Category Archives: strategy

Culture eats innovation for breakfast

There are often times when I come to a sudden halt and find myself feeling stuck or unable to produce or execute work that I otherwise may feel confident and comfortable to complete. This happens to everyone at some point in their career, and more so in creative ones [see imposter syndrome]. I found myself asking what exactly was the difference between projects and moments in my life where I excelled, versus others where I perceivably fell short- particularly in design and other creative endeavours.

I concluded that in situations where I did not perform to my best there always existed the following:

  • a perception I had of myself
  • a perception I assumed others had of me
  • direct and imposing authority / a reduction of autonomy
  • ambiguity over direction
  • inability to control or effect change

This is not at all surprising. To offer an extreme example, the Stanford prison experiment largely encapsulates the above characteristics. This experiment portrays how placing sensible people in a particular environment (embodying the above) can influence destructive interactions and inspire a culture which results in negative behaviours.

Most (if not all, it seems) companies and leading C-suite executives proclaim that they want to foster innovation and design. Strategists barge into meeting rooms like stormtroopers armed with powerpoint proposals, ready to fire graphs and vision statements that will lead in the mission to become ‘creative’ and ‘disruptive’. As sound as a strategy may be, influencing innovation is rarely effective when as a top-down piece of company prose- as the old argument goes.

In many strategic initiatives a comprehensive consideration of culture is commonly absent. Capability is considered, but often confused as culture. At best, initiatives titled ‘change management’ are sprinkled into consideration. To enable new ideas, a clear culture-building approach is imperative to success, one that implies an us rather than impose a versus them. The very title change management is almost antithesis to this way of thinking.

[Back to my above experiences]

I realised that my actions were heavily impacted by the environment I was in and this was affecting my mindset. Behaviour changes mindset, and the right environment influences the right behaviours. When we talk about generating a design thinking culture and/or fostering an innovative organisation, we cannot curate this type of behaviour without first observing the environment and culture that pervades.

Innovation is fundamentally risky and creative. A hierarchical organisation with a lack of transparency, direction and autonomy provided to its employees will not allow for creativity, risk, and thus innovation, to manifest. All of the design and creative toolkits in the world wont save your ‘disruptive’ business strategy.

Rather, compliment strategic direction by implementing advocates who represent and support the right behaviour, attitude and mindsets you wish to emerge. Don’t give them wanky names like ‘change agents’ or ‘experiential strategists’- this again just reinforces the power dynamic and distinction between the corporate strategy and its employees. Instead, place these advocates into each team, to the frontline, and ensure that at each level there is a person who has been approved with creative autonomy and clarity to effect autonomy, creativity and culture-change through clear mentorship and support. Call them a friend, perhaps.

the strategy behind design


This year I was invited to teach an online subject for a master’s degree, of which was simply titled design strategy. I was also offered the liberty to (re)create the subject, as I saw fit, and as such had the freedom to structure it how I liked. Easy enough, I thought.

Then I became a little confused.

Strategy is an action that, like design, can be classified according to perspective and scale. That is, on one scale (of complexity) you may be developing a strategy to beat your brother in a board game. On another, you may be developing a strategy to resolve cross-regional conflict amongst competing civilisations. This micro/macro conflict is reflected in design practice. Generic discussions on the definition of design and design thinking attempt to relate design to minor practices -such as a meal or an outing- and to major projects, such as the design of a service or a building. This is due to the tired mantra, everyone designs who devises a course of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones, which as we will learn below, parallels with the definition of strategy.

The expansion of design is very much due to its global applicability to any kind of discipline and context. And as many have argued and observed in the past, this makes distinguishing and determining design and design fields an insurmountable task. It is for this reason that I fervently argue for any classification of a design to include and anticipate a designerly approach. That is, the methods and mindsets of which are fundamental to design practice should be evident to be classified as a form of design and part of the process of designing.

Back to strategy. As always, I love a good definition to contextualise what I am getting at:

Merriam webster: a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time […] the skill of making or carrying out plans to achieve a goal.

Googlea plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.

Now, compare the above with the definition of design…

Merriam Webster: to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan :  devise, contrive  to conceive and plan out in the mind. to draw, lay out, or prepare a design

H. Simon: everyone designs who devises a course of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones

For me, strategy is choosing the most competitive and appropriate pathway from an array of (often ambiguous) choices. I deliberately include the word competitive as it is, I feel, the very heart of what it means to be strategic. However, the meaning of strategic design within the design discipline wasn’t initially so competitive as it was enabling.

Trying to define what it means to be strategic is a little tricky, and trying to define strategy with design becomes an inherently complicated topic (as we all know). For most of my career I had a fairly clear idea of what strategic design, or strategy by design, was. My master’s degree focused on sustainable design which at the time was classified as “highly strategic” by default. During my PhD, strategic design discussions emphasised design management, policy design, systemic design and facilitating a design culture in large organisations. Helsinki Design Lab’s Recipes for Systemic Change, published in 2011 became the go-to text followed by Dark Matter and Trojan Horses in 2012 (.. and pretty much anything by Jeanne Liedtka). More recently, books such as Strategic Design (2016) are continuing to perpetuate this (new!?) design discipline. But these texts also revealed that there existed a slight difference between strategic design and strategy by design.

Strategy by Design

An approach by which design and the design artefact becomes the centralised force that impacts various dimensions and scales of the context it is implemented within.

Strategic Design

A practice in which traditional methodologies of strategy are married with, or carried by, a design approach.

Here is the clinker- strategic design *may* result in a strategy by design, but it doesn’t always (or have to). A strategic design approach utilises the best of a design process with the best of strategic frameworks to create a (super?) problem solving approach for particularly complex problems. In slight contrast, strategy by design uses design as a conscious catalyst for change, considering the artefact on a broader scale than immediately intended. Strategy by design involves asking the question, what is the biggest impact I can/will have with my design? whereas strategic design may ask, how can I plan and achieve the most effective strategic outcome from using a design approach?.

To make matters worse, the two can often be blended, and this is what I decided to teach for the subject. For the sake of clarity, I saw strategic design and strategy by design as tackling a problem from two different directions: top down or bottom up. Strategy by design is an emergent, grassroots approach, focusing on building an artefact from research and prototyping with users. This approach is akin to a traditional design process.

In contrast, strategic design begins with more formal, strategy-led approaches. It takes a broad, birds eye view of the context and devises a framework and/or blueprint, rather than specific artefact, to effect change. I realised this difference upon observing the interplay of strategy and design in management consulting, as well as reading, researching, and asking about the various approaches people took in strategy and design.

I personally have applied both approaches in my own work and I choose the process depending on context (and attitude) set by the client. In reality, the two approaches aren’t always so clear cut, but clarifying the difference between the two has been nagging me for some time. I would be curious to hear from anyone working in this area, and to learn if you also find various approaches in strategy and design.