Strategy as Design


In 1969, Nobel laureate Herbert Simon commented that

Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent – not with how things are, but how they might be – in short, with design. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional thinking.

Written by Jeanne Liedtka, “Strategy as Design” argues that strategy and design are the same thing. She stakes her claim on seven shared qualities:

SyntheticDesign thinking is synthetic. The design process creates man-made entities that unify often disparate demands and requirements.
Strategic thinking is synthetic. As Liedtka writes, “It seeks internal alignment and understands interdependences…It requires the ability to understand and integrate across levels, both horizontal and vertical.”




Design thinking is abductive meaning it is concerned with what might be.
Strategic thinking is abductive because it is future-focused and inventive.



Design thinking is hypothesis driven. As designers move through the process, they constantly ask and explore “what if” and “if then” questions. With each hypothesis developed and tested, new more sophisticated hypothesis emerge.
Strategic thinking is hypothesis-driven. Strategic thinking is both creative and critical in nature. It asks “what if” and “if then” questions, generates answers and tests the answers to guide strategists to appropriate strategies.



Design thinking is opportunistic as designers always look for new possibilities – not known at the outset - that emerge as hypothesis are tested and ideas prototyped.
Strategic thinking is opportunistic. Strategic thinking is an iterative cycle of creating, learning and honing. Along the way new information is learned that leads to new possibilities not known at the outset.



Design thinking is dialectical in that it discovers the truths (new realities) that can satisfy conflicting demands.
Strategic thinking is dialectical as Leidtka writes, “In the process of inventing the image of the future, the strategist must mediate the tension between constraint, contingency and possibility.”



Design thinking is inquiring. For the larger audience to understand the values, meaning and importance of the new reality (the designed entity), the designer must make his or her reasoning explicit to the broader audience.
Strategic thinking is inquiring. As Liedtka writes, “Its acceptance requires both connections with and movement beyond the existing mindset and value system of the rest of the organization, which relies on inviting the broader community into the strategic conversation. It is through participation in this dialogue that the strategy itself unfolds in the mind of the strategist and in that of the larger community that must come together to make the strategy happen.”



Design thinking is value-driven. Because any design is invented rather than discovered, it is reflective of the values and world view of person developing the strategy. But the best designs are the ones that are also reflective of the audience’s values.
Strategic thinking is value-driven. Because any strategy is invented rather than discovered, it is reflective of the values and world view of person developing the strategy. But the best designs are the ones that are also reflective of the organization’s values.

Strategy is design. And design is strategy. My colleague Brian Collins likes to quotes Charles Eames, “Design is a plan for action.” Liedtka rightly points out the failure to recognize strategic process as a creative process has led many people to make a science out of planning. The science – something that investigates reality to explain what is – has pushed the creativity – something that initiates new realities – out of the strategic process. Liedtka writes,

“Although both methods for thinking are hypothesis-driven, the design hypothesis differs from the scientific hypothesis. Rather than using traditional reasoning modes of inductive or deduction…design thinking is abductive.”Liedtka concludes the article with the suggestion that strategists should abandon the old “scientific” processes of creating strategies and learn to develop strategies the way designers develop designs.“If we were to take design’s lead, we would involve more members of the organization in two-way strategic conversations. We would view the process as one of iteration and experimentation and pay sequential attention to idea generation and evaluation in a way that attends first to possibilities before moving onto constraints.”