Results-based Strategic Design

“As you begin to think like a designer, remember one important thing: it’s impossible to predict the future. And the corollary to that thought is: once you design something, it changes the future that is possible.” — Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Designing Your Life

After having participated in strategic planning at a number of institutions, with various levels of success, I developed “results-based strategic design” as an alternative to traditional strategic planning. I implemented this process as a university president, and my consulting firm is now assisting higher education institutions in applying this approach to their own planning processes.

I’m excited about results-based strategic design, not simply as a consultant, but more importantly as one who has seen first hand how it can work.

Human-centered design, which informs part of our approach, was pioneered by IDEO (the company that designed the mouse and the notebook computer), and we add to those ideas a strong “results” focus based on the work of former Rensselaerville Institute CEO Hal Williams.  This combination enables rapid innovation and a practical, iterative process of revision in response to changing circumstances, in contrast to the traditional linear five-year plan. The focus on results also combats the over-emphasis on process and innovation for its own sake that is a pitfall of some applications of human-centered design thinking in higher education. And now that more and more work is being done remotely, where the results but not the activities are on view, a results-based approach makes even more sense.

This is not a cookie-cutter methodology for strategic planning, but rather an alternative approach that can make any planning process more engaging, efficient, and relevant by asking different questions, and thinking of the future of the institution not as something to plan for, but as something to design. Instead of asking, “Where do we want to be in five years?,” and attempting to answer that impossible question across an entire institution, strategic design focuses on identifying and designing or redesigning aspects of the institution that need specific changes in behavior. In addition, the focus is on the experience of the “user” (students) rather than the preservation and advancement of the institution (which will in fact preserve and advance the institution).

The relevant questions include:

  • What specific problems do we need to solve?
  • What do our constituents really need (which may not be what they say they need)?
  • What are the constraints within which creative design can happen?
  • What results should we achieve?
  • Where in the organization does behavior need to change?
  • How can we implement low-risk prototypes to test behavior-changing initiatives?

While this process can be used to develop a comprehensive strategic plan, its emphasis on specific, current needs and problems makes it ideal for modifying or focusing an existing plan, for example, when a new leader arrives and identifies specific opportunities that fit within the current plan but may not be at the forefront, or, as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, when we must pivot quickly to account for new economic, social, and institutional realities.

Explore this site and watch the video below for more information on how results-based strategic design can inform your planning process. Please comment below, and contact me by phone or email if you are interested in partnering with me to explore this approach for your own institution.

I can also lend expertise in other areas, including small-college finances (see my recent Inside Higher Ed pieces on Early Warning Signs of Financial Trouble and Predicting and Communicating Bad Financial News), academic program review and development, institutional partnerships, and leadership team development. But no matter what you are trying to achieve, finding the right design framework is fundamental.

Watch the 19-minute video below to learn more about Results-Based Strategic Design

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