What Is Strategic Design, And Why Might I Need It?


Strategic Design is the application of design methods, principles, thinking, and approaches to an enterprise. It combines aspects of systems design, service design, and design thinking. Strategic Design focuses on aligning the organization’s resources, interests, and goals with what it does.

It ensures that your organization is fit for purpose.

Fit For Purpose

We use this expression a lot. It means ensuring two things:

  1. A clear purpose or direction.
  2. That what you do is aligned with that purpose or direction. That means having the right resources (e.g., personnel, technology, tools, location etc..) that are connected with a strategy to use those resources appropriately to accomplish goals connected to your purpose.

It sounds simple, but often we need help with both of these. Sometimes situations change, and what once made sense or worked well no longer does. Sometimes, we’ve changed, and our focus is different from what it was and our purpose.

Strategic Design involves connecting these two things and ensuring that your organization or initiative stays true to the fit and the purpose.

Designing For Purpose

Purpose is defined as:
“An anticipated outcome that is intended or guides your planned actions.”

“What something is used for”

“The quality of being determined to do or achieve something”

Each of these refers to an action-like quality. It’s tied to the things we do, the things we make, or the things we wish to be or become.

In each of these definitions, we can see where something might change. For example, our outcomes might change based on the circumstances or needs of those we serve. We might change our standards of quality or decide we want to do or be something different than we are.

Strategic Design begins by looking at these definitions and asking questions about them. It also involves considering future possibilities. Strategic Design incorporates elements of foresight into it to help us look at trends, patterns, threats and opportunities that are on the horizon or more likely to come to pass.

Designing for Fit

Liedtka & Ogilvy (Design for Growth)

We often find clients who believe that what they are doing aligns with the outcomes they seek, only to realize they need to set up differently to achieve that. It often happens with legacy programs or those operating in a highly dynamic space. Unless we constantly look at our programs and evaluate them, they may eventually lose their fit.

Strategic Design uses tools like evaluation and systems design to explore, with data, how the current or proposed offering (the ‘thing’).

Sometimes walking through a Theory of Change process can help articulate why something might work (for proposed projects)or currently works the way it does. Theory of Change is a process that helps explain why something is expected to achieve something else. It’s an excellent tool to help ensure logic, flow, and connection between your intent, your intervention (e.g., product, service, policy), and your outcomes.

Strategic Design uses all of these to make those connections and uses systems thinking to understand how your program, service, or policy fits within a situation. It allows us to design for the real world.

Doing Strategic Design

As a take-home, think of Strategic Design as involving the following steps:

  1. Figure out where ‘here’ is.
  2. Figure out what ‘there’ means and what it will take to get there.
  3. Create a support system to connect here to there consistently and effectively.

We do this by using approaches like Developmental Evaluation and Design-Driven Evaluation approaches that connect what we make with our outcomes and impact. Strategic Design without evaluation is really just strategic planning; it doesn’t ensure the fit and the purpose are retained when implemented.

Strategic Design isn’t done as a discrete part of the strategy process but is a living, breathing part of a strategy conversation.

Get talking and get designing.

If you want better conversations, better strategy, and better outcomes and don’t know where to begin (even after reading this 🙂 ), let’s talk. We can help you.

Image Credits: Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

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