What it takes to design a strategy
To me, strategy is about potential. There is always potential for growth. Strategy is about finding the area where the most potential for growth for an organization is and organizing things to manifest that potential. The goals of organizations are usually not that complicated: sell more products and/or services to make the world better and/or make more money. When a strategy is needed, there is usually some kind of transformation: a shift in the offering is needed to grow or to adjust to changing circumstances. Strategy is the plan to achieve those goals. But what comes before strategy, what is needed to create a strategy is seeing the potential. Strategy is the product of a process of uncovering potential: potential of the market and the context in relation to the potential of the organization.
A strategy is a plan to achieve goals. Any plan is a strategy. So strategy is not complicated. Anyone can make a plan. And whether you achieve your goals is dependent on lots of factors that might be outside your control. And there is also this famous saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast which basically means that having the right spirit and motivation is more important than the quality of the plan. Even a bad plan can lead to good results. I am a strategist and I believe in strategy but what I am trying to say is that strategy is a relative activity. And of course, the success of a strategy all depends on the quality of the execution. What I don’t consider a strategy is just to have “strategic goals”. A strategy is not goals, a strategy is the why, the what and the how, a strategy is a plan.
Ask why five times
A good place to start with a strategy is to ask why. The goals of organizations might be very similar: grow, shift. But why do you want to grow? To get to a good strategy, you need to dive deeper than the first why. Why is this reason for growth important? Why does that matter? A deeper understanding of the why leads to a more specific strategy that has a bigger chance of success. A good tool for that is the Five Whys method developed by Toyota.
Any tool is as good as the person using the tool. A pencil in the hands of Michelangelo is a better tool than in the hands of anyone else. What I see as a crucial skill for using strategic tools like the Five Whys is empathy. You have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of your client and your client’s client.
We are currently working for a client that sells women’s clothes online. I am not a woman but I can relate to the underlying why. The Five Whys in this case went something like this:“We want to grow our business.”“Why do you want to grow your business?” (1)“Because we want to reach more women.”“Why do you want to reach more women?” (2)“Because we want to spread our message that you can feel good about yourself not matter what your size.”“Why do women need to feel good about their size?” (3)“Because women can feel insecure about their bodies because of all the advertising in the fashion industry that sets a certain beauty standard that not everybody can achieve.”“Why is that beauty standard a problem?” (4)“Because if you do not fit to the beauty standard, you do not feel powerful.”“Why do women need to feel powerful?” (5)“Because then they feel better about themselves.”“Why do women need to feel better about themselves?” (6)“Because that allows them to be themselves more, accept themselves more and if they accept themselves more, they accept others more and everybody feels more accepted not matter what size, race, age you are.”
You do not need to limit yourself to asking five whys. This can go on as long as you like. I cannot pretent to imagine what it feels like to be a woman and what impact the advertising of the fashion industry has on my self image and the quality of my life. But I can relate to the underlying issue of diversity and being yourself and feeling accepted. I believe the quality of a strategy depends on the level of understanding of the depth of the goals of an organization. A strategy needs to be specific. Specific to the organization. The company we work for started with vintage clothing. But it was never about vintage clothing for the sake of vintage clothing. It started with vintage clothing because vintage was an alternative to the main stream fashion industry and its message of skinny beauty. The driver was always empowerment and diversity. Selling empowerment and diversity is something else then selling vintage clothing online. This is the deep dive of empathy. And one part of empathy is knowledge. The more knowledge you have, the more you understand, the better you can empathize. Being open and curious and non judgemental also helps of course. :) I did not know a lot about the fashion industry so I studied that. I did know a lot about not feeling accepted and being different so I used that.
Seeing the potential
After you uncover the underlying why, I believe strategy is about seeing the potential. What is needed to achieve the goals? Where is the area where the organization can grow the most? What potential in the organization is underused? What potential of technology is underused? What part of the market is underused? What skills can the organization add to grow?
The paradox of knowing and seeing
I believe the most important thing you need in order to see is knowledge. This might sound weird but we see what we think we see. You can only see what you know. Seeing had nothing to do with the eyes but with the brain processing the information that comes through the eyes. Seeing is an active process that requires knowledge. I always use this example of this friend of mine that is a hunter. When I walk through the forest with him, he sees more than I do. Not because he has better eyesight but because he knows more about the forest and the animals that live in it. All I see are trees and branches and leaves and mud, what he sees is the living habits of animals, where the animals are, when they were at certain places, how many animals there are. He sees because he knows. The more you know, the more you see.
On the other hand, knowing, or thinking you know, can stand in the way of seeing. When I was studying painting in art school, in the first year, the only thing the teacher was telling people was to draw what you see and not what you think you see. We have all kinds of mental models in our heads of how we think things look. But if you want to learn to draw, you have to let go of seeing what you think you see and actually look at what is in front of you. Personally I still find drawing a good practice to train yourself to see.
So seeing is finding the balance between knowledge and being open to what is in front of you. In my experience, the more you learn, the more you see. The more mental models and viewpoints you take on, the more you see. And, also in my experience, the more you can let go of what you think you know, the more you see. It’s an interesting paradox as many things in life are.
See the shift
When it comes to strategy, usually, what you need to see is the shift. What has changed? What needs to change? Where is the organization coming from and where does it need to go? What is causing the shift? What are the elements of the shift? What is limiting the organization from making the shift? What is needed to make the shift?
Break it down
To see the potential for growth, you need to know about the context you are working in: technology, platforms, business, branding, data. But you also need to feel, to see without judging, to be open, to have the courage to take a different perspective. The empathy also extends to what the organization needs to manifest the potential that is uncovered. That is the plan. That is the strategy. How can you design and organize in order to manifest the potential? Uncovering the potential through empathy and seeing is the start of the process. The next step is to identify practical things that can be done to move in the direction of the potential. Strategy is organization. What can we do and how does that help us move in the right direction? Organization is the material of strategy, the matter. What do we need to research? Who do we need to ask for help? What concrete activities can we do? Where do we need to invest? How can we measure if we are on the right track? What skills do we need? How can we get them? What do we need to stop doing? How can we change the way we do things? After the discovery, strategy becomes practical very fast. Big ideas need to land. Roadmaps need to be drawn. Here the skill that is needed is to break down big ideas into small steps. Cut it up into pieces and see how the pieces work together. See what first steps are needed to get to the next steps. You need to see the whole system and how it works. Systems thinking is the field that studies how systems work and I believe that is crucial to strategy.
In the case of our client, the first steps were to figure out A/B testing in order to collect insights on what works, getting their webshop up to best practice UX standards and developing a new corporate identity to shift the vibe of the organization from vintage to the empowerment of women. These things are the base for further development of the power of their message on all kinds of platforms.
These are the three skills I have found most useful in the design of strategy: empathy, the power of sight and systems thinking. These are all skills that can be trained. You can have a strategy if your goal is to design better strategies.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you clap for this essay, I will know I connected with you. I will dive deeper into the topics around Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also subscribe to an email service here on Medium which will drop new essays right into your inbox. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :) You can also find me on Instagram. When I am not blogging about Design Leadership, I work as a design strategist and project manager at Zuiderlicht.