The tenets of a good strategy…

“In order to do a better job of developing, communication and pursuing a strategy, you need to learn to think like a designer.”

Have you ever sat in a meeting with one of your clients and knew to the bone that you had the very idea that would solve their business problem. You did all of your homework, pulled all of the stats, put together the most informative PowerPoint presentation, stood in front of the mirror the night before for hours making sure you hit all of the salient points and when it was all said and done found yourself staring across the conference room table at a pool of blank stares? Or worse, have them start throwing out the very objections you had strategized against and already dispelled in your presentation? Then watch your idea die on the vine in favor of something safer, simpler and easier for your client to quantify?

If that frustrates you as much as me then you’ll find some of the tips I’ve learned in this month’s Fast Company to be a very helpful tool. They are featuring “Masters of Design” some of the business world’s leading design people, some in positions of power at Fortune 100 corporations that you would be surprised to read about… and the best part is that the sidebars throughout the issue are small lists of tips from them about how to bring design into your business process.

I’ve been experimenting lately with doing more “spec work.” I know that in the agency world, even the thought of doing spec is blasphemous… but as marketing has become more of a challenge with new media, new methods of measurement and a less receptive society, I’ve seen a reduction in my clients’ willingness to take risks.

What’s funny is that at the same time, I’ve seen the power of the ideas that the people I work with get even more exciting, more powerful… and in some cases “scarier.”

Side note: I had a client tell me in a meeting the other day that he liked an idea that we’d presented him. Not exactly front page news, but what was cool was that he said he liked it because it made him a little bit uncomfortable. This was so rewarding to me personally. It was like a validation of my entire position on how to do business, especially good marketing. I try to challenge my clients and the people I work with to move beyond what they are comfortable with to that place where those really great ideas come from.

Part of what’s helped us engage our clients in some of these new ideas was infusing the designers (art directors) in the process sooner than we usually would. I’ve seen projects recently that sold because rather than asking the client to “imagine” a concept, we showed it to them, before we had a “scope of work document” or a “signed estimate.” We put ideas in front of the client that showed us at our best, without having to fit it into this box or that box or make sure that we took out the part that we knew would make one person in the room uncomfortable. We just did it, and in most cases, we also sold it.

The effect of us taking this risk… this initial step to put our ideas and creativity on the line has meant that we score an emotional victory internally, knowing that our creativity has been respected and valued by our client and we are learning to rely more on our instincts. This advice is good for anyone looking to do good marketing. I hear a lot of people talking about developing marketing plans based on business plans. I’ve even been examining creative briefs from several of my colleagues at different agencies. And in most cases, they look like business planning documents. These documents are exchanged between client directors, strategists and clients/marketers. They focus heavily on the business goals, what do we need to do, who do we need to talk to, how will we measure if what we are doing is working?

All of this is important. Due diligence for strong marketing work… but it spends too much time in the hands of the proposal writers, powerpointeers and “decision-makers” before it goes to the designers. The best projects I have ever worked on had designers right there at the table with everyone else.

The quote at the top of this post is from the head of Ideo… in the article, it further references the value of design thinking in the development of the strategy. He talks about the importance of “prototyping” as part of the strategic development process, which really rings true. Have you ever nailed the strategy, got the client to sign off on the proposal, then sat down with the design team and had one of those moments where a designer looks at your whole thing and has a simple observation that destroys your entire strategy? I have.

What do you do? You turn to them and say that their challenge is to make it work anyway….

What if they had been sitting at the table sooner? They might have pointed that out to you, or better yet to the client at a point when you could still make changes because the direction was not set and the budget not yet determined… In fact, they might even help that nervous client learn to trust you more because they begin to see just how talented your whole team is, not just the face person.

My favorite points from “Strategy by Design” by Tim Brown, June 2005 Fast Company Magazine, p 52.

“Here is Ideo’s five-point model for strategizing by design.

1. Hit the Streets
Any real-world strategy starts with having fresh, original insights about your market and your customers… Very often you can build an entire strategy based on the experiences your customers go through in their interactions with your organization.

2. Recruit T-Shaped People
Regardless of whether your goal is to innovate around a product, service or business opportunity, you get good insights by having an observant and empathetic view of the world. You can’t just stand in your own shoes; you’ve got to be able to stand in the shoes of others…. We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do… They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T- they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers… but… they can branch out into other skills such as anthropology.

3. Build to Think
Design thinking is inherently a prototyping process. Once you spot a promising idea, you build it. The prototype is typically a drawing, model or film that describes a product system or service…. The goal isnt’ to create a close approximation of the finished product… [it] is to elicit feedback that helps us work through the problem we’re trying to solve. In a sense, we build to think.

4. The Prototype Tells a Story

Prototyping is simultaneously an evaluative process – it generates feedback and enables you to make midflight corrections – and a storytelling process. It’s a way of visually and viscerally describing your strategy.

5. Design is Never Done
Even after you’ve rolled out… you’re just getting started. In almost every case you move on to the next version, which is going to be better because you’ve had more time to think about it.”

Are you integrating design thinking into your business? I’m certainly trying to… I want to tell stories, inspire people, innovate… and integrate my own creativity into everything I do.

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