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Big Thinking Strategy for Small Batch Connoisseurs

Jim Hertzfeld, Perficient Digital

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Which is the most accurate way to predict the future: a crystal ball, machine learning, or an agency strategy team? It’s actually a three-way tie for last place because the planning horizon is too short to find out.

For years, strategists have been researching, assessing, planning, and predicting markets, customers, users, and the big investments that go with the results. Clients needed three, five, sometimes seven-year roadmaps to justify those investments and help everyone sleep at night because they just predicted the future. But like shipping times, launch windows and attention spans, roadmaps are getting shorter and shorter—and the future is getting harder and harder to predict.

The Fast and the Furious

Like a brilliantly conceived movie franchise, brands are going to market faster, with more action, and, sometimes, with even more spectacular stunts. We’re building digital ecosystems that simultaneously respond to the market and drive change in the market. Seventy-one percent of companies report creating 10 times the number of assets today than just a few years ago. (Source: Adobe) We’re posting 95 million Instagram photos every hour and publishing 400 hours of video to YouTube every minute. More than half of software deployments are done on a weekly basis if not more frequent. Dom Toretto just clocked a 12.1 quarter mile. Traditional planning and strategy are having a hard time keeping up with this race. It turns out that digital transformation also applies to the digital agency, and traditional strategy methods are being augmented and sometimes replaced by leaner, faster Design Thinking methods to start, learn and finish more rapidly.

The Plan is Nothing. The Planning is Everything

Among the human race, we love a good plan, free from interruptions and ambiguity. The plan gives us purpose. When the plan is followed, we earn credibility. If the outcome was disappointing, hey, at least we followed a good plan. But traditional strategy and plans tend to work around, rather than embrace, risk. We work hard justifying the plan rather than facing the threats to the plan’s actual purpose. Traditional digital strategies also have been driven by customer research, audience analysis, and competitive insights. These are table stakes in the Age of the Customer, but they tend to lose sight of the humanity that has been abstracted by beautifully-illustrated customer journeys and personas with stock-photo head shots. Embedding Design Thinking into the strategist’s toolkit can develop the human-centered empathy to truly understand how our ideas, as well as our strategies and plans, are really working.

The Roadmap Warrior

If you’re imagining a dystopian wasteland ruled by rival gangs of former strategists and planners, please rest easy. Our experience mixing strategy and Design Thinking has been a balanced blend of both. Sometimes one informs the other, but the combination of approaches is extremely powerful. That dichotomy can be challenging for both agency and client cultures. We encourage teams that it’s ok to jump in and explore early. We equip teams to build quickly with less information than they are used to. We help them learn more, and do it sooner than they thought. We help teams to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Ultimately, we acknowledge that cultural change and team dynamics far outweigh the power of the tools we are using.

Qualitatively Quantitative

Design Thinking is not the answer to every problem. In fact, it is suffering from a bit of backlash because of this assertion. But agencies and clients are adapting it to handle the unpredictable, the unknown, and the seemingly unknowable. Emerging industry data is also proving out measurable improvements to project delivery, design defects and time-to-market directly correlated to Design Thinking.

When I was 15 I thought I knew everything. When I turned 30, I realized I knew nothing. That’s a 15-year roadmap and nobody has time for that.

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About the author: Jim Hertzfeld is the Principal for Strategy and Innovation for Perficient Digital. He works with clients to convert customer insights into actionable digital transformation, customer experience, and innovation strategies, primarily in the retail and consumer markets segments. He has worked with many, including Target, Honda, TJX and Luxottica. He is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. and got his start coding D&D character generators on the TRS-80 Model III.