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Design Thinking and Digital Intent, Part 2

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
August 20, 2018

As I discussed in Part 1 of this series, companies are focusing on design thinking and digital transformation these days, trying to come up with better solutions to the same old problems that still exist in business today. I also talked about the term digital intent. While this not my own term, I have applied it in a different way to describe the outcomes of design thinking.

The popular business term digital transformation describes the journey companies are undertaking today as they integrate digital technologies into every aspect of their business. Digital transformation considers people, processes, organizational culture; and the how, what, and why of how customers engage with a business. While every major company is currently engaged in digital transformation, often undertaking multiyear transformation programs, their progress and digital maturity vary greatly as they grapple with legacy processes, technologies, and culture. As a result, many are still struggling to deliver tangible business outcomes.

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However, while the terminology may have changed, the actual problem we are trying to solve has not. In fact, in the enterprise, we have been struggling with the same strategic product challenges and seeking the same tangible business outcomes for years.

Strategic Intent

Don’t believe me? As I was doing research for this article, I came across many articles that discuss similar challenges. One of the most striking, an article titled “Strategic Intent” by Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad, which was originally published in Harvard Business Review in 1989, discusses strategic intent in depth and describes some of the same business problems facing large-scale enterprises of that time. While some of those companies are still around, others are mere shells of their former formidable selves. The authors, Hamel and Prahalad, are the same folks who created the concept of core competencies in relation to business.

Many companies are failing when it comes to being strategic. Instead of really looking at their core competencies, these companies feel the pressure to do too much and, thus, expend tremendous amounts of resources, with the end result of being exactly like their competitors. While imitation is a sincere form of flattery, it’s hardly a competitive advantage.  Not only do competitors see through the imitation, increasingly savvy consumers do, too. By always struggling to keep up with the competition, an organization never succeeds at achieving its own strategic goals. In the experience-design world, we see this all the time with user-interface design. Take a look around. There is a lot of sameness out there today, with everything following the same templates. Much of what passes for design these days is not really design but execution.

It was almost 30 years ago when the article “Strategic Intent” was written, and we are still struggling with basically the same business problems, as anyone who works for a medium to large enterprise can attest. Although thought leaders typically tout strategic planning as a way of becoming more future oriented, for most organizations, strategic intent is more about solving the problems companies face today rather than considering how to ensure they are driving toward tomorrow’s opportunities.

Large organizations experience many challenges with innovation. All too often, the managers and supervisors responsible for executing such strategic initiatives are not empowered to look beyond one or two quarters at best. Thus, the pursuit of very tactical concerns stymies their ability to truly lead an organization to achieve the strategic goals it has set out for itself. As a result, the concept of innovation fails to pervade the entire enterprise. Instead of companies taking a holistic approach to innovation, it’s something they often give to small teams to do. What we really need is organizational leadership that can harness the diverse abilities of various teams to collectively address an organization’s strategic initiatives and deliver optimal outcomes that ensure the company is poised for success. Very few organizations, regardless of their size, are able to do this effectively.

Shifting from Strategic to Digital

Organizations love renaming things. In part, this is a result of the imitation conundrum. It’s much easier to change a name and tinker with things around the edges in an attempt to drive success than it is to recreate whole parts of a business or processes. This is also a result of simple laziness to some degree. But where leaders are truly committed to success, they recognize the fact that times change, and their business must change with them. What might not have worked in the past may indeed work now, after some lessons have been learned.

In this time of digital transformation, the concept of strategic intent is still present, but has morphed somewhat into digital intent. Their roles are not very different. However, we’re now framing intent as the foundational stepping stone of an effort to ensure that business and organizational activities and processes leverage the changes and opportunities of digital technologies in a strategic way.

In discussing the concept of digital intent in Part 1 of this series, I tied it to the process of design thinking. Just as, in design thinking, we always ask “How might we…?” conceiving a digital intent follows the same approach. Here are some examples of digital intents:

  • How might we get from being a culture of days to a culture of minutes?
  • How might we enable quicker decision making?
  • How might we reduce the number of manual touchpoints / interventions?
  • How might we increase our resource capacity—by reducing the number of hours per task—and also lower risk—for example, by touching fewer systems?
  • How might we shift our workforce to doing more strategic work?
  • How might we help our workforce to become more proactive and less reactive?

As you can see, the purpose of all of these digital intents is to ground organizations as they embark on their digital-transformation journey. These sorts of digital intents are the foundational elements of large, transformational efforts and define highly strategic business problems that we need to solve. Defining such digital intents is the key to a successful design-thinking session or design sprint. Failing to recognize the importance of digital intents ensures that innovation and creative thinking remain relegated to the independent actions of teams instead of their being interwoven into an organization’s larger digital-transformation initiatives.

Take Time for Design Thinking, but Get to Doing Quickly

Any transformation takes some time. But capturing digital intents through a design-thinking process allow us to accomplish a digital transformation in small, manageable pieces. This is why it is so critical to involve top-level executive leadership in design-thinking sessions. If only mid-level management participate in design-thinking sessions, they won’t be able to define the overall strategic vision of the organization. Why? Because mid-level management is not generally empowered to look beyond the tactical stretch goals they must execute in the near term. In contrast, top-level management, at the very least, is supposed to be able to understand how these digital intents fit together and move an organization forward on its digital-transformation journey. I have seen the design-thinking process break down just because of having the wrong people involved.

Some think, “This is a great process, but we just can’t do it.” Sometimes folks are not set up to pivot when innovative or new ideas present themselves, as they so often do coming out of a design-thinking process. There is not enough design doing happening. Many organizations are thinking of innovation on an individual level rather than as a pervasive way of life within the organization. Be sure to take your time with design thinking, but make sure that all of its outcomes translate into action quickly. Be sure you actually capture the design thinking as digital intents and real working prototypes.

Some say that innovation can either enable a company to grow exponentially or cause it to go bankrupt. The differences between these two outcomes are numerous, but one simple idea is consistent: Think strategically and ensure that the digital intents you capture actually speak to your organization’s core strengths—or are at least achievable. Tie digital intents to your organization’s strategic initiatives and ensure that they move the organization forward.

This is an exciting time to be in design. The way we execute on solving the challenges that lie before us can either ensure that design remains an important part of business strategy or that it does not. It is up to us to carry this mission forward. 

Senior Director, Technical Solutions and Global Design, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsWith over 12 years of experience leading and participating in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries, Baruch has a developed a wide range of skills in the areas of interaction design, user interface development, and product management. For the past 5 years, he has developed and led the global user experience team at Pegasystems and serves as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in the delivery of user interface design and user experience to customers and partners.  Read More

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