Playing To Win

Strategy & Design Thinking

How Design Thinking Helps Make Strategy Better

Given that I have written extensively in both strategy and design thinking (on each, both a book and over 50 articles), people ask me about how I think those two subjects fit together. So, I thought I would tackle the influence of design on my approach to strategy in my 11th Playing to Win/Practitioners Insights (PTW/PI) piece: Strategy & Design Thinking. (Links for the rest of the PTW/PI series can be found here.)

A Bit of History

I frame it as the influence of design on strategy because I started thinking about strategy over a decade before I got interested in design in business. I started practicing full-time as a strategist in 1981 and got more deeply ensconced in the theory of strategy during the 1987 to 1996 period when I took primary responsibility at Monitor Company for developing the second-generation strategy process for the firm.

On that journey, my eureka moment with strategy came in 1994 during an offsite strategy workshop with Inmet Mining when I discovered that the most important question in strategy is not what is true, but rather what would have to be true (WWHTBT). Based in this insight, I built a new process for strategy, which I called Strategic Choice Structuring, during the 1995–1996 period working with forest products company Avenor, the HVAC business of Honeywell, and the North American business of P&G. The resultant strategy process is illustrated by the following slide from that era.

Towards the end of that period, I became interested in the role of design in business strategy, largely by accident. In 1993, an organizational consultant friend asked me to get involved in a project to help Herman Miller create a new strategy. Herman Miller is legendary for its design-led approach to office furniture, powered by relationships with a number of the past century’s most famous industrial designers, including Gilbert Rhode, Charles Nelson, Charles Eames, and most recently Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, the duo who designed the legendary Aeron chair which happened to have its spectacularly successful release during the period of my work with the company on strategy.

The assignment was unique because it was the first time I was hired by the head of design, a wonderful man named Rob Harvey, rather than either a line executive or the head of strategy. Rob and I butted heads until I started listening more intently to what I only later recognized as his critique of my approach as utter un-designerly. He pushed me to co-create more with the leadership team rather than drive the process myself and enforced a less linear and far more iterative process than I would have used in the previous 15 years of strategy consulting.

Shortly after I ended my work at Herman Miller, I started working with Tina Brown on a turnaround strategy for The New Yorker magazine and recognized that even though her title was Editor-in-Chief and her medium was a weekly magazine rather than a product like office furniture, her way of thinking and working bore an uncanny resemblance to what I had watched with Rob Harvey.

The things that I had been learning about the linkage of design with strategy just percolated in my head for a few years from mid-1998 when I ended my work with The New Yorker to October 2002 when I met Tim Brown and David Kelley of IDEO at the behest of CEO AG Lafley, my client at P&G, and Claudia Kotchka, his newly appointed VP of Design Innovation & Strategy. That kicked off six years of intensive collaboration with Tim and Claudia at P&G, including working on an integration of the strategy and design processes at P&G that we called DesignWorks, which was piloted in the hair care category in 2005 and rolled out across P&G thereafter.

But it also precipitated a conceptual conversation with Tim about the essence of design thinking, in particular during an August 2003 meeting between us on the future direction of IDEO, which was pivoting away from pure product design to customer experience design, organizational design and even design of strategies. I think that Tim, who was much more learned on design than me, recognized that we were attempting to flesh out the meaning of the concept of design thinking, which Richard Buchanan had introduced in his legendary 1992 article, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, an article I read several years later.

We both ended up writing 2009 books on design thinking, mine The Design of Business, his Change by Design. I was pleased to find out a few months ago that a recent article in the Journal of Product Innovation Management determined that these two books rank among the top five (#2 and #3 respectively) most cited publications in design thinking (alongside the above-mentioned Buchanan article).

Designerly Enhancements

My involvement in and learnings from design caused me to make two significant designerly enhancements to the mid-1990s strategy process resulting in the process shown at the head of the article, one early in the process, the other at the back end.

The first designerly enhancement was to shift from framing a choice to framing a how might we question (HMWQ) as the step after issues/problem identification. In my original process, I asked the team working on strategy to frame the kind of choice they would need to make to cause the identified problem to go away. The purpose was to get the group into a choice-making mode and help them understand the seriousness and consequence of the decision. However, over time I found that this exercise tended to confuse teams more than help them. It was hard for teams to figure out what would be an indicative choice that would make the problem go away. In addition, it sometimes anchored teams on the choices from that early framing as the only possibilities, when I hoped it would be a productive start to generating many possibilities. When I was exposed to the long tradition of the HMWQ in design, I found that it is a better way to start a team on solving the identified problem. It is an aspirational question and one that leads nicely into the generation of a broad, diverse, and optimistic set of possibilities.

I have also adopted into my strategy process the practice of performing an exploratory round of qualitative customer research in preparation for generating the HMWQ. Previously, I had waited until the testing phase to work with the team to perform more declarative (and typically quantitative) customer research on the possibilities that had been generated. But I found that diving into a bit of research up front helped refine the problem that needed solving and develop the motivating HMWQ.

The second and bigger enhancement was converting the Design Valid Tests and Conduct Analysis steps into Testing & Transformation. In the pre-designerly process, the standard that I enforced was that if a possibility didn’t pass the test of each barrier condition, it was eliminated. But I came to realize through my greater appreciation of design approaches that the process of rapid, iterative prototyping was in fact a process for making something true that didn’t start out that way.

And I also realized, in part through my work with Tony Golsby-Smith on the implications of Aristotle for strategy, that we can operate with two very different goals in mind. The first is to attempt to hone and refine the current effect that we are producing. The second is to strive to be the cause of a new and better effect. In the former, it is fine to have a standard that requires tests to show that each condition currently holds true because we aren’t attempting to create something new. In the latter, a core requirement of fundamental change is to make something true that is currently not true. And when we think about great strategies, they have that creative quality.

Thus, my rule is now that we shouldn’t automatically choose the strategy possibility for which all elements of the WWHTBT currently hold true. Instead, a superior possibility may be one for which one or more key elements are currently not true, but we develop a transformation plan that is both plausible and compelling for making them true.

A motivating HMWQ at the front end and a compelling transformation plan at the back end are the two major contributions to the strategy process from the domain of design thinking.

Practitioner Insights

Strategy and design thinking shouldn’t be thought of as separate and distinct conceptual or practical domains. Rather, there are just more and less designerly ways of doing strategy. Like strategy, design is a problem-solving technique; so, start with a problem. Then encourage an aspirational exploration of a variety of possibilities by setting a bold HMWQ. When you reverse-engineer each possibility to determine WWHTBT, don’t think of the barriers to choice — i.e., the things that would have to be true but currently aren’t — as your enemies. They might provide the ability to create a huge strategic success by making something true for customers that is currently not true. For that to happen, you will need to develop a creative and plausible transformation plan. That is a designerly approach to strategy and one that I believe is consistent with the development of great strategies.

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.