Using Strategic Design for Change

Strategic Design is about applying design principles, methods, tools, and approaches to shaping an enterprise. How might we use this to connect our purpose with our actions?

Strategic Design is a newer area of practice within the field of design. It’s basically taking what we know about Design and applying it to ourselves: our organizations, initiatives, and institutions.

As I’ve written elsewhere, it is the means to ensure our enterprises are fit for purpose. That means designing to align our purpose and our actions. Strategic Design begins by looking at two things:

  1. Ensuring you have a clearly articulated purpose or direction.
  2. That what you do (or propose to do) is aligned with that purpose or direction. That means having the right resources (e.g., personnel, technology, tools, location etc..) that are connected with a strategy to use those resources appropriately to accomplish goals connected to your purpose.

Strategic Design connects these together.

Why Design for Change?

Change is the only constant.

The Internet

This statement has much truth to it. Whether it is our weather and climate, new technologies like AI, the spread of new viruses, or the turbulence of global affairs: change is all around us. Little of this is planned, controlled, or even purposefully started. Yet, among this we have influence and the ability to create projects, organizations, and institutions that can excel, adapt, and grow within this environment.

This is where design comes in.

Strategic Design can ensure our enterprises are fit for purpose by aligning design, strategy and evaluation together. It’s how we set ourselves up to learn as we go. This is what it means to be adaptive — not by wishing, but by designing.

At its core, Strategic Design helps us get from here to there. That journey is designed so that we travel in the proper direction, minimize our risks, maximize our benefits, and achieve the outcomes we seek. Good strategic design allows us to do this with the values we hold, the resources we have, and the situations we encounter.

Strategic Design in Complex Times

Strategic Design involves the following steps:

  1. Figure out where ‘here’ is.
  2. Figure out what ‘there’ means and what it will take to get there.
  3. Create a support system to connect here to there consistently and effectively.

In complex situations, the ‘here’ might be challenging to ascertain. Tools like system maps can be immensely useful in helping us understand where we are within a system. A system can be a market, a policy environment, a physical community, an industry or something else. They can be used to map just about anything and help us place ourselves in a context.

“Here” is also where we, as an organization, position ourselves within our market. That is about connecting to values, to roles, and placing ourselves in a context. This means asking questions like: What unique value do we hold? What role(s) do we play? What would people miss if we were gone? How are we connected to things (people, places, activities) around us that affect what we do and frame who we are? This stage also involves using foresight to help us see where things might be going.

Now, let’s figure out where ‘there’ is. Where do you want to go? This is where more traditional facilitation comes in and strategic planning. But Strategic Design goes far beyond strategic planning. It’s about ensuring that your organization is adequately set up for the journey, supported in learning as you go, and able to adapt. That means ensuring leaders have specific skills and that you have the correct data and feedback loops to learn as they go. You must be able to evaluate and monitor what you do, otherwise, you can’t adapt intelligently. Combined with our foresight work, we can help design for where we want to go, not just things are going.

Lastly and importantly, we have to create a support system. To illustrate, if you want to learn as you go, you need evaluation data, the means to assess that data, the time and space to engage in proper sensemaking as needed, and the willingness to act on that data. This might mean blocking off time in meetings, assigning specific staff to be responsible for the work, and leadership to guide and encourage the process.

That’s about it. It’s simple, and intentional, and it makes the difference between planning and going “let’s see” and creating the future we want.

Strategic Design has the added benefit of engaging your organization and using the knowledge often hidden within it. Let’s talk if you’d like help in this archaeological dig and to guide your organization to something different.

Image Credits: Cameron Norman

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