It’s the process that’s the problem.

When reviewing the projects that I’ve been involved in delivering over the past 17 years there is a recurring theme to the vast majority. We start by trying to understand what’s happening today. We then try to articulate what the future needs to be. And finally, by assessing the gap between today and tomorrow we can map out the steps to get there. We’ve all seen it before “Current State, Future State, Gap”. It’s been done to death and very rarely does it give us a significant breakthrough in thinking. And on those occasions when it does, the chance of delivering on that future state is largely in the lap of the Gods.

This TED Talk by Michael Hansmeyer speaks to the known shapes in architecture. They are the shapes that have long been seen in all types of designs. Hansmeyer asks the question of what would happen if we could create new shapes. Shapes that have never before been imagined. Well it turns out that new shapes can be created – we just need to change the process we use to design them.

Let’s think about this in the context of business problems. Organisations today are constrained by what they know and in particular by the processes they know. Whether with the help of consultants or on their own they will typically go down the “Current State, Future State, Gap” road. Sometimes they might accelerate things by skipping the current state all together. However one thing is almost a certainty. On very few occasions will there be anything that significantly challenges known models.

Data shows that when new strategies that are designed and implemented they are overwhelmingly simple variants or extensions of what has been done in the past. Kim and Mauborgne (2004) researched the strategies of organisations across 30 industries dating back 100 years. Frighteningly they found that 86% of new strategic ventures where “line extensions”. Only 14% targeted the creation of a new market or industry. Development Strategy By Design – James Carlopio 2011.

The question is why? It’s not the industry dynamics given that it is the same across the 30 industries researched. It’s not the people involved. It’s the process. Just like Hansmeyer’s view on new shapes, “[There are] unseen objects that await us, if we as architects begin to think about designing not the object, but a process to generate objects.” 

This is our challenge. Not to innovate the strategy but to innovate the process by which the strategy is created. To find a process or processes that are, in the words of Hansmeyer, free of biases, free of the constraints of education, free of the boundaries put on us by the markets that we are in today. We need tools, processes and importantly a language that iterates, challenges, builds upon itself, and frees the mind from today’s shackles.

In the next post we will look at some of the thinking that is shaping how we overcome this challenge.

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