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Liam Booth-Smith

Strategy vs Design: No thanks, I’ll take both


Whether across extended discussions or jokes with colleagues, both former and current, reading a nicely written piece over on Medium (via Rotman School of Management) or keeping up with the coverage on social media from this year’s SOLACE Summit I’ve been struck by the increasing tension between strategy and design.

As we approach what will likely be a further round of spending reductions the demand for new approaches/innovation/savings will intensify. As such there is an understandable desire for some form of dominant intellectual posture to emerge to help shape our decisions. For want of a better phrase, where do public services put their eggs for the next five years? On the face of it some form of intelligent back and forth on the merits of two particular approaches is welcome. It helps us choose. The thing is I don’t think it should be a competition.

Frankly, it seems downright silly that anyone would have to choose between strategy and design. One makes the other better and vice versa. Good strategy creates space and adequately resources great design. Good design helps to inform great strategy going forward. These are not competing enemies but necessary components of creating change within big institutions.

The question therefore, is less which is better and more, how can we most elegantly marry the two together? For me, our failures to innovate lie predominantly in our inability to consistently do the latter. A perfect example of this is central government policy making.

I’m wary of making UK/US comparisons so forgive me, but Professor Paul Light in his recent paper for the Brookings Institute over in the states, A Cascade of Failures: Why Government Fails, and How to Stop It, argues that the most common theme behind failure in government is bad policy. Either long term implications haven’t been thought through or policy makers don’t truly understand the problem. At its heart, an inability to link strategy and design is responsible.

So how do we effectively combine the two? I’m of a similar mind to Kingshuk Das (author of the Medium article) in that we need to start prototyping strategy. Whilst we will test, build and rebuild our products/services we will, as Das puts it, rarely “test the thinking behind it”. Similarly, our ability to step beyond our product models, be they digital, outsourced services, in-house provision, etc… will make it easier for user insight to inform strategy going forward and be framed less by professional/commercial prejudice.

The confluence of design and strategy matters because the social systems public services have to operate in don’t bend themselves to fit perfectly within either mode of thinking. Issues are both fast evolving and multi-generational, they affect individuals and whole communities. And they are managed, to a degree, via the democratic process. From now on it needs to be about strategy and design, not strategy vs design.

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