Left brain meets right in digital strategy – Deloitte’s DifferentbyDesign™ approach

Suits meet sneakers. Ties meet t-shirts. Strategists and artists. Data scientists and designers. What happens when you combine these skills for 6 weeks with a wicked problem to solve?


This is the second instalment on the Deloitte Australia Strategy Blog exploring Deloitte’s Digital DifferentbyDesign™ approach. In this post we outline what we mean by left and right brain thinking, why deliberately approaching digital strategy with left and right brain thinking is beneficial and, in our experience, what the challenges and rewards are in experimenting with this approach.

What is Left + Right brain thinking?

“It’s a whole of brain approach to solving problems” – Clare Harding (Monitor Deloitte)

The left brain is logical. The right brain is creative. Left brain analytics is valuable in business with a rich heritage in strategic thinking. Many strategy professionals pride themselves on having the answer before walking into a room, and this is a highly prized skill. Conversely, the right brain takes us beyond immediate answers and permits the creative freedom to design and test ideas rapidly, often delivering superior value at an impressive rate. Apple and Uber, for example, are case studies for combining right brain design with left brain rigour to create modern strategy success. This is not exclusive to digital strategy, but is particularly relevant as it instils discipline into a potentially varied and unstructured process.  All strategy design, not just digital strategy, can and should be influenced by this symbiotic approach.

Why is this approach best applied to Digital Strategy?

“Although in the last 10-15 years, digital has been focused on channel and customer experience through right brain design, and strategy has been left-brain analytical, increasingly we are seeing convergence.” – Frank Farrall (Deloitte Digital)

At the heart of digital strategy problems are the changing consumer, supplier, employee and citizen expectations that are shaping the way organisations connect with these important parties and create sustainable value. In order to define a set of strategic choices which relate to these groups and guide the digital initiatives and capabilities of an organisation, an analytical approach on its own will not suffice. Deeper understanding of the experience the customer, supplier, employee or citizen feels in interacting with an organisation requires a different way of thinking. Equally, a purely creative and design led approach may get you most of the way to understanding the desirability and feasibility of a choice.  However, without the concentrated analytical rigour to translate this into what it means financially and operationally, within a portfolio of options, the viability of the choices are often questioned and sometimes the ideas get shelved.

Ultimately, the combination leads to an outcome that is better for the organisation – one that could not be achieved with either strategy or design alone. In a context where digital disruption means companies must constantly be ready to adapt, this is essential. For instance, this allows us not only to analytically determine which products an online store should stock to ensure it is profitable, but simultaneously to design the shopping experience to enhance these selections.

What are the benefits?

“In our experience, a ‘whole of brain’ approach to digital strategy delivers faster time to value and better outcomes for clients.” – Frank Farrall

There are 3 major benefits to deliberately combining right and left brain thinking in developing digital strategy.

  1. Time to value

Design thinking means a strategist doesn’t have to spend so much time in isolation doing quantitative research followed by linear hypothesis testing.  It allows them to work collaboratively to develop a divergent set of ideas and then use prototyping and testing to refine an approach that leads more quickly to strategy execution.  Combined – organisations are able to quickly understand where to expend their energy in the search for value.

  1. Strategy baked in reality

Digital strategy development is, in our view, an inherently ‘human’ thing. Left and right brain approaches can lead to an outcome that creates an emotive response in the customer and is more likely to deliver the desired business outcome.  It lends itself to more realistic sets of strategic choices in the sense of choice definition (e.g. what is the option and what has to be true for it to be a good choice?) and also in terms of understanding choices in the portfolio of options. Putting customers, stakeholders, suppliers and employees at the heart of strategy design (in the techniques employed and in the focus of the digital strategy agenda) is the only way to ensure you will have a compelling strategic agenda.

  1. Exploring the unexplored

Finding the unmet need of a customer, supplier or employee often goes beyond the analytical.  Unexplored unmet needs are often based on emotive human needs that are driven by how people want to be perceived socially and addressing a life problem that is predictably irrational (i.e. tied to behavioural economics).  Marrying the traditionally analytical frameworks with creative design helps organisations explore concepts that are ‘new to the world’ and have disruptive potential.

What are the challenges?

If this sounds difficult and complex, it is. Clare Harding says that a left and right brain approach to strategy is “hard and uncomfortable. If it isn’t, you’re not doing it right.”

Typically, strategists will reverse engineer a problem, asking ‘what has to be true for this to be a good strategic choice?’, before drawing upon extensive analysis to prove or disprove their hypothesis. Conversely, designers seek to test, learn and prototype their way to a solution. They may both start and end at the same point, but take very different routes to arrive. Merging these two approaches can be a serious challenge for individuals, let alone an organisation.

Embracing Left+Right brain in practice

To truly harmonise left and right brain thinking, senior leaders need to understand it, get it and make it culturally ok. In most organisations, either left or right brain is king, and the other is marginalised. This is hard to change, and leaders need to set a balance and address gaps in the way their organisations approach strategy design. Over the last 5 years, Deloitte embraced design thinking across all service lines through the leadership of then CEO Giam Swiegers and current CEO Cindy Hook. We use a common language and are explicit about collaborating and using differing perspectives. This culture is founded on common respect. A strategist respects a designer’s rigorous design process, and a designer respects a strategist’s capacity for innovation. In time this becomes a fun process where participants come to teach others about their approach. This level of collaboration in strategy design is hard to scale in a large organisation but for Deloitte it’s a differentiator. Different by Design.


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