Apply design thinking to get the most out of a consulting brief

02 December 2021 8 min. read
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Developing strategy for clients is the bread and butter for all consultants. However, the days of consultants relying on traditional strategy are long gone. The nuanced nature of organisational systems and processes and stakeholder relationships today requires higher-level strategic design thinking to provide effective, adaptive business solutions. Marque Kabbaz, Head of Strategic Design at Merkle, explains why.

The value of strategic design thinking is that it can empower organisations to identify and articulate business challenges and opportunities in a more holistic way.

The same strategic design principles can be administered to any challenge or opportunity and there is significant potential to boost business impact while minimising risk when these principles are applied before a client brief, and prior to the implementation phase.

Marque Kabbaz, Head of Strategic Design, Merkle

Analysing why transformation fails

Strategic design can directly address the key reasons transformation and change fail most of the time. Often these reasons lie in ambiguity (leading to a lack of senior stakeholder buy-in) and teams need to take a step back from the mechanics and revisit the challenge or opportunity at hand.

Strategic designers excel at navigating a VUCA world, where understanding Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity are core to guiding clients through environments where change is constant. This discovery process may reveal that set KPIs don’t actually fulfil the brief’s objectives and additional time, budget, and resources will be needed to get back on track.

In many cases, this can be avoided by taking the opportunity to review the brief through a system thinking lens, and develop a more holistic view of any proposed strategic implementations. By interrogating the brief, the organisation’s current and desired future state, and the reasons behind the drive for change, it will be possible to develop faster, validated, hypothesis-driven design to enable the adaptive organisations of tomorrow.

Asking for a strategy that is guaranteed to work is like asking a scientist to test a hypothesis that is proven to be true. Real strategy is about informed decision-making and hypothesis testing, and this is where strategic design excels.

Designing stronger, more robust strategies and building a truly adaptive organisation starts with apply big problem thinking, but must go past simply challenging with five “Whys?” to incorporate “And then what’s?”. This is a mature system thinking approach that goes beyond a strategy in insolation and understands the rolling impacts of the decisions we make as consultants, and therefore the advisory we provide for our clients.

Leveraging soft skills for stakeholder management

Understanding what makes a client tick is a crucial component of the design of any strategy, and this is where consultants’ stakeholder management and soft skills can be leveraged to full effect.

It can be daunting for some organisations who lean on traditional ‘tactical strategies’ to rethink their approach. Strategic design is intended to challenge a brief to maximise results, rather than challenge a business for the sake of it. And while strategic design delivers greater speed-to-value, being able to help clients make the leap relies on building trust, being transparent on the process, and involving clients in co-design as early as possible.

It’s incumbent on consultants to help our clients build a stronger Adaptability Quotient (AQ) at a personal and organisational level.

Fostering relationships and understanding the key drivers of your client, their stakeholders, and other business units within an organisation can be useful in facilitating open collaboration and a willingness to exploring how to best apply systems thinking and analysis.

Having strategic designers by your side, whether they are external specialists or ‘out of the box’ thinkers within your own team that can leverage different backgrounds in strategy, marketing, data and analytics or engineering, can then marry these insights with higher-level strategic thinking to create agile business responses.

Designing accurate measures of success

While it’s always an interesting exercise to unpack the ‘Why’s’ of a brief, it’s just as important to then anchor these findings into accurate measures of success for implementation. In addition to established success metrics like ROI, market share growth, increased NPS and the like, strategic designers consider how these metrics are being designed, implemented, and interpreted through three additional filters.

The literate filter helps strategists and consultants to determine the rhetoric and meaning behind terminology and program names included in the brief. For example, what does a specific organisation’s ‘digital transformation journey’ actually mean to them? By unpicking the words in the brief, you can get clarity on what you are collectively working towards. This minimises the ambiguity in language, which often leads to misalignment.

The numerate filter determines how a program of work will measure real-world impact and value. How exactly will this project help an organisation streamline processes, create efficiencies, or take it to the next phase of its strategic roadmap? What will be the impact of this project be on an organisation’s systems and stakeholders? And perhaps most importantly, recognising that trusting the numbers is a flawed belief.

Strategic designers strive to understand the design of data collection, and interpretation. Data is not agnostic – it’s only meaningful when designed for the task at hand.

The ecolate filter is, in essence, asking ‘And then what?’. No program, business or industry operates in isolation, so it’s important to have perspective over the intended and unintended consequences of a particular project. For instance, if you’re tasked with creating a social media widget, has your team considered the mental health impacts on vulnerable audiences if that widget is integrated into the platform?

Accounting for the geopolitical, social, environmental, and economic effects of a project can provide beneficial parameters when designing and implementing new strategies and solutions.

Strategic design in practice

Running these thought exercises prior to creating or responding to a brief, or evening questioning the goals provided in the briefing process, can ultimately help to enhance the design of strategy, tactical implementation, and measurement of success.

Let’s use a national health insurance provider’s brief as an example of applied strategic design thinking. A national health insurance provider had spent two years iterating a new product for market, only to launch and gain minimal traction. Engaging an expert team of strategic designers at this point was necessary to refine the product offering to gain more market penetration.

Rather than continue to run iterative test and learn sprints to refine the product to increase adoption, our team went back to first principles, employing a lean strategy approach to re-validate the audience, market need, and value framework for the business, and customers. Over 6 weeks, the product’s target audience, features, and potential revenue model were invalidated, and new directions were uncovered, tested, and validated.

This then informed the design of a validated, highly differentiated new product, with clear success metrics for implementation. Speed to value was dramatically accelerated, the business co-designed the solution with us (reducing resistance, and accelerating support), and the legacy product was decommissioned.

Strategic design saved further investment in an unsuccessful product, and in a very short space of time, de-risked the new product. And while this engagement was a corrective one, establishing this new way of working ensured the client would not be repeating the inefficient processes of the past.

Further reading: How design thinking can help build a successful strategy.

Your next brief
Strategy has its place and always will. As consultants, it’s a crucial part of our role to guide clients who are unsure of where to begin, what the problem at hand is, where there are broader opportunities, and how to unite the entire business to achieve greater efficiency and value.

Applying strategic design principles to dissect a brief and combining strategic thinking with design doing during implementation is the most effective way forward. As change and uncertainty accelerate, and adaptability and connected strategic thinking become more important, I encourage all consulting professionals to adopt strategic design principles to better help our clients flourish into the future.