A strategy is just an idea. Like all ideas, it takes convincing to get people to believe in it. A good, charismatic leader can get us to believe in anything.
One of the most well-known of these persuasive leaders was Steve Jobs. He was known for his reality distortion field; as one of the developers on the original Macintosh described, “Steve Jobs has a reality distortion field… In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything.”
When we hear a charismatic speaker speak of strategy, perhaps on stage at a conference, we gain alignment around the idea. Sitting near one-another, the raw material of the strategy is shared content. But we all view that content through our own lens of personal experiences, and so our alignment is not perfect.
And over time, as we leave the conference or the meeting, the alignment degrades more and more. We continue to work the idea, explore it, and again – through our own lens – we shape and gain ownership over the strategy. The developer above continued his statement about Steve Jobs, “In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he’s not around…”
As an idea transfers from person to person, and as it marinates over time, it changes. We integrate ideas into our worldview through a process of sensemaking and that sensemaking is unique to each of us. And that’s not a static one-and-done process: that integration is happening constantly, based on new human experiences. This sensemaking is key to getting through life. But it’s also the undoing of continuity in alignment. Because when we have a conversation about strategy, we integrate our conversation in unique ways based on our unique experiences. And then you leave and go home and I leave and go home, and that uniqueness diverges more and more as time passes.
If it’s just two of us working together, chances are we reconnect tomorrow and drive towards some new form of synthesized understanding. We re-align around the strategic direction. That’s one of the reasons a startup is so successful.
But in a large organization, large-scale alignment around an idea is really, really hard. The tools used to reinforce strategy at a mass level are, to be generous, juvenile. These are a list of “strategic imperatives” hanging on signs in the breakroom, often with terrible acronyms like DREAM
Dedicate yourself to the work!
React calmly to challenges!
Act with integrity!
Motivate your team!
and sometimes with a picture of an animal doing something great, like diving out of the water. One of the strategic imperatives at my first company was “Take the hills!” which always made me think of Super Mario Brothers – Save the Princess!
The intention is sensible; if you go home and come back and have driven further from the corporate goal, let’s bring that goal back in your face every morning when you get your coffee. But it seems as though corporate communications at scale seems to come at the expense of depth, and in an effort to cater to a lowest-common-denominator intellect and attention span, we end up with a thin, vapid dissemination suitable for Dilbert.
It’s unfair to employees to predigest a strategy to such extremes, and it’s unfair to the strategy, because it probably won’t get executed as intended. For all the charisma coming from leadership, if the dissemination story doesn’t match, it’s dead in the water.
In fact, team members can handle intellectual and in-depth articulations of strategy, presuming these articulations are visualized in a well-designed wrapper.
For example, the articulations of strategy can be presented in visual diagrams that show the interconnections of ideas. Design strategists make abstractions of complexity in order to identify the most salient or important pieces, and to make that complexity accessible. This often requires prioritization and hierarchy: assigning meaning to data, and making inferences about which pieces of content in an idea system are most important to help people understand or believe in an idea.
Or, the articulations of strategy can be presented as believable stories of the future. Design strategists build narratives of an optimistic future to help people see how the world could be, rather than how it currently is. These drawings are provocations and they frequently challenge preconceived ideas of how the world should be, and what is plausible or achievable. A design strategist isn’t just a visionary that can predict the future. They are also actively trying to design the future.
Sketches, stories and models are representations of something larger. If our CEO stood on stage, described our go-forward strategy, and presented a model, that model is now a pointer to the ideas in the presentation. It acts as a shortcut back to the original introduction. When we see a sketch and hear a story, the same sketch later can trigger the entire story back to life. These visuals and stories are placeholders for larger ideas, in the same way that the acronyms described above trigger larger ideas (B.E.L.I.E.V.E! ). But they have texture, where the mnemonic acronym has only reduction. A story has believability, and a plot, and compelling characters. These are things that are rich with substance.
Increasingly, the skills that designers have used for years to develop the content of products and services are being used to visualize and develop business strategy. This is because the experience people have with products and brands are no longer separate from the business itself. The core business strategy for a company like Uber may extend into fleet purchases of self-driving cars, municipal policy lobbying, or acquisitions of competitive companies. These are topics that designers have no expertise in. But fundamental to the company’s success is the actual Uber app, and that means that design strategy is squarely at the conversation of “What should the company do?”
As design strategy becomes integral to business strategy, we can bring our unique toolkit to support other competencies in telling their stories, too. As a design strategist at Uber, we wouldn’t think twice about sketching what the Uber app will evolve into and selectively sharing it inside the organization to help the organization embrace the idea and plan for how it will impact them. The same sketching approach can help the organization disseminate the self-driving cars, or municipal policy lobbying, or any other non-digital idea.
This isn’t “sketch me something pretty” (or worse: I’m presenting about the future of our M&A strategy; can you clean up the PowerPoint?) – it’s about leveraging the power of models, diagrams, stories and sketches in generating alignment and groundswell.
Alignment in strategy is about helping the team see and believe in the future in a way that’s lasting and that has the same richness in six months as it does today. That continuity comes through visualization. Sketch things to bring them to life, and drive alignment across your teams.
Images used from Silvio Kundt, Denys Nevozhai, and Luca Bravo