Design matters – time for a new metaphor

Stock - Army Soldier Military
Business language, particularly innovation, tends towards the dangerous, aggressive and macho: ‘cutting’, ‘bleeding’, ‘breaking’, ‘attacking’, ‘warring’ and ‘killing’.

A client conversation has made Paul Stead reconsider the use of warfare and battle metaphors in the world of innovation, and ponders whether it’s time to ‘demobilise’ and move to a more peaceful, positive language.

Just before Christmas, a client asked us to ‘Sharpen our spear’, by which they meant help them penetrate a new emerging market opportunity. Over the past decade, this client has retained us to repackage ‘cutting-edge technology’, create ‘breakthrough thinking’, and establish ‘disruptive innovation war rooms’.

Dr Paul Stead - Brewery Group - Design MattersThe ‘spear’ conversation went further in terms of the corporate sales imperative – the client wanted a ‘sharper, client-killing machine’. This got me thinking, and the more I looked, the more I realised the language of business in general and innovation in particular tends towards the dangerous, aggressive and macho: ‘cutting’, ‘bleeding’, ‘breaking’, ‘attacking’, ‘warring’ and ‘killing’.

This is particularly true in the B2B environment, and while it is perhaps useful for some industries, fear messaging across all innovation sectors can create a very negative environment and add additional tensions. This may dissuade talented people from entering what appears to be a dangerous and rather depressing career choice.

With a more diverse workforce and the recognised importance of emotional intelligence, is this kind of language destructive and counter-productive – perhaps even obsolete? Is it time for a change of tone? I believe innovation should be a creative, high-energy and – above all – positive experience.

War and technology

There is a body of opinion – conventional wisdom even – which argues that the ‘war imperative’ has been a great stimulant to science and to the development of significant inventions, largely through forcing governments to invest heavily in R&D. This leads to developments in science and technology for military and civilian use, or so the argument goes.

But there has long been a body of dissenters from this view. Sir Henry Tizard, key wartime scientific advisor to Churchill and the great railway engineer Sir William Stanier both took a different view – despite being at the forefront of developing technologies for warfare.

The former said: “It is a mistake to suppose that science advances rapidly in a war. Certain branches of science may receive a special stimulus, but on the whole the advance of knowledge is slowed”.

While the latter noted: “Though war stimulates advances, it does so only in restricted fields. In other fields advance is brought almost to a halt, not merely ‘for the duration’ but for long afterwards. …during the war, the thoughts of many brilliant men had to be turned away from the creation of things beneficial to the human race and concentrated upon devising new means of destruction or new means of averting an enemy’s destructive intentions.”

And let us not forget it is not just the “thoughts of brilliant men” that are lost; it is lives and livelihoods too.

The choice of language

If we do subscribe to the argument that war drives invention, then we might wish to continue this metaphor in our design world in an attempt to create an environment that stimulates rapid peacetime innovation. However, if we are persuaded that in fact war is stifling of innovation, then we might want to ditch the aggressive vocabulary – while still retaining a sense of courage and urgency.

As a Harvard Business Review (HBR) study reported, strategy gurus frequently use analogies with battle plans for ‘competitive advantage’ versus the enemy. But as the HBR study argues, the metaphor is not suitable because business, unlike a war or battle, is not primarily about defeating an enemy.

Business is primarily about customer value: targeting customer groups and tailoring products, sales and other activities to serve those groups better than or differently to others. You don’t learn much about that from studying Caesar, Napoleon or Sun Tzu.

People conflate business strategy with the aggregation of Napoleon’s tactical plans at Waterloo, or Lee at Gettysburg. “Wait for the element of surprise” becomes double the R&D budget; “take the right flank” becomes increase production capacity; “provide air cover” becomes globalise; and “charge!” is a motivational sales meeting.

But studies show that a big problem with strategic planning processes is that the resulting strategy is a bland compilation of capital budgets that, in turn, are a compilation (not integration) of separate functional initiatives.

However, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Armies are not all about battle. Logistics, supply lines, discipline and motivation are all positive cultural attributes of a well-drilled military. And it is for these qualities that we turn to our forces in times of crisis – floods and storms for example.

Make customers, not war

So let’s demobilise and drop the battle metaphors. As the management consultant and educator Peter Drucker emphasised, “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.” That’s also the purpose of any business strategy: make customers, not war.

At strategy meetings, most executives spend too much time discussing competitors and not nearly enough time discussing customers. Companies rarely get blind-sided by their direct competitors. ‘Disruptive innovators’ are mostly substitutes, not current competitors, entering the business and finding alternative ways to solve customer problems.

So, what is strategy? It’s fundamentally the movement of an organisation from its present position to a desirable but inherently uncertain future position. The path from here to there is both analytical (a series of linked hypotheses about objectives in a market; where we do and don’t play among our opportunity spaces; and what this means for the customer value proposition, sales tasks, and other activities); and behavioural (the ongoing coordinated efforts of people who work in different functions, but who must align for effective strategy execution). And the trail always begins with customers.

Let’s recognise that language profoundly affects how people think and feel – and therefore behave. Let’s adopt more positive metaphors – ‘halo’ brands, ‘concept’ cars and ‘heroes’ – and recognise the lift that positive terms provide. And who knows? By changing the approach, we might set people free to create things beneficial to the good of society.