Markets are shifting in response to global events like COVID-19 and the climate crisis. To lead in this new era, organizations can turn to strategic design.
It’s no secret that organizations can leverage strategic design to outperform their competitors. This is especially true during periods of transition driven by external factors, which require organizations to adapt if they don’t want to be left behind.
A well-known example in the business world was the recognition that thinking like a designer can transform business operations and help organizations to navigate increasingly complex environments. Popularized by Tim Brown from IDEO in a 2008 Harvard Business Review article, design thinking offered a creative approach to developing human-centered products, services, processes, and strategy.
Over the past year, it has become evident that the world is on the precipice of another transformation that will affect all organizations. On the back of a once-in-a-century pandemic, the past summer has brought upon yet another year of record heatwaves across the Northern Hemisphere. While wildfires were ravaging in heat plagued countries, other parts of the world faced the most devastating floods recorded in their histories. Scientists suggest that these events are all connected and symptoms of climate change.
The disruption to society and the markets caused by these events are undisputable. Consumers are experiencing first-hand the consequences of these global shifts. The COVID-19 pandemic made this more pronounced than any other event. To succeed in this new world, organizations can no longer ignore these effects.
Why organizations should turn to strategic design
Design thinking offers an effective framework for creative problem-solving and customer-led innovation. But the capacity of a design thinking approach to help organizations to understand and respond to the long-term impact of global events like COVID-19 and the climate crisis is arguably limited.
There are three connected challenges associated with these kinds of global events: they require a systemic response, they unfold over long time periods (potentially spanning generations), and multidisciplinary knowledge is needed to fully understand their effects on business operations.
To tackle these challenges, organizations have begun to turn to strategic design. For instance, IKEA’s design and sustainability strategies are closely intertwined, informing not only its product design but also long-term strategies like car-free stores, circular design principles, and a buy-back program.
Design on this level is used to help organizations to determine their internal strategic goals and to calibrate these goals to external factors. According to Hartmut Esslinger, founder of frog design, strategic designers are “fluent in convergent technologies, social and ecological needs, and business”.
Building on Esslinger’s definition, Lee Anderson from KPMGsees strategic design as a “holistic process that delivers long-lasting, scalable value to an organization … through converging disciplines and co-creation involving diverse points of view”.
In other words, strategic design enables organizations to adopt a systemic, long-term perspective and to bridge disciplines.
Getting started with strategic design
So how can strategic design be used in practice? Here are three principles that can help you use strategic design to address the challenges that your organization may be facing in a post-pandemic world. These principles are:
- Visualize the networks
- Shift what ‘long-term’ means to you
- Enable effective collaboration
Visualize the networks on which your organization operates and relies upon
Creating a systemic response requires understanding the underlying systems first. Systems maps are a great tool to visualize the networks and relationships that make up these systems. Mapping out the elements and the causal relationships between those elements can help you to uncover blind spots and gaps. For example, systems maps were used during the COVID-19 pandemic to help decision makers understand weak points in the vaccination process. Uncovering blind spots and gaps not only helps organizations with spotting potential risks but also serves as a starting point for new initiatives or directions. In the vaccination process example, the systems map prompted ideas for how to target hard-to-reach populations. Systems maps should be treated as evolving artifacts. That way, if they are regularly revisited and updated, they can also be used to test each business operation, from introducing a new product to developing a new company strategy.
Shift your organization’s perspective on the ‘long-term’
As human beings, we are not programmed to think far into the future, which is what has led to many of the environmental issues we are facing today. It’s easy to miss the unintended long-term consequences of the decisions we make if we only plan for the next five years. Backcasting can be used to bring long-term perspectives into an organization’s operations by working backwards from a future point in time. Identifying the key differences between that future and today enables organizations to unearth new possibilities and obstacles, as well as the actions required to navigate them. Compared to forecasting, backcasting enables teams and organizations to take more control over their chosen path. In practical terms, backcasting involves creating a visually mapped out chain of steps from the desired future scenario back to the current day. For example, governmental organizations can use this method to implement a long-term perspective and action plan towards reaching carbon emission goals.
Enable effective collaboration across disciplines and departments
Multidisciplinary perspectives are critical for addressing complex issues. Within an organization, this can be achieved by including all departments in strategic planning processes. A good starting point is to involve representatives from all departments when creating your systems map. Not only will the resulting map be more complete, but representatives will come away with a more holistic understanding of the issues and how they can contribute to addressing them through their operations. To scaffold the participatory systems mapping process, you can use STEP cards as a way to generate potential components to be included in the systems map. The cards prompt participants to identify external factors, which may be of social, technological, economic, ethical, environmental, political, or other nature. That way, your expert participants can contribute their domain knowledge while contextualizing it within the broader set of considerations.
Tactics for implementing strategic design in your organization
Now that we’ve established what strategic design is and how it can be used in practice, let’s turn to how it can be leveraged within your organization. Unfortunately, getting support for implementing a new approach or way of thinking can be challenging. Introducing strategic design will likely face similar obstacles that design thinking faced when it was proposed as a tool for innovation. We therefore draw on a research study that investigated the organizational conditions needed to adopt design thinking. The study found four conditions – strategic vision, facilities, cultural capital, and directives – that are integral in organizations seeking to integrate design and create a long-term impact through design. We, by leveraging these conditions, propose four tactics for implementing strategic design.
Set a strategic vision
Things rarely manifest without an explicit plan. To implement strategic design, you will need to set clear, long-term goals, and ensure that these goals (and why they have been set) are transparent to your staff. Being interested in strategic design is all well and good, but you are unlikely to create an impact unless the vision for it is articulated and disseminated – i.e., unless your people understand why this vision has been set and how it will create value for the organization.
Foster cultural capital
For strategic design to be effective, it needs to be adopted widely and not just implemented by a select few. It needs more than bringing employees and stakeholders together through design thinking workshops or sprints, and it can’t be owned by one department or team. It has to be done systematically and continuously. A critical aspect of building cultural capital is teaching more than the technical skills or the ‘how to’. You need to teach staff not only how to use strategic design, but to demonstrate its value and establish why it will be of value to them; not just how to use it, but why and when they should.
People usually stick to their remit, if you want them to use strategic design then their directives will need to reflect this. You could start by implementing design focused KPIs for staff, which will help you to clearly communicate the organization’s commitment to strategic design. This will encourage your organization to leverage design to determine internal strategic goals and to calibrate these goals to external factors. Even after an extremely successful design initiative, without clear directives for design most people will fall back into their business-as-usual routines.
If you want people to do something well then you need to ensure that they feel supported to do so. Strategic design is no exception; invest in safe spaces for design (for example, a room, hub, or network which is dedicated to design), and provide the resources and budgeting required to make it happen. Make sure to not only think about the material assets required, but also consider how you can create time for people to practice design.
Closing notes on the need for strategic design
For over a century, design, like many other approaches, has been used by organizations to outperform their competitors and grow their business operations. But consumers are beginning to expect organizations to engage in environmental and ethical practices, and to make those practices transparent. Otherwise, they will turn to other alternatives.
Strategic design may offer the approach that organizations will need to thrive in this future market. It’s no longer just about leveraging design to be innovative – this is about succeeding in preserving the planet for future generations. Organizations will play a major part in this transformation.
The descriptions of systems mapping, backcasting, and STEP cards is partially based on the methods descriptions in the book Design Think Make Break Repeat. The organizational conditions required to implement design originated in a CMR publication and were later revisited in the book Design Innovation and Integration.