Sitting at the Strategy Table

Catching up on the AP blog, I saw Kate Rutter’s excellent post: Build your very own seat at the strategy table, complete with a papercraft “table” with helpful reminders! It’s about designers gaining a place at the “strategy table” — where the people who run things tend to dwell.

I had written something about this a while back, about Strategy & Innovation being “Strange Bedfellows.” But Kate’s post brought up something I hadn’t really focused on yet.

So I commented there, and now I’m repeating here: practitioners’ best work is at the level of practice.

They make things, and they make things better, based on the concrete experience of the things themselves. The strategy table, however, has traditionally been populated by those who are pretty far removed from the street-level effects of their decisions, working from the level of ideology. (Not that it’s a bad thing — most ideology is the result of learned wisdom over time, it just gets too calcified and/or used in the wrong context at times.) This is one reason why so many strategists love data rather than first-hand experience: they can (too often) see the data however they need to, based on whatever ideological glasses they’re wearing.

When designers leave the context of hands-on, concrete problem solving and try to mix it up with the abstraction/ideology crowd, they’re no longer in their element. So they have to *bring* their element along with them.

Take that concrete, messy, human design problem, and drop it on the table with a *thud* — just be ready to have some “data” and business speak ready to translate for the audience. And then dive in and get to work on the thing itself, right in front of them. That’s bringing “design thinking” into the strategy room — because “design thinking” is “design doing.”

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  • http://www.thinkingandmaking.com Austin Govella

    How do you think work styles and individual biases play into this?

    I.e. is “design doing” the practice of all design practitioners? Can you be a design practitioner whose practice consists of ideology and abstractions?

    Is IA a practice of concrete problem solving, or of abstractions?

  • http://www.thinkingandmaking.com Austin Govella

    P.S. A while back, Victor framed design as a discipline that makes models of things.

    How would you say making models of things to make things better is different from how you characterize “the table” as being ideology-driven (model-driven)?

  • http://www.inkblurt.com/ Andrew

    Austin: Wow, these are really fantastic questions. (And I’m not just saying that … as usual, you make me have to think harder about something I intuitively blurted out before I wrapped it in the right rationale.)
    I’m going to address the “ideology” bit in a longer post on its own — but in essence I want to distinguish between ideas & ideology. Designers shouldn’t work at the level of ideology (dogma) but with ideas grounded in real experience.
    So, whether you have a particular work style isn’t so much the issue — if you’re not grounding your design work in observation of physical reality, the work will suffer. When you let “first principles” override what you see in front of your face, you run a huge risk of making horrible design decisions that don’t address the reality of what’s on the ground.
    I agree that all designers model things. It’s part of what gets us from observation to idea to design. But many design fields have the luxury of working with physical materials. They make models with clay, wood, etc. IAs are stuck with “semantic hyperlink structures” as their raw material, for the most part. So we have to model our stuff on whiteboards, paper, whatever, and use a lot of language rather than as many atoms. This is part of why it’s been so hard to put a finger on what IA *is* — because you literally can’t put your finger on it. (You can only experience it as negative space — what connects the things you can put your finger on…)
    But I don’t equate “ideology-driven” with “model-driven” — and I’ll explain that in the next post :-)

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