Trump’s federal government shutdown, May’s Brexit proposal, Sears’ and Victoria’s Secret’s retail strategy, even my own struggling start-up: these are all examples of potentially failed strategies. These strategies might have had a chance had they been created using a little Design Thinking. This is a creative problem-solving process that eschews grand solutions in favor of an incremental, failure-welcoming, iterative learning and building process. Organizations and individuals can use Design Thinking to build better strategies and tactics, increasing chances for success.
An effective strategy begins with a mission statement, covers the whole organization, extends a year or more into the future and helps make sure we’re taking the right risks. Strategy consists of carefully constructed goals, whose success or failure can be measured (via Key Performance Indicators) and is driven by available resources and structures.
Whether we’re working on a business, political or personal strategy, this can be an overwhelming task. Indeed, we rarely start from scratch, so status quo bias (we prefer things as they are) and loss aversion (we hate mistakes) can limit our creativity, willingness to take appropriate risks and effectiveness. Design Thinking can help. The diagram below depicts the four-step process. Let’s apply it to strategic planning for organizations.
The first stage is Discover. If our strategy is intended to increase our chances of success, we need to understand the mission: what are we trying to achieve? My personal favorite mission statement, because of its clarity, ambition, optimism, failure-tolerance and measure-ability is from Star Trek:
To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before!
A useful tool for discovering the context in which the mission is to be pursued is the SWOT matrix. It helps us consider factors that can help or hinder our success, from either internal and external sources. Here’s how it applies to the original Star Trek series:
The second stage is Build. We gather a team to brainstorm our prototype strategic plan, including goals and tactics that will help us achieve our mission, given the SWOT analysis. To maximize creativity and reduce the risk of groupthink, the team should be diverse, with no hierarchy, and a commitment to creating as many ideas as possible, initially without regard to their feasibility. We can then narrow down to an initial set of feasible, strategic goals. Useful goals are SMART goals, that is, they are:
- Specific — precise and unambiguous
- Measurable — quantify progress (with KPIs)
- Assignable — specify who will do it
- Realistic — can, in fact, be done
- Time-bound — include a deadline
In order to achieve strategic goals, we need to drive departmental and individual actions and decisions over the short-run (less than one year) and focus on execution with appropriate tactics. Most strategic goals will require structural and behavioral tactics. Structural tactics are about how we align and use resources while behavioral tactics are about how we create an environment that increases chances of successful decision-making. For example, the Federation’s goal of exploring the universe can be achieved with structural tactics of launching well-armed exploratory vessels and staffing them with diverse and well-trained crews. Their training includes behavioral techniques including rules of thumb like the prime directive, which limit the risk of harm and mission-creep.
The third stage is Measure. How effectively are we achieving our goals based on the objectively measured KPIs of each goal versus the resources we are investing in achieving those goals? How many worlds has the Federation explored and how many civilizations has it contacted over the past star-year? Measurement should occur continuously, consistently and transparently.
The fourth stage is Learn. After experimenting with the strategy and tactics for a reasonable amount of time (at least weeks, but not years), which tactics have proved most and least effective? Which goals ought to be eliminated, adjusted or added? A culture and practice of mindfulness, being highly aware of the present moment, without judgment, will aid learning. Indeed, if strategy is about taking the right risks, then some initiatives will surely be failures. But it is from failure that we learn the most and advance organizational strategy the fastest.
Now, it’s back to Build stage. We adjust strategic goals and/or tactics based on what we have learned. This is followed again by measurement, learning and back again to building, repeating for the life of the organization. This iterative process helps make the organization responsive, agile, risk-tolerant, innovative and more likely to succeed in its mission. In this way, strategic planning with design thinking will help your organization live long and prosper.
This article originally appeared on January 22, 2019 on Forbes.com.