Reinventing Strategic Planning through Forward Design

Each year Signature i has a standing goal to learn or innovate a new methodology, tool or process to renew our practice. In 2011, we tackled a long-standing challenge for our clients—reinventing strategic planning to be a more robust and innovative process.

We merged our love of anticipatory learning with design thinking to craft a new approach we call Forward Design. We took the best of what has always worked with our clients and piloted some new elements with the permission of others who wanted a fresh approach.  Two national associations have now adopted Forward Design and we are now learning, evaluating and revising this new approach in the real world with association executives and volunteer leaders.


Forward Design is a systematic and creative process for exploring an organization’s current and future context, analyzing strategic issues and opportunities and inviting aspirations for design, and then using this learning to inspire innovative design solutions and prototypes for an organization’s future.   

The Forward Design cycle has four phases: exploration of current and future context; analysis and sensemaking; innovation and design; and direction setting.  The sequencing of the tasks can shift around to accommodate the culture, governance structure and schedules inherent in different associations. 

Exploration of Current and Future Context

  • Leadership framing—dialogue processes to discover aspirations and assumptions for the profession and association and maybe even challenge those assumptions
  • Alternative perspectives—probes for different thinking through dialogue with diverse, external or divergent stakeholders
  • Futures research—systematic search for patterns of significant change to forecast future conditions

Analysis & Sense making

  • Strategic issues and opportunities—assessment of strategic leadership opportunities for the organization
  • Design principles—expression of aspirations and desired outcomes that set the parameters for  what the profession or association should be designed to do
  • Change constraints & barriers—pragmatic recognition and acceptance of any limitations that must be addressed through design
  • Problem/Opportunity Statement—clarification and agreement on the focus for innovation and planning

Innovation & Design

  • Ideation of design solutions—processes to discover and brainstorm  innovative approaches to solve the problem or pursue the opportunity
  • Design prototypes—creative images that convey the future direction, structure and capabilities of an organization, program, product or service

Direction Setting

  • Desired outcomes—agreement on what an organization, program, product or service must  achieve
  • Strategic framework—statement of vision, mission and goals for an organization
  • Implementation decisions—next steps to execute the new direction and develop and pilot the prototype

Forward Design may not be right for the association that just needs an efficient way to update a strategic plan and already has volunteers deeply invested in traditional approaches. For those associations that need a way to renew their strategic planning and are completely open to big changes and innovative approaches, Forward Design may be the right mashup of proven practices and innovative thinking you need in 2012.