Apr 10

Ryan Answers: What’s the Future of Strategy

Time does fly. After a little period, Ryan finally got a chance to answer my last blog question to him.

I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t really know what I would write as a response had he had a quick answer the the question, so I don’t mind that he took his time. Since the original question, I’ve had a lot of learning and inspiration in this area. I think I end up in the same place as Ryan through different means.

I think our definition of strategy is changing because our organizations and the way they do business are changing. There’s a ton of reasons for this. Our ability to measure the business and react to what we find is causing us to change more rapidly. Supply lines are becoming more and more lean, giving us greater flexibility. To compound it all, the recent recession has pushed most companies toward more rapid, entrepreneurial ways of operating. Pop-up shops used to be sort of daring rouge attempts to make noise about a brand on the cheap, but now big retail uses it regularly in urban areas to clear excess inventory.

Businesses today are starting to look more like living, growing organisms than the traditional hierarchical org chart. They’re increasingly working off a portfolio of options instead of just pursuing one main avenue of growth. As as more companies has become successful, they have inspired their competitors to be more daring. To think about how different companies do business just in the last ten years is pretty flooring.

All this has blurred the line between strategy and tactics. What once seemed like two categories has become this varied spectrum. Strategy used to inform the tactics, but now it’s just as important that your tactics inform your strategy.

Since I posted the original question to Ryan, I ran across a pretty brilliant talk from a guy named Matthew Milan at Ignite Toronto. His five minute talk has seriously rocked my world. Milan had put a lot things into words I had been wondering about and sort of kicking around in my head. I won’t just recite the talk, (though I would if I thought I could get away with it.) The main point he makes quite eloquently is, “strategy doesn’t plan, it learns.” It’s about trying things, understanding them and evolving what you do. It’s business in beta and launching and learning. It’s a very active act of design.

Thanks to Ryan for rising to the question.

Oct 09

Hey Ryan: What’s the future of “strategy”?

Hey Ryan, you and I have been dancing around this question for a few weeks, so I thought it’s time to put it to the real test – let’s hang it on the blog and work it out. I’ve been really excited to see where some of the more unanswerable questions have gone; the harder they are, the more interesting things become.

We do a lot of work around “strategy”. It’s sort of an abstract concept, and it’s so overused, sometimes the word verges on losing its meaning. I went in search of a concise, useful definition not so long ago…I found a really nice definition from a designer named Barbara Ballard here. She defines it quite simply…

Strategy is the plan for how to compete.

I like that simple definition because, in practice, things get messy fast. A strategy can be a shared agreement that drives the businesses, it can be a constraint that helps people make execution decisions, it can be a guideline for handling the competition. When done well, and communicated correctly, a good strategy can create an amazing business.

Strategy as we know it has changed so much in the last 30 years (more, even). Some of this takes root in the popularity of MBA programs that encouraged us to build strategies assembled from industry best practices. Then, as accounting and computer systems allowed us to gather more and more data, we saw movements toward quantitative rigor and evidence-based decision making. Supply-chain optimization gave use six-sigma and the Toyota production systems. The evolution of software gave use enterprise planning and other real-time management tools. And throughout the whole period we’ve slowly been getting our head around how much organizations and culture play a huge role in how we do what we do. All of these elements compound and complicate how we formulate strategies. There are some bedrock concepts that seem to forever guide us, but as a rule this field is moving at serious clip.

On top of all this, we work in radically new ways. This shift in communication has completely changed the way we approach strategy – the quicker a company can serve and communicate with it’s customer, the more options (and pitfalls) it creates. Taking it to the extreme, I’ve even heard arguments for customers first, strategy later.

Ok, this is all getting a little dramatic, so I’ll get to the ask…

Acknowledging that predicting the future is futile, but understanding that it’s important to understand what could be next, what do you think is the future of strategy?

Aug 09

Hey Ryan: I’d Measure for Experimentation

So in our ongoing online nerd-out, Ryan posed the following question around measuring innovation:

If you had to measure one thing, just one thing, for (growth and) innovation, what would it be?

Holy hard questions, how am I supposed to answer that? Never mind the fact that every major management consultantency and their boutique spin-off siblings are manically running around trying to figure out how to measure innovation, now you’re only going to let me chose one thing? Ok, fine, I like a good unsolvable problem, lets do it.

