Cohort Spotlight: Strategic Design
Putting humans at the center to build ventures that have a huge impact
Building innovative ventures with the world’s leading companies takes a wide spectrum of skills, along with a spirit of collaboration and experimentation. At BCG Digital Ventures we cover all bases of venture building, from the initial idea to testing and validation to building the product, finding users, and launching it into the world.
This takes experts from all fields. In this series, we’re introducing you to each of our 8 venture-building cohorts, showcasing their approach, the role they play in building a venture, how they work together, and the skills that are required to succeed as we build businesses with groundbreaking impact. For this edition of the cohort series, we’re looking at Strategic Design.
Although there are many important aspects to building ventures, from a strong business model to seamless technical execution to an effective growth strategy, all of these elements rest upon one thing: Understanding human needs.
Strategic Designers are responsible for ensuring that each one of our ventures has a strong foundation and addresses a real human need. After gaining an in-depth understanding of what a market requires, Strategic Designers put forward ideas, work with teams to validate theses that inform product development, and steer a venture from the first idea through to launch — ensuring all stakeholders are catered to.
“We’re all aware of businesses and startups that have received a lot of attention and then completely failed,” says Naomi Goldin, BCGDV alum and former Lead Strategic Designer at BCGDV in New York. “I think one of the biggest reasons for this is that they don’t actually provide value to people. It’s the job of a Strategic Designer to make sure there’s a direct need that the product addresses.”
This means being involved from the very start. Once a company comes to BCGDV with an issue or a goal, Strategic Designers work closely with them to fully understand it through a comprehensive research process. An industrial goods company might want to engage with a new market, for example, or an energy company might want to bring their offering closer to users. A Strategic Designer’s first step would be to go about understanding exactly what the issue is through interviews, site visits, ethnography, and any other approach that might bring them close to a full understanding, working closely with the corporate partner to leverage unique sector expertise.
But understanding problems is only the first stage. Next is taking these learnings and turning them into action. By telling stories around a problem and a solution, they can synthesize insights with action.
“We want to understand the issues and frictions, and then we want to ideate to solve these issues and frictions,” explains Ron Clark, VP of Strategic Design at BCGDV in Manhattan Beach. “We’re great at uncovering what needs to be done to build a great venture. It’s about seeing a problem and being able to say OK, I see how to fix this.”
Strategic Designers are present throughout venture builds, and work closely and in a cross-functional set up with other cohorts, including Engineering, Venture Architecture, and Growth, often finding themselves in de facto Chief Marketing Officer or Product functions; their voice is valuable, as it means the venture never strays from putting the user at the center. “We have a user-centered approach to design,” says Ron. “It’s our way of ensuring product-market fit and maximizing our chances of success.”
This adaptive approach speaks to one of the unique qualities of Strategic Designers at BCGDV. Strategic Design is distinct from other disciplines such as user research not just because of their more varied skill sets, but also because of the attitude required to succeed in venture building. “We think of our Strategic Designers as business builders,” says Ron. “We’re not just speculating — we’re part of the whole journey in terms of building and lending insights to ensure success.”
Some Strategic Designers have gone on to be part of the ventures they’ve worked on after launch, with some leading departments at the new companies they’ve launched after being involved since the first idea.
Just as the Strategic Design role can be varied, so are the profiles of BCGDV’s Strategic Design cohort: “It’s a culture of inspiringly creative high achievers who don’t take themselves too seriously and who have a genuine love of building something new,” says Clare Firth, Lead Strategic Designer in Sydney, Australia. “It’s also the momentum of different types of thinkers coming together, solving problems and making breakthroughs every day.”
But there is one key quality that brings all Strategic Designers together: Curiosity. Ron: “We embrace a lot of different backgrounds, but the one common thread is curiosity. You need to be interested in how systems work, how people behave, and how they interact with products and platforms.”
Clare agrees, adding that her own diverse background and experience informs her work as a Strategic Designer every day: “Having lived and worked in multiple countries has given me a deep empathy for people with different backgrounds and different experiences. That international perspective is something that I draw from all the time.”
Strategic Design is a key discipline at BCGDV, bringing together research and ideation with an entrepreneurial spirit to ensure every venture has a huge impact.