Reducing Drama Through Design Strategy

Design strategy connects small actions together to create large effects through maps and meaning, not drama.

We tend to confuse grand gestures with great effects. The story of the person who quits their job, sells their house, and starts a new career on the other side of the world sounds interesting, but is it useful?

Too much of what passes for behavioural motivation in popular culture is based on drama. We are drawn to stories about the major life event and the transformative change that comes from it. We love the stories of dramatic, profound, sudden change. Unfortunately, these stories of sudden change are also rare and usually not effective guides for people. It’s the reason why people who battle addictions often have to quit many times over to be successful.

I find many individuals and organizations who aim their programs, services, and strategies toward achieving dramatic outcomes. By this, I mean achieving big changes from grand gestures.

What if we designed for small changes without the drama? This is what design strategy is all about.

Creating Big from Small

A great artistic work comes from small gestures, such as brush strokes, shifts in motion, or changes in tone. Most of us don’t notice the brushstrokes and instead pay attention to the entire picture. That’s the beauty of art.

When we aim to develop an innovation the aim is the final painting, yet the strategy should be on the brushstrokes. Small actions that are performed regularly and with a sense of how they fit as part of a bigger whole are what makes a real difference. This is systems thinking as part of design.

Designing for small actions works well because it connects daily practice with low barriers to action with large, more complicated outcomes. Doing small and easy things often is more effective than doing large things occasionally. Design strategy helps us to shape these small actions.

Designing these small actions into our work is the next step.

Exploring Small and Big Things With Maps

System maps are great ways to help make sense of how parts fit into a whole (and what the whole is in the first place). Maps aren’t just for geographers, they are as Kevin Richard elegantly puts it, for innovators and explorers. Maps become much more important to us when we see ourselves as explorers.

A system map is basically a visual representation of actors, relationships, and actions within a set of conditions (boundaries). A system map forces us to create boundaries and define it in terms of who is in it, what happens, and what the purpose of the system is. It’s our design choices (what we want and how we arrange things to achieve this within boundaries) that defines what a system is. The map helps us to illustrate this.

A system map also allows us to draw potential causal chains of connections. These connections allow us to hypothesize what might happen with our actions. These maps also help because they show how a small action might lead to another action and outcome. Rather than seeing a grand gesture that require a lot of work to change, we see small activities that can easily be influenced.

Creating a system map involves a little time and simply paying attention to what is around us. While there are many sophisticated approaches to creating system maps, simple sketching strategies are all you need to start. Artistic skills are not required. Sketch maps are simple to make and powerful in their ability to shape our thinking.

Maps to Meaning: Design Strategy

Mapping activities only matter if we use the map to guide or inform what we do. By creating a strategy from the map we start to shape what to do. By adding a layer of evaluation – a simple check to see what is done and to what effect — we add in accountability and feedback. Together, this creates a design strategy.

Design strategy connects our intentions to our actions and outcomes by articulating how something gets made. A good design strategy helps us also determine what skills, tools, and other ‘materials‘ (e.g., information, data, knowledge, physical properties) we need to get the job done. When we define change in grand terms, it’s much harder for us to articulate what these ingredients are. A great design strategy guides your planning, delivery, and impact.

By connecting a big change to small actions through design strategy we are setting ourselves up for success, not drama.

If you want to bring design strategy, evaluation and systems thinking to your organization contact me because I can help. This is what I do (and I enjoy it). Thanks for reading.

Photos by Gwen King on Unsplash, Tim Trad on Unsplash, Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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