“Why go through the hassle of actually designing and making better products and services, and offering steadily more value to customers and society, when the firm could simply position its business so that structural barriers ensured endless above-average profits?”
That is strategy without design and humanity. Read more here, about how soul-free strategy at the Monitor group didn’t supply the lasting competitive advantage they promised to their clients.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what strategy means. My dear friend Carl Collins mentioned the ideas of Leverage and Inertia to me the other day, in the context of one’s ability to enact change or “move the needle”. I like to think of it as Making a Dent in the Universe. As a reformed physicist, my pulse quickened. Inertia in companies is something that has troubled me for a long time…even before I went to design school. To me, inertia is the problem of organizational change. The middle or the bottom or the top wants to change course, but the other parts (often the top, middle or bottom) don’t. This happens in religious organizations all the time (listen to this great This American Life episode about Heretics for more on that angle…where the top wants to change and the bottom doesn’t). I’ve seen giant multinationals pay good money to the consultancies I’ve worked for, to solve problems or offer solutions, that, when received, were disregarded or shelved. Sometimes it’s politics…we were simply talking to the wrong people. They wanted change, but another division of the company wanted another type of change, or no change at all. So we wonder…was it us? Did we not sell it right? Or were we not talking to the right people? Or is the organization not even capable of change? Was it lack of leverage, or was it inertia?
I could have the best damn ideas for where a company should get to, based on where it is and where it wants to go. But if the stakeholders I’m engaged with don’t have the juice, the power, the leverage to enact that change, I’m just providing fodder for internal politics. My story might be a transformational one, it might help move the dial on the issues…but the change may be slow to come.
What is Leverage? I think it’s a funny thing…you need three things – A big stick, a solid place to lever from, and some power. Archimedes is generally quoted as saying “give me a place to stand and a rod long enough, and I shall move the world!”…he should have mentioned the rod being strong enough, too. Leverage has this unique dual aspect – you need solid contact, but also some distance from the problem. If you’re too close to the problem, you can’t have leverage.
In a way, the further you are from the problem, the more leverage you can have. I think we have all had the experience of being in the weeds. When you’re down in it, it can be hard to see a solution, and it can be hard to effect change. But if you never get down into the weeds, you’ll never understand the problem. So I like the diagram at the top of this post – there’s some distance, but there’s also a solid connection.
This lovely diagram from Undercurrent lays out a nice vision of Strategy:
But the question – Where do you want to end up? – is one that a consultant sometimes has to answer. As a designer, we often hear the problem and think “I know just the thing!” and often, we are right. In fact, companies come to us because we’re creative and think differently than they do. If they could solve the problem with their existing tools, they would have already. Even so, they are not always prepared to hear what we think is the “right way" to go, especially if it is harder, bigger or stranger than what their current business model encapsulates.
Strategy involves a skill that I’m only just now beginning to hone – asking questions. Drawing the goal and the vision out of the client, not inserting a solution from my brain. It’s turning the equation on it’s head. I’m not the expert; The client is the expert. My new friend Alex Cheek has been burning my brain about the work he does at second road, where they focus on using language and dialogue to create the clarity within companies to forge a clearer sense of “where you want to end up".
So that gets me back the idea of facilitation, which has been brewing strongly in my mind ever since I co-founded the design gym last year. Facilitation is the art of creating the space for those questions to be asked, for the real constraints to be uncovered, for creating alignment with the stakeholders. It’s my current theory that if you get the right people into the room, and have the right conversation, you can generate the leverage and the momentum to move the dial on the problem…to make a difference. Which is why we get out of bed in the morning.