Why do great strategies and great ideas often fail?


To help clients make creative change, agencies have always used two quite different kinds of thinking. We also now need a third.

Strategy is the most famous way of creating change in the world – initially by soldiers, then by business leaders. It’s primarily intellectual, a process of analysis, of weighing things up, and making rational decisions on the best course of action. You do strategy primarily by thinking – about goals and about how to reach them. Critical intelligence is essential: the best strategists ask plenty of searching ‘why?’ questions. The test of a strategy is whether it’s logical, whether it’s feasible, whether it’s ‘right’. And strategy consultants tend to tell (or ‘advise’) their clients on what to do.

Design belongs to a different world – the domain of artists, craftspeople, inventors, engineers. Design is less intellectual, more intuitive, and its mode is imagining and making things, often through a long process of trial and error. Designers often feel their way forwards, rather than aiming at a destination. Designers are often less constrained by critical thinking – their instinct is to ask ‘why not?’.The lifeblood of design is ideas – wonderful, fragile, usually unprovable. And the test of design is not whether something’s ‘right’, but whether it looks good and works well. Designers tend not to advise their clients, but to make and show them things.

The two ways of thinking seem complementary. Design appeals to our intuitive ‘system 1’ thinking, and strategy to our more conscious and deliberative ‘system 2’ thinking. So why is it that the combination doesn’t always create the intended transformation? Why do great strategies and great ideas often not work?

Because they need people to change. A new business strategy, exemplified by new products, services, stores, apps and branding – they all need employees to work in new ways. The most innovative also need customers to do things differently too. And people don’t like to change. It’s human nature to resist change.

But most people do like to learn. Human beings are curious, and mostly enjoy acquiring new knowledge and skills. So perhaps learning is the essential third way of thinking – the third muscle.

Learning means that creative agencies shouldn’t just advise their clients on strategy and show their clients design, but also help their clients learn. You could call this ‘teaching’, but it’s more than that. It’s a way of working in which both client and consultant discover new things, try them out and reflect on them. Teaching, after all, is just one (rather good) way of learning.

So this is less about thinking or imagining, more about discovering. It’s partly intellectual, partly intuitive, but also hugely empathetic. It’s not so much about strategies or ideas, more about people and how to help them go further. A lot of it is about coaching clients, and their employees, and their customers. The aim would be not just a one-off learning exercise (a workshop, a class, a course) but a constant drive to learn (a culture) in both the client and the agency.

And perhaps that kind of culture is the outcome that matters most. Strategy and design are vital muscles, but only the third muscle – the learning muscle, exercised daily – opens up long-lasting innovation and growth. Creative agencies currently look for hybrid designer-strategists. Now they need to go further, and fuse all three.

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