Part One: Systems Thinking, A Welcome Disruption to Digital Strategy
Jul 28, 2011
This series on digital strategy is divided into five pieces.
1.Systems Thinking, A Welcome Disruption to Digital Strategy
2.Why and How Digital Strategy Typically Fails
3.How You Create the Right Change
4.Governance and Cyclical Improvement are the Secrets
5.Prolonging the Success of Your Hard-Fought Change
Part 1.Systems Thinking: A Welcome Disruption to Digital Strategy
I believe digital strategists can stand to learn something from “systems thinking.” Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. It’s about reducing and combining elements and looking under the hood. It’s also a commitment to seeing particular connections or forging new connections. It’s also about seeing the forest and the trees at the same time—but being able to close one eye and be able to temporarily focus on one without the other. I think of it as having both a microscope and a telescope.
With that, I see digital strategy as being about understanding how Web, content, technology, social media, mobile and other form factors, internal resources, company culture, enterprise priorities, etc. can influence each other toward a measureable end. All these things are parts of a larger whole.
When we use systems thinking to form or shape digital strategy, it encourages us to examine all the parts, their relationships to each other and gives us a grander perspective of the whole. In many instances, I have noticed that it can act like a rear view mirror in the creation and execution of digital strategy. Let’s examine digital strategy’s interconnected influences.
Strategy creation is typically a linear process.We know goals influence the research. Research influences data. Data influences ideas and assumptions. Ideas and assumptions influence analysis. Analysis influences direction. Direction can, but doesn’t always influence process. Process can influence tactics. Tactics influence budget and resource commitment. Budget and resource commitment influences measurement. Measurement influences how to iterate. Iteration based on measurement influences outcome. These are all interdependent dynamics that are part of a system and they look like this:
1. Goals —-> research
2. Research —-> data
3. Data —-> ideas and assumptions
4. Ideas and assumptions —-> analysis
5. Analysis —-> direction
6. Direction —-> process
7. Process —-> tactics
8. Tactics —-> budget and resource commitment
9. Budget and resource commitment —-> measurement
10. Measurement —-> how/what to iterate
11. Iteration based on measurement —-> outcome
By looking at the system as a whole and then shifting back to the system at its many component levels we learn more about the system. We learn how each step or element can not only influence the next step but we can also see backward and how all the steps that have led up to it can continue to influence the next. We learn more by exploring less linear relationships between the component elements of strategy.
Lets explore some non-linear relationships between the strategic components (the numbers below correspond to the eight points in the graphic above:
1. The relationship between data and goals is a prime area to explore both what data is yet needed and whether your goals are the right ones to be pursuing.
2. The influence your ideas and assumptions have on outcomes and visa versa is what makes iterative/cyclical continuous improvement critical.
3. What can your process tell you about how you identify, pursue and use your research? Are you doing all research too early?
4. The data you have and actively collect should influence direction after applying ideas/assumptions and analysis. However, does the chosen direction require you to seek more and different data?
5. It seems the relationship between measurement and analysis is obvious. But when you look back at the analysis that informed your strategic direction, does it make you want to adjust what you are measuring?
6. One of the most overlooked opportunities in digital strategy is cyclical/iterative design. What if all your tactics were forced into a cycle of continuous improvement? What if you eliminate the word “done?”
7. Are your processes focused too tightly on your very next step or on final outcomes? Do your processes at all restrict your outcomes?
8. Budget and resource commitment is the disease and the cure and is most often why strategies succeed or fail. What if it was okay to have adjustable goals? What if one of your goals was to commit necessary resources—after having a better understanding of what resource commitments made most sense?
Here are a few reasons why applying systems thinking to digital strategy is interesting. If we think about those dynamics as a system and think specifically about each relationship as a part of the whole, we start to pick up interesting food for thought.
First, when we isolate one relationship in the whole, research’s influence on data, for example, we give ourselves the chance to focus not only on the research that is necessary, but we give ourselves the ability to focus on the data.
Second, systems thinking can give us a dashboard to control the dynamics of the strategy to a greater extent. We can control the energy, resources, time and creativity into each element individually and observe their impact on the whole. When we look at the entirety of our strategy through its component elements, we can see both strategic thinness and opportunities to galvanize particular elements of our strategies.
Third, this is about giving ourselves a broader perspective into strategy making and to better anticipate areas of risk. It helps prevent us from focusing too much on one element or relationship and too little on others, which creates an imbalance. And it’s about deliberately disrupting the conventional linearity of the process by which we make digital strategy apply to our businesses.
In the next part (part 2) of this article, I will be narrowing in on specifics of why digital strategy typically fails.