in strategic ux

Strategy fast and slow (or culture IS strategy for breakfast, lunch and tea)

This is the third 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. You can see the first post here and the second one here.

I’m a big Peter Drucker fan. He was a User Experience guy way before there was such a thing as User Experience Guys. (I wrote up some of my favourite things about Peter Drucker in the earliest stages of trying to write my Strategic UX book. You can read them here.)

Drucker is the guy who apparently said ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. I think he’s right, but I also think it’s not as simple as that. I think that culture is strategy in action.

The culture you see reveals the strategies that people are actually employing in their day to day work – not the ones that are proclaimed on posters by the lift or in the annual business plan.

And, as Joshua Porter would say, the behaviour you’re seeing is the behaviour you’ve designed for. (Granted he was referring to the behaviour of people in social systems on web application, but I think the wisdom holds).

So, culture and current strategies are dependent. Culture and proclaimed strategies are often competitors. And there are probably things that we do that encourage the culture we currently have and discourage the culture (and day to day strategy) that we want.

This makes me think of Stewart Brand’s great book ‘How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built’ (based on a BBC series you can watch in full on YouTube).

In considering the life of buildings once they’ve been designed and come into use, Brand observes the way that we ‘iterate’ buildings so that they better suit user needs. (At least, the good buildings can be iterated rather than bulldozed). There is a great diagram in the book that shows the different ‘layers’ of buildings and the relative speed at which those layers are able to/likely to change.

This makes me think about layers of strategy – firstly that these different layers exist and also that the rate that those layers should change will be different. Some strategic layers should be able to change quickly and others ideally move more slowly. In the same way that you don’t want to change the structure of your house every couple of months (probably), it’s also less than idea for some of the strategic foundations of your organisation to change substantially on a regular basis.

Things like your value proposition, you don’t really want to move that unless you really have to, it should be a slow moving strategy. For somewhere like the Government Digital Service, the Digital by Default Service Standard should be a slow moving strategic document.

This is a document that asks the whole of the UK government to change the way that it creates and maintains digital services in a fairly substantial way. A lot of people are doing a lot of work to get into alignment with this strategy.

The Service Standard should be able to be iterated (to be improved and to respond to change in the world) but it shouldn’t change substantially at a rapid pace. If it changed all the time it would massively compromise it’s ability to be successful.

Neil Addison thought that my use of the word ‘enshrined’ when talking about strategy was indicative of a problematic mindset (and I think he was right to pick it up as a red flag), but I think that it’s indicative of a slow moving strategy. If you’ve got a big ship to turn around, you need some consistency in your approach.

Slow moving strategies can help you get lots of people to get lots of activities into alignment. If you want to do some big things, you need some slow moving strategies.

On the other hand, fast moving strategies can be very useful for helping to shift culture.

Strategies that are smaller, more malleable, and able to be influenced by people at all levels of the organisation. Strategies that form a part of the daily tasks of people in the organisation.

Agreeing and applying design patterns might be a good example of fast moving strategy. Conversations to form and iterate design patterns involve lots of different people in the organisation (or they should), including designers, front end developers, user researchers, security specialists – just for starters.

The goal of the design pattern is to try to get everyone working to a consistently high standard of interface design (and ideally with some consistency in the interface), but obviously as the organisation learns more and more, the quality of the design patterns and their implementation will continue to iterate and improve.

Even more important, the discussions that people have on a daily basis as they implement and challenge the design patterns encourages discussions around design, user research, and technical implementation that help to build a culture where design, user research and technology well implemented is valued.

Things get cool when your fast moving patterns integrate well with some slower moving strategies, like design patterns (faster) integrating with design principles (slower). For example, plenty of discussions about design patterns reference the design principle ‘do the hard work to make it easy‘.

This is what you’re aiming for: layers of strategy from fast moving ones that people ‘work’ on every day that integrate with the next layer out so that  ultimately work that you are doing day to day has an evident link to the big, slow moving strategies.

Fast moving strategies that give people small ways to align their work to the bigger picture – letting people ask ‘what’s the user need?’ or  to think ‘publish don’t send‘ as they decide whether to send an email, write a blog post or update the wiki. (yes, some people do update wikis).

Being about to routinely, every day, every hour, align the choices you make to the strategies of the organisation you work for, that helps build culture. Especially if you’re all using the same words when you do it. 

Its just one ingredient of culture, but being empowered to make tiny small choices to align and sometimes even adjust the strategy of the organisation – the fast and the slow layers, eating strategy for breakfast, lunch and tea helps ensure that you build a culture that’s not just ‘healthy’ but is aligned and supportive of the strategic goals of your organisation.

or something like that.

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