25 January 2023
Design Leadership

The Truth About Strategy

Most people massively over complicate the concept of “strategy”. Ultimately a strategy is the general approach you are going to take in order to deliver your company mission/goals. Having a clear strategy is important as it allows people to decide between competing approaches, markets, customer segments, activities and product features. As such your strategy is the thing that informs and connects what the company is trying to do and how it is trying to do it, with the people who are responsible for delivering it.

The thing most people get wrong is creating an overly complicated or ambitious strategy which nobody can remember, and where pretty much everything is on the table. People create overly complicated strategies due to “ego” and “expectation”. “Ego” because they want to create something super clever that nobody else could have thought of and “expectation” because people will question what you’ve been doing with your time if it seems too simple. This leads to a strategy that’s effectively useless as it doesn’t allow you to effectively marshal resources or prioritise against. So people essentially ignore it and get on with the things they’ve been told to do, and are mostly likely being judged against.

Most organisations have an inbuilt immune response to strategy, because they’ve seen so many clever strategies get written, shared and ignored. Why will this one be any different? The hardest part of any strategy isn’t coming up with the approach, but getting anybody to take it seriously/care. Strategy is essentially organisational behaviour change and behaviour change is hard. Especially if incentives aren’t aligned and you don’t have wide scale buy-in.

The problem is, actually delivering on the strategy is a slog that’s unlikely to win you any friend (not least because it messes with the way people currently work). Which is why strategy has largely become a “fire and forget” profile building activity. Being more strategic as a designer sounds exciting. However it basically means identifying problems in your collective control, coming up with reasonable sounding solutions, creating enough space to work on those solutions (often by saying no to a lot of important people), marshalling resources, gaining buy-in across stakeholders, monitoring progress against goals, staying agile enough to respond quickly when needed, making changes when necessary (even if unpopular) and ultimately delivering on what was promised - all without losing focus or momentum in the process!

And I’m sorry to say that while most designers are happy to do the research, understand the problems and coming up with a sensible approach (the fun bits), they generally lack the political capital, influence or will power to deliver on what was promised in their strategies – which makes being strategic as a designer harder than it initially looks!