Let’s Talk About Strategy: What it is, Why it Matters and How to do it Well

Using real-world examples of successful discovery and strategy projects, Sophie Dennis explores a simple framework for understanding what makes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ strategy.

Sophie began by asking where the bulk of our work sits. Is it at a surface level, handling typography, colour, layout etc); are we doing more structural work looking at flows, service blue prints, wireframes etc; or are we at a strategy or big picture level.

Warm Up Exercise

Write down:

  • One thing that bugs you about “strategy”
  • One thing you hope to get out of this session
  • One question you’d like answered

Sophie believes strategy gets a bad reputation. Strategy is viewed as the easy bit – implementation is the real long, hard slog. She believes this is driven my a misconception about what strategy is, and as a result we are exposed to a lot of bad strategy.

Strategy should tell us:

  • Where are we going?
  • What will be different when we get there?
  • Where are we now?
  • How are we going to get from here to there?
  • What might stop us and how will we overcome that?

Good strategy helps us make decisions and gives us purpose. It helps us understand how our work fits into a larger whole. It also helps us to delegate control and decision making, and helps us become more agile.

However, we are plagued by bad strategy. Sophie has devised three tests for sensing if you are in the presence of bad strategy:

  • The “yeah, right” test
  • The “so what?” test
  • The “yes! and…?

Failing any of these tests means you don’t have a strategy. You might have a plan, a vision etc, but you don’t have a strategy, whatever you put on the title page.

Sophie described two of her pet hates: the Christmas Tree strategy, where everyone tries to hang their pet project on the strategy tree, and the Shiny Thing strategy, where the shiny thing is really a solution looking for a problem, rather than a strategy. Apps and digital transformation are common examples of “shiny thing” strategies.

Having established what makes a bad or non-strategy, Sophie defined what a strategy should actually do as:

Strategy is a coherent plan to achieve a goal that will lead to significant positive change.



Read through Kennedy’s moonshot speech and discuss:

  1. What is the concrete, tangible goal?
  2. What is the significant positive change Kennedy hopes achieving it will bring?
  3. What leads Kennedy to believe the goal is achievable?
  4. What are the most significant barriers to success?


    Sophie emphasised the difference between tactical solutions and strategic solutions, which tackles a number of problems at once.

    To develop a strategy, she suggested that we need to take three steps:

    • Diagnose the problem
    • Find the unifying idea
    • Craft a plan of attack

    Sophie argued that we often confuse strategy with vision. Strategy requires a really clear diagnosis of the problem. This is hard because it involves dealing with complexity. So much of what we do in UX is about simplifying reality into clear models, but when you are in the diagnosis phase you have to wade into the complexity. Sophie explained that we need get comfortable with the fog of uncertainty if we want to do strategy well. If we’re not comfortable with this, then we should stick to being really awesome at implementation, which is vital too!

    There is a further hidden danger in the diagnosis phase: problem escalation. We need to find the things where we can make a difference fastest, so don’t be afraid to start with something small. Be clear what your goal is so you can create an effective strategy to meet that goal.

    Sophie Dennis

    Sophie is a freelance consultant and coach. She helps organisations deliver better services to customers by putting user needs at the heart of their digital strategy, and also leads, coaches and mentors UX and agile teams. She’s led ambitious user research and discovery programmes, defined digital strategies for major public and third-sector organisations, and built high-performing teams able to deliver high-quality user-centred digital services at pace. Currently at NHS Digital, she has over 15 years’ experience working with multi-disciplinary teams on strategic content, design and development projects including Public Health England, Department for Work and Pensions, the National Trust, Land Registry, Bristol City Council, the University of Surrey, Jisc and the Office for National Statistics, and world-leading experience design agencies CX Partners and Nomensa.