Good strategy is about making the right decisions for the right reasons.
Good strategy is about making the right decisions at the right time. Sometimes that means being really explicit up front and narrowing the option space to drive towards a very specific future. Other times, it’s about leaving large parts of the option space open and enabling agility in the pursuit of a clear goal.
At Veriteer, we have a tendency towards the latter approach. Only set the critical elements of strategy in stone and leave as much wriggle room as possible for enroute innovation. As a result, principles feature heavily in our strategies.
Why are principles so useful?
Principles provide a framework for consistent decision-making. Rather than pre-determining every decision (which is largely impossible anyway), principles provide a useful tool for all protagonists to make consistent decisions in their part of the option space – ultimately driving forward in the right direction and allowing the collective to arrive at roughly the right destination without being micromanaged.
One outcome of our fascination with principles is that we felt obligated to define a set of (semi-serious) design principles for principles. In other words, what makes a good principle?
1. Principles should be directional, not dictatorial
A principle is a decision-making aid, not a rule. It should therefore focus on the why rather than the what. Let’s contrast: “no more than 10 systems” with “favour architectural simplicity”. The first is basically a rule that severely limits architects’ choices (e.g. even if additional systems are temporarily required to facilitate system consolidation), whilst the second gives direction, to which the architect can apply their own experience and expertise.
2. Principles should be outcome-focused
Let’s face it…pretty much everything should be outcome focused. And principles are no different. Let’s look at a classic: Keep It Simple Stupid. A brilliant, and universally applicable, principle that steers towards an outcome of radical simplicity. This not only steers the decisions that you make in your work, it also helps inform your view of the future state and is therefore a richer input than something that can only be applied in the moment.
3. Principles should make you think
Principles are meant to be applied by people who know what they're doing. They're not an excuse to switch your brain off. In fact, the best principles actively force decision makers to think about 'why' the principle exists. This will help connect the decision maker with the intent of the principle, rather than the wording - and hopefully make better decisions as a result. An example of this could be "decisions should be made in the best interests of the business". Instead of hard-coding a set of criteria into the principle, this forces the decision-maker to reflect on a wide range of factors in their decision-making.
4. Principles should be 'should be', should they?
This one may be taking things a little too far...but should principles be absolute? This principle goes further than principle 1, by suggesting that in some situations, the decision-maker should have the option of going against the principle. The nuance to this one is based on thinking from our MadeFor colleagues: that “inexperienced practitioners should follow the process, but that experienced practitioners can transcend the process”. Please don’t take the selectively applicable nature of this principle to heart…in reality principles should always be applied or what’s the point?!
5. Principles should be few
You’ll all have seen the same bot-generated clickbait promising “the best 216 principles for success”. Principles should be punchy…and ideally no more than 5 (or so…). I guess that means that we should stop now. 🙂
PS> Check out the wonderful Design Principles website.