Product Design, Design Strategy, Methods, Technology, UX

Keeping Teams Aligned Using Visualizations

A good, charismatic leader can get us to believe in anything—just think about Steve Jobs. As one of the developers on the original Macintosh described, “Steve Jobs has a reality distortion field… In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything.”

When we hear a charismatic speaker, we gain alignment around the idea. The raw material of the strategy is shared content, absorbed by everyone at a conference or in a meeting through our own lens of personal experiences. Our alignment is shared, but it’s not a perfect match.

The same developer continued his statement about Steve Jobs, “In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he’s not around.”

We leave the conference or the meeting and the alignment starts degrading almost immediately. We explore the idea on our own, shaping and gaining ownership of it as we do so. When any idea transfers from person to person, and as it marinates over time, it changes. We integrate ideas into our worldview through a process of sensemaking, which is unique to each of us and constantly evolving, based on new experiences.

Sensemaking is Key to Getting Through Life

It’s also the undoing of continuity in alignment because when we have a conversation about strategy, we each integrate our conversation based on our unique experiences and those experiences diverge more and more as time passes.

When it’s just two people working together, chances are they reconnect in a day or two, discuss their follow-up thoughts, and realign around the strategic direction with even more of a synthesized understanding. That’s one of the reasons startups can be so successful.

Large-scale alignment around an idea is much harder. The tools used to reinforce strategy in a large organization end up, too often, watered down so that they’re easily digestible or memorable. For example, a list of “strategic imperatives” hanging in the breakroom, with an acronym like WIN:

Welcome challenges!

Invite collaboration!

Nurture relationships!

Visual Communication

Alignment in strategy is about helping a team see and believe in the future in a lasting way—one that has the same richness in six months as it does today. In design strategy, we’ve learned that sketching things brings them to life—this type of visualization can bring continuity and alignment across teams, too.

Too often, corporate communications at scale seem to come at the expense of depth. It’s unfair to employees to dilute a strategy to such extremes, and it’s unlikely this version of a “strategy” will be executed as intended. For all the charisma coming from leadership, if the dissemination story doesn’t match, “It wears off when he’s not around…” then no matter how transformational the ideas, they’re unlikely to stick.

This is where more sophisticated visualizations can bring continuity and alignment without sacrificing the message. By articulating intellectual and in-depth information in easy to understand visual diagrams that show the interconnections of ideas, team members are better able to synthesize and retain those ideas.

Distilling the most salient or important pieces into visual moments, makes complexity accessible. Doing so requires prioritization and hierarchy—assigning meaning to data—and making inferences about which pieces of content will best serve the goals at hand, whether helping people understand a topic or presenting a compelling reason to believe.

The articulations of strategy can also be presented as believable stories of the future. Design strategists build narratives of an optimistic future to help people see how the world could be, rather than how it currently is. These drawings are provocations and they frequently challenge preconceived ideas of how the world should be, and what is plausible or achievable.

A design strategist isn’t just a visionary that can predict the future. They are also actively trying to design the future.

Increasingly, skills designers have used for years to develop products and services are now being used to visualize and develop business strategy. Similarly, the experiences people have with products and brands are no longer separate from the business itself. The core business strategy of a company like Lyft may extend into fleet purchases of self-driving cars, municipal policy lobbying, or acquisitions of competitors. While designers have no expertise in those arenas, the heart of the company’s success is the Lyft app, which means that design strategy is squarely in the conversation of “What should the company do?”

Sketches, Stories and Models are Representations of Something Larger

If a CEO describes a company’s go-forward strategy, and presents a model, that model is now a pointer to the ideas in the presentation. It acts as a shortcut back to the original idea. When we see a sketch and hear a story, seeing the same sketch later can bring the rest of the story quickly back to mind.

As design strategy becomes integral to business strategy, we can bring our unique toolkit to support other competencies in telling their stories, too. A design strategist at Lyft wouldn’t think twice about sketching what the Lyft app will evolve into and selectively sharing it inside the organization to help teams embrace the idea and plan for how it will impact them. The same sketching approach can help the organization disseminate self-driving cars, or municipal policy lobbying, or any other non-digital idea.

In this case sketching isn’t about drawing something pretty—it’s about leveraging the power of models, diagrams, and stories as a means to facilitate alignment and generate groundswell.