New Activating Strategy Course Q&A

Iain Roberts, an instructor of Activating Strategy, with the text: Open House, New Activating Strategy Course Q&A.


Are you confident in your organization’s ability to implement strategy? Are the strategic goals and priorities clear to you and your team? Are you making the right strategic choices?

Strategy is human-centered, tangible, interconnected, and iterative. It's about choosing where to spend your resources and where not to—essentially placing a bet on the future. But many organizations and teams fall into the trap of spreading themselves too thin for fear of making the wrong choice. Using a human-centered approach to strategy can help you create a strategy that people understand, support, and can take action on.

Watch our interview with Activating Strategy instructor, IDEO COO Iain Roberts, or read the transcript below to learn about the course, get tips on how to activate your strategy, and understand what it’s like to take an IDEO U course.



Activating Strategy: New Course Q&A


How We Think About Strategy


How IDEO U Courses Work


Activating Strategy: New Course Q&A


What is Activating Strategy about?

This course is about fundamentally bringing strategy to life. What does that mean? For me, that means three real things.

  1. Activating strategic intent inside your organization. Strategy is useless if it only exists as plans on paper or Google Docs. Activating people in an organization in pursuit of better choice making is key to what this course is about. All of those individual choices we make on a day-to-day basis inside of our organizations add up to the strategic intent of an organization, whether or not it's what's written in that binder or not.
  2. Turning theory into practice. The big consulting organizations look at spreadsheets and data from the past and try to figure out what that means for the future. What we think at IDEO U is that the act of strategy is about making clear choices about what you want the future to look like, and in order to do that you have to put theory into practice. You have to imagine new possibilities and start to ask the questions of what would have to be true for that possibility to make sense and be a winning choice for the organization.
  3. Building capabilities in the organization. We can have all the strategic intent in the world, but if we don't start to build the capabilities and the management systems that allow us to make new choices and progress in new directions, then it will all be for nothing. So it’s about starting to think about what the capabilities are in those management systems that need to be put in place to allow an organization to not just think differently and imagine different possibilities, but to fundamentally do differently make progress.




Who is Activating Strategy for?

There could be a misconception that strategy is only for the people who set strategy. Often somebody else has set the strategy and we as leaders and individuals are tasked with actually executing upon it. But the reality is we all live and operate in organizations that are trying to move forward in pursuit of a set of goals. So the very simple answer is that this course is for everybody involved in bringing an organization's strategy to life—which includes every person in an organization.

Fundamentally we're asking this question of, how can you understand and execute what is within your control? It’s about how the corporate strategy might relate to your part of the business, the bit that you hold accountability for, because it's within that part of accountability that actually you do have decision space. You do have the ability to make choices in pursuit of the corporate goals in the organization.



What is the unique differentiator for strategy done with design thinking as a foundation versus a traditional management consulting strategy process?

One of the superpowers of design thinking and human-centered design is the ability to imagine future possibilities and then to build prototypes so that we can better understand them. In the context of strategic intent, it’s about how we're going to compete and progress. I believe any strategy that isn't imagining future possibilities is just looking in the rearview mirror.

Using design allows us to not just look at what has been in the past to make analytical, rigorous choices about the future, but also imagine future possibilities and build those possibilities in order to generate new data and new evidence around what the future could look like. Design as a practice brings strategy to life to make it testable and experienceable so that we can create greater confidence and courage about the choices that we might need to make. It's very future-oriented as opposed to analytical and past-oriented.




How is Activating Strategy different from Designing Strategy?

In Designing Strategy, you learn how to surface the bigger challenges that you're facing. It’s about identifying what those strategic options are up front and applying a human-centered, customer-centric strategy process to help you make those winning choices.

In Activating Strategy, you're learning how to then activate those choices by engaging stakeholders and building a shared understanding and creating the conditions to make sure you can win with the choices you've made. Activating Strategy has been designed to complement Designing Strategy. We have a certificate program called Human-Centered Strategy that allows you to take both, and we recommend that you take Designing Strategy first.


“All of those individual choices we make on a day-to-day basis inside of our organizations add up to the strategic intent of an organization.”
Iain Roberts



Often strategy is created at the top of the organization. Will Activating Strategy touch upon how the corporate strategy can be cascaded to lower-level roles?

Absolutely. Strategy is often set at the top, but we don't want it to then just be a waterfall of execution. If that’s the case, you’re not building learning loops into the organization to understand how change is required in the organization to create future progress.

Most of us are in organizations where there is a corporate strategy that we live within. But let's take the example of a Chief Talent Officer working in an organization. There's a corporate strategy, and then the Chief Talent Officer has to ask, how is our talent strategy delivering upon the corporate strategy?

We talk about how each individual can understand their role in an organization, the purpose of the team that they're leading, and how the choices that they can make in and around their team can activate part of the corporate strategy in a cascaded manner.



How much does Activating Strategy prepare you to be the facilitator of strategy discussions versus give you best practices to be successful?

It's a little bit of both. I believe the idea of being a facilitator is key to being able to lead strategically in an organization. Participation of stakeholders, subject matter experts, and the people who are going to actually be able to move ideas forward is absolutely key. So your role as a leader to facilitate conversation and participation is critical, and we share a number of different frameworks and techniques to think about how to excel in that role.

But it’s also about setting you up for success as a leader in the thinking side of this, to have that rigor in thinking and best practices as well as facilitating others participating in the process. It's a balance between the two.


How We Think About Strategy



What do you mean when you say strategy?

Strategy for me is the act of making choices, the hard decisions about where you are going to put your resources (on certain bets) and where you're gonna deemphasize your resources (on the things that are not as important for you to make progress towards your goals).

