service organizations are getting desperate for solutions to the vexing problems they face. However, it may be that the organizations are as stuck finding solutions because they are tackling the wrong problem.
Problem framing is among the most critical, yet often overlooked, steps in design and innovation and often leads to more solutions that fail than those that succeed. Asking better questions is a start and developing a strategy from that is where to go next.
The big idea is your problem, making it real is the strategy to solving it.
What is the big idea?
Herbert Simon wrote about problem forming, framing and solving as the central tenets of design. Albert Einstein, another Nobel laureate, was famously (mis?)quoted as saying this about the discovery process:
If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.
Like so many of these ‘famous’ quotes, its origins are murky and the (hypothesized) original is much less poetic, but the spirit of the phrase is that problem finding and forming is enormously important for innovation. Case studies from design missions, innovation labs, and my own personal experience suggest that this ratio of 55 and 5 in resourcing is probably not far off from the truth.
Problem forming is also tied to a greater sense of mission, which is where a lot of organizations get it wrong. A clear, appropriately scoped mission provides the boundaries for creativity to flourish and innovation efforts to focus. Steve Jobs charged Apple with the mission of developing tools to enable people to create. That may have started with computers, but it soon grew to software with features that were design-forward and attractive, and then mobile devices and the ecosystems that powered them. When viewed from the mission of enabling creativity, the move to being a music and bookseller isn’t a leap from Apple’s roots as a maker of desktop computers.
Where are you going?
Strategy is about saying what you don’t do as much as it is about saying what you do. It also means saying what you do clearly and meaning it. Both of these have enormous implications for what a program focuses on and what feedback systems they develop to help them innovate and guide their strategy moving forward.
A good, simple resource on strategy is Howell J. Maltham Jr‘s recent book I Have a Strategy, No You Don’t. In the book the author illustrates the many ways in which we claim strategy when really it’s a wish. Malthan asserts that a strategy has:
- A purpose
- A plan
- A sequence of actions or tactics
- A distinct, measurable goal
However, most importantly according to Maltham is that this all needs a narrative – the story of what you do and how you do it. Too often we see the absence of narrative or a lack of connection to any of the four components above. Apple has famously developed a strong narrative for how it operates and realizes it mission.
Maltham’s four-point description of strategy works when you are dealing with simple and maybe slightly complicated systems; those with some measure of predictability and control. It doesn’t work well for complexity, which is where many human services are either immersed or shifting to. For that, we need some form of adaptive strategy that provides guidance, but also works with, rather than against complexity. Yet, it still requires a narrative.
Strategy for complex times
Like the above cartoon from Tom Fishburne, the tactics should not precede the strategy. It’s interesting to see how often the term tactic and strategy get confused and conflated. It’s easy to see why. Tactics are tangible. They — like 90% of meetings, answering email and phone messages — offer the illusion of productivity and impact. Getting hundreds or thousands of likes, followers, and re-tweets is a proxy for impact for a lot of people.
But if you’re looking to make real change, it doesn’t matter so much that you’re doing stuff, but rather whether you’re moving stuff.
It’s why adaptive strategy is difficult, because it means moving your ideas, your thinking, your relationships and your operations to constantly re-calibrate your focus. Just like looking at birds through binoculars or watching a football game from the stands, you need to constantly adjust your focus to maintain engagement. The same thing happens with strategy.
At the same time, difficult shouldn’t be the reason not to do something.
This is the new thinking that is needed to innovate and that is why many organizations seek to do the wrong thing righter by doubling down on trendiness to appear innovative without thinking deeply about what the big idea is and how it is supposed to become real. Whether static or adaptive, the narrative will tie that together. So what is your organization’s story and do you know how to tell it?