The nice thing about really hard questions is that it forces you to really break things apart, which is sort of the whole point of this exercise. I started to think about how most metrics actually measure multiple things, it’s a synthesizer of the organization. GE, for example, tracks innovation through measuring organic growth. In that case you have find new revenue and the assumption is that to capture that revenue, you must be innovating to create that value. Diego’s Mileage Metric is a readiness measure that looks for people that have operated in a certain environment AND those products have gone to market. It’s not enough to just be near innovation, you need to have soldiered through the morass.

Continue reading →

Jul 09

Immediate vs. Reliable

Ryan posted up a response to my questions around immediate vs. reliable. I have to admit, that’s an impossible question to answer, but I guess that’s sort of the point of the exercise. You can tell Ryan did a lot of thinking around this, and I think his response is pretty inspiring.

The first big thought was around posing the question. He said.

The question you pose is often just as important as the answer you find.

That idea made me think of David Foster Wallace’s now famous Kenyan convocation speech (see next post). In that wonderfully inspiring bit, he talks about how the mind is a wonderful servant and a terrible master. That if we can harness the power of thinking about what we do before we do it, we can end up in a pretty amazing place. I think Ryan was onto something similar. By carefully formulating your questions, you move with intention. It’s not emergent, it’s not post rationalized, it’s just well thought through.

Secondly, I like we’re Ryan started to break apart the standard unanswerable question and graft some of those qualities onto people and methods.

I want reliable people posing provocative questions and processing more immediate inputs.

That’s pretty genius if you think about it. Immediacy and reliability are just concepts, without context they aren’t real. Taking those things and attributing them to who/what/when/how gets you much closer to a designable state. It’s a nice aspirational equation for who you should find and how they should work. Thanks Ryan.

May 09

Hey Ryan: Which is better immediate or reliable?

(It’s my turn to toss an unanswerable question in Ryan’s direction and see what shakes out of that big brain of his.)

Ryan, I was inspired by something I heard last week. One of our co-workers, David, mused that some of the web 2.0 apps in his opinion had become so extremely ‘current’ that it actually hindered the experience. As an example, would you rather see a restaurant review aggregated over the past few months, or the past few hours…either could be better or worse.

That comment caused me to start thinking about innovation in general. I think a lot about how big companies move slowly and place very large bets, so they prefer reliable inputs. However, more nimble, smaller companies who can rapidly might prefer more immediate inputs.

I thought about my good friend who runs a location-awareness company. They do the pseudo-location on the iPhone and all sorts of other apps. His business makes perfect sense now, location seems to be everything. Oddly though, he started this company in like 2003. At the time, 95% of the phones on the market couldn’t even run an application like this and wireless was in it’s infancy. But he went to a wireless convention in California and saw enough promise that he decided he had to do it, and he had to do it now.

So I guess the question is, in terms of innovation, which is a better input, immediate or reliable? Longer-term inputs are a safer bet, but the longer I wait the more likely it is that someone may eat my lunch.

May 09

Hey Ryan: I’m so over Good Better Best.

As we do, Ryan and I continue our blog series that aims to keep us both writing and inspired, (though not necessarily in that order). This week, Ryan weighs in with a question around Good, Better and Best. You know that old marketing adage around laddered products that has filled you local retail store with nine flavors of everything – three brands with three offerings each. Has it’s time past, is it on hiatus, or is it as it should be? (His original post here.)

So instinctually, I think Good Better Best should be dead and gone. There’s loads of concepts behind laddering products, but the main intent was to create choice within your brand so consumers didn’t choose outside your brand. The idea was most people buy the middle of three options because they want to feel like they’re getting value without over-paying. (Like you mentioned, Barry Schwartz is all over this.) The thing is that this concept gained power when brands and interactions were in their infancy. It was a defensive store shelf blocking play…and it just hasn’t seemed broken enough for anyone to fix.

Continue reading →

May 09

Piloting vs. Prototyping

So last week, Ryan posted a pretty excellent response to the piloting vs. prototyping question I threw his way. His post really caused me to look at few things in a new light, especially how risk plays into the equation.

