in strategic ux

Everyone is doing strategy right now.

this is the first post in a series of rambles around the topic of strategy in the general vicinity of user experience which I’m posting as a kind of obituary to the book I almost finished writing then realised was pretty much completely wrong. This is some of the stuff  I probably should have written instead.

Everyone wants the strategy job. It’s much sexier than the ‘implementing the strategy’ jobs. That’s why the people who have managed to get the strategy jobs have a vested interest in making sure that doing strategy stuff seems very important and serious and senior. And confusing. You don’t understand exactly what these strategy people do, do you? (Except make frameworks or models and wave their hands around a lot). That’s kind of the plan. You continue to be intimidated by strategy and keep doing the implementing while the strategy guys get to go to the fancy lunches.

Fact is, everyone is doing strategy stuff all the time. If you choose to do one thing and not the other (which we all do every day), we’ve got a strategy. We might not know what that strategy is, but it’s there. Common strategies include:

  • do something that will help me avoid having to do the hard thing for another ten minutes.
  • do the thing that will win me the most brownie points with my boss
  • do the thing that my boss will hate the least
  • do the thing that I’m best at

By applying this strategy you are able to choose tasks in a coherent way that will achieve an end goal – avoiding the hard stuff, not making your boss cross, feeling clever.

These are simple strategies, true, but everyone is using them every day. The Strategy Guys forget about this a lot of the time when they’re making their frameworks. That’s a bad thing.

There are some pretty simple ways that you can evaluate the effectiveness of a strategy.

  1. How conscious is the person/organisation of the strategy? Do they know that they are using this strategy to make decisions, is the strategy clearly articulated.
    Often people and even entire organisations have no awareness of the strategies they are employing.

    As a general rule, the more consciously people choose to apply a strategy, the better the outcome.

  2. How well is that strategy helping you achieve your/your organisations goals?I might say that I’m trying to get a promotion into a senior role, but the strategy I’m currently applying is to avoid the hard things. My company might say that it is committed to user experience but the strategy they are currently applying is to value quantity of features delivered over meeting user needs.

    Strategies that match your objectives tend to work best.

    (I have an outstanding question as to whether clearly stating your goals makes a significant difference to the strategies you choose and their effectiveness)

  3. How integrated are people’s personal strategies with the organisation strategies.Do coworkers tend to share similar personal strategies in the workplace? How well do those personal strategies integrate with the organisational strategy? Do all the strategies work together to help meet goals or do they counteract each other.

    Does your strategy for having a good family life work with you strategy for getting that promotion? Does your strategy for having a good family life fit with your organisations strategy for being first to market? Does your strategy for not making your boss cranky fit with the organisations strategy of failing fast and learning from mistakes?

    Well integrated strategies are more successful.

Strategy is not a fancy thing that only a few special people can do. The reason they can’t really explain to you what it is is because it’s not really much more than an idea. As with ideas, most strategies are cheap and there are plenty of them. As Mike Tyson apparently said ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’. Actually implementing strategy, in the real world where there are always a plethora of competing personal and organisational strategies already in place, that’s the hard thing.

You are already doing strategy today. Don’t waste time trying to come up with the perfect strategy. Take time to understand the strategies that are in play today, make those as visible and addressable as you can, and start iterating.

  1. “That’s why the people who have managed to get the strategy jobs have a vested interest in making sure that doing strategy stuff seems very important and serious and senior. And confusing. You don’t understand exactly what these strategy people do, do you? (Except make frameworks or models and wave their hands around a lot). That’s kind of the plan. You continue to be intimidated by strategy and keep doing the implementing while the strategy guys get to go to the fancy lunches.”

    A ton of insights in here, so I’m not sure what to comment on first. That said, much of what you described is just sloppy strategy, likely commissioned by clueless management/execs who have no idea what good strategy looks like. The “Step 1: spend months writing a strategy” and “Step 2: hand-off and implement” has its issues, and it seems that you’ve observed how shitty this process is.

    Anyway, here’s a link that might be worth checking out…
    https://medium.com/editors-picks/strategy-in-reverse-364b10aa64fb

    Also worth reading is the UK Government strategy process, all open to the public…
    https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/government-digital-strategy-reports-and-research
    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/296336/Government_Digital_Stratetegy_-_November_2012.pdf
    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/60993/Martha_20Lane_20Fox_s_20letter_20to_20Francis_20Maude_2014th_20Oct_202010.pdf

  2. …And now realize that you work for the UK Digital office. Perhaps all of those awesome reports coming out of your office made me more optimistic about the inner workings of the UK Digital Strategy work than it seems. :)

  3. Very well said.

    I think you’re talking about tactics that “strategy” guys disguise as strategy and thus cause all sorts of problems – but that’s essentially semantic.

  4. In consultancy you also have the “pure play generalist” strategists. Then digital strategists, design strategists, technical strategists, industry sector strategists….

    In UX the reason is pretty clear. You need to know the big picture and to have answers for why something is needed. The second reason is the tools have gotten so easy to use that it’s no longer a need to even list them. This places more emphasis on the thinking. How will this work (achieve the KPIs) and be measured. A separate strategist won’t add much value.

    On really big complex software projects getting the strategy right also involves scoping the phases and understanding of the underlying architecture. Here there is value having strategy phase.

    In design something similar is happening where we now have Design Thinking taught. The awareness is great. But giving people the impression that in 1 day – 3 months they will become a design thinker/strategist who will make the decisions while designers implement is wrong.

    Imagine if we taught musical thinking and had some one from a business management team at a white board in front of The Rolling Stones when they were writing songs and saying, “come on fellows we’ve got two hours to create a hit roadmap & brainstorm the next album”?

    The question to ask is what is the value. Sure put as many strategists on it as you want but remember these are not the people who make anything unless they are also do-ers.

    Absolutely agree that most UX people are already doing strategy and the iteration is key. The label is just there for political reasons. Think, do, iterate.

  5. Simply put, strategy is hierarchical. The difference between tactics and strategy is one of perspective. A smaller team or a single person may come up with a strategy how to implement a tactic from a superordinate strategy. The cascade needs to align up and down.

  6. Really it’s about *how* you wave your hands. And diagrams.

  7. I love how plain and simple you make this concept. Sadly, it seems to be a concept better described as uncommon sense than common sense. Here’s to more people understanding and fewer people getting away with confusing them :)

  8. Maybe strategists just need to be better storytellers.

    Einstein apparently said that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough. So it’s possible that these strategists don’t understand their own strategy well enough to explain it to the people who are following.

    But strategists should be “first followers” of the brand/organization. They find truth and direction. Then they turn around and present it to the world in a way that inspires people to follow.

  9. Just found this series of posts. LEISA YOU ARE SO SMART.

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