There are a lot of misconceptions around strategy. One is that executives are the people who set strategy and everyone else executes strategy. I think about strategy being something that an entire organization should participate in. For me, anything that is set at the top and then intended to be executed by other people without their participation is not destined for success.

The second thing is that strategy is often thought about as this thing that we come back to every year. It's only in the middle of strategy season when organizations are asking that question. Strategy is not just this big long-term planning exercise, but it's also this ability to consistently learn about what the future will look like, set experiments to move towards that goal, and bring intentional decision making into the way that teams run on a day-to-day, week-to-week, or month-to-month basis.

The last thing for me when I talk about strategy is that at the end of the day, people bring it to life. The employees of an organization or of a community are really the vessel by which strategy becomes real. It's not a theoretical exercise with a set of frameworks and a spreadsheet. It's actually a set of clear choices, a clear set of provocations around what the future will look like, and then the rigor and intent behind that to have an organization begin to line up and begin to all march in a direction. 


“The act of strategy is about making clear choices about what you want the future to look like.”
Iain Roberts



What do you think is the key to a successful or effective strategy?

First and foremost, it's a balance of rigorous thinking with practical doing. It’s the ability to imagine what the future will look like and the ability to begin to create some prototypes or tests that will allow us to understand if that hypothesis about the future is accurate, through feedback and data.

The second is actually that in addition to activated people, we need process. We need to be able to bring together processes and people so that everybody understands what is being asked of them, what their roles and responsibilities are, where they are in the process, and how they can begin to see their own participation shaping that strategy. It’s people understanding that their thumbprint has been left on the strategic intent of the organization.

The last thing comes down to communication, concrete action plans, and building conviction and belief in a group of people that the choices we're making and the direction that it sets is actually worthwhile. So again, bringing together thinking and doing, process and people, and belief and conviction in the future that we're trying to create.



What's the relation between strategic intent and building capabilities for change? Do they both concern the organization and culture?

Yes. We engage in strategy because we're trying to accomplish things that we aren't doing today. We are trying to compete in a marketplace or deliver against an ambitious set of goals that we're looking to accomplish out in the world. Generally speaking, that kind of thinking requires organizations to take on the question of, how do I do new things? How do I do things differently than I do today so that I can continue to compete?

That's where capabilities come in. We talk about this in the course, but it’s this idea that doing new things requires us all to stare at our organizations and ask the fundamental question of, where are we weak? Where are we strong? Where might we need to build new capabilities that will allow us to catalyze a new direction, compete in a new marketplace, and build a new product?

Those two things are intrinsically linked. It's the lack of focus on new capability building or new management system building that often gets in the way of translating great strategy into an activated strategy that creates progress for an organization.


How IDEO U Courses Work



How do IDEO U courses work?

IDEO U is IDEO's learning center. We offer online courses that are designed to equip you with the skills, mindsets, and tools to help you stay relevant and adaptive in a modern world. We offer three types of courses: self-paced courses, cohort courses, and certificate programs. Cohort courses are five weeks long and require around four hours of course work per week. Courses are taught by subject matter experts who have led thousands of projects across industries and around the globe.

What's great about the cohort course experience is that while you'll be learning alongside a global community of learners, you'll still have the flexibility to work at the pace that fits your own schedule. There aren’t mandatory live components, so you don't have to worry about having to log in at a specific time. At the same time, you'll have access to a teaching team, which is composed of experts in the field who are there to provide you feedback, and there are also plenty of options to connect with your fellow learners. I'd say it has the best of both worlds in terms of the flexibility and collaborative components.



What are the pros and cons of taking a course that is new for IDEO U?

We have one to two new courses every year, so we have new courses coming out all the time. You'll be the first people to see this course come to life, which is always exciting. We're always excited to hear your feedback, and the course will evolve with your suggestions and ideas.

A con could be that with our courses, and especially with this new course, there's an emphasis on doing. These are new activities and new workbooks, so we’ll be pushing you to a place of discomfort, which may be different from other learning experiences.

Chart with four quadrants: see, try, reflect, and share.

IDEO U’s learning experience includes seeing, trying, reflecting, and sharing.




What is the role of the instructor? Will learners be able to get feedback?

Course instructors have a strong presence in the courses through the course videos, but they're not actively providing feedback or holding direct conversations with our learners. We have a teaching team to ensure that you have the feedback, guidance, and support you need to learn successfully in your course. Our teaching team members are design practitioners that have experience applying course methods and mindsets in a wide variety of contexts around the world.



Who will the teaching assistants be, and how are they trained?

Our teaching team consists of teaching leads and teaching assistants, who are experts in their fields. Many of them have been with IDEO U for many years, and we have selected those who have direct experience with applying the course methods and mindsets in all sorts of contexts around the world. They’ve all been going through multiple training sessions by our instructional designers on not only on the subject matter, but also on how to create safe and collaborative learning experiences and environments.



What are Community Conversations, and how are they related to the course material?

Community Conversations are one-hour live video conversations hosted by the teaching team on Zoom. These happen once per week, with each one having two to three time options to accommodate different time zones. Each week focuses on the lesson that you’ve just gone through, so the output and the content depend on the specific lessons. You'll have the opportunity if you work together with your peers on the tools and mindsets from the course, reflect on what you’ve learned, and also address any challenges that you might be going through.


About The Speaker

Iain Roberts
Partner and COO at IDEO & Instructor at IDEO U

As COO of IDEO, Iain helps the company navigate organizational complexity and works to give designers the creative agency to make a positive impact in the world. Throughout his tenure at IDEO, Iain has led multiple design practices and stewarded some of IDEO’s largest relationships with Fortune 100 companies. He holds a master’s degree in industrial design engineering from the Royal College of Art and a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Southampton University.


If you want to learn more about how to activate your own strategy, check out our course Activating Strategy, taught by Iain Roberts and Jennifer Riel.

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