Ryan’s point about piloting and the investment and involvement of the entire organization is an important one. I think both have their place. Maybe prototyping helps you refine what you do and piloting helps you refine how you scale what you do.

I know I’m dancing a thin line on semantics, but I think the intentions behind the actions are important. As you do something, you have to ask yourself, ‘do I want to learn, or do I want to be right.’ (I think rarely are those one in the same.)

I loved Ryan’s graph, so I challenged myself to see if build on it, let me know what you think.


Apr 09

Hey Ryan: Is there a difference between a pilot and a prototype?

My colleague Ryan and I have a ‘blogger volley’ going. One of us poses an unanswerable question and the other offers some thoughts, it’s a good way for each of us to take some o the things we see and put some deeper thinking around it. This week I’m the ‘Q’ and he’s the ‘A’…here we go.

Hey Ryan, I think a lot about the value of prototyping. I’m always inspired by how much our society has advanced because people just built something and went for it. SUre they failed, but they dusted themselves off, learned and tried again. As we learned the mechanisms at the heart of those failures, we learned to prototype.

I think about those grainy black and white films loops of gliders crashing into barns in the early days of flight. I think about crude and scary medical instruments from the turn of the century. Diego’s even included it as one of his Inspiration Principles.

Prototyping has led to amazing products (and some services), but I can’t understand why those same mechanisms are so hard for business and organizations. Businesses like to talk about experimenting, but by the time enough people and money are committed to the research, it feels more like a validation. I run into a lot of business pilots, but that seems different than a prototype.

Can designers and engineers see something that entrepreneurs and managers can’t? How can businesses fail, learn and evolve? Have risk avoidance tools made prototyping more difficult?

Apr 09

Hey Ryan: I think design is the voice of a culture.

So my buddy Ryan posed a really thoughtful question: Does design regress to the mean?:

Ryan’s hit on a couple of things that I think about a lot. The gist of the question (I think) is this – if we all drink from the same inspiration fountain, will we all ultimately end up designing things that are largely similar?

I guess on a lot of levels, inspiration comes from history and context – what have you seen/done in the past, and what in the present is different enough that it’s grabbing your attention? For me feeling inspired is always this rush of clean energy, I just heard something in a new way or saw something differently that created other thoughts. If you take that same dynamic and zoom it out a little, you could say that this all happens to us as a culture so we all live and experience movements in taste semi-simultaneously. (That’s not to say we all like the same thing, but I guess it shouldn’t shock me that my colleage and I ended up with the same blog template…we have some shared friends, work in the same industry, and probably consume lots of the same media. She is, however many multipliers smarter than I and lives an ocean away, we haven’t caught up in months.)

I once worked with a really talented graphic designer who used to keep all these old advertising books in our project space for inspiration. These books were phenomenal, they were old ads organized roughly by topic area and hard bound by decade. When you looked at advertising at that level you could see soooo many similarities in the style and artifacts used in the ads. There were all the cliches, like the 50’s ads being very space aged, and the 70s ads feeling very rugged and musky. But it made me think, if advertising is catering to wants and needs, at that point an time, lots of people were being inspired by similar things. You can even see similar movements now, i see lot’s of very clean, sparse, modern expressions around, just five years ago things felt a lot more hand crafted and craft paper-ish.

This sort of brings me to your example about Tropicana and Innocence. Companies test the hell out of their concepts so they resonate with consumers. From that perspective, any design that is successfully marketed and sold in today’s connected economy seems to be a de facto representation of what lots of people want. No everyone, but the big hulking average. So, in some ways design is a voice of a culture, and it’s emotions and desires. From there it seems like subcultures have their own voice you see expressed through different aesthetics, from punk paper zines to Keffiyeh scarves to twitter tweets.

So to the final bit about how we find inspiration. It feels like it works like an ant mound. Ants go out into the world to find food and break it back to the hive for a communal meal the way people seem to look for hot new inspirations and show them to the world. If no one brings new inspirations, things get stale because we’ve all seen the same thing, but then someone brings some nutty outlier to the table and it triggers lots of inspirations in people. So on a personal level of expression it feels fresh, but on a macro view, it’s a slow ebb and flow between styles.

This was fun, I’m on the hunt for a thoughtful question to volley back.

What does everyone think?