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Strategic decision-making in creative contexts
Research
Ethnography
Strategy Analysis
Client Doctoral research at London College of Communication & Westminster Business School London
Date October 2011 - September 2017

Challenge

One of the key criteria for success in the design industry is to foster a innovative and creative culture. Such creative culture can be achieved by restricting management and giving power to individuals to create an autonomous workforce. When individuals have the freedom to act as they see fit, it enhances their creative capabilities.

While such measures of autonomy bolsters creativity, they conflict with traditional notions of running a business. Risk-aversion, top-down management and long-term strategic planning are often considered as the key ingredients for the long term survival of the firm. Therefore, running an innovative business requires to balance between letting go and implementing a strategic vision that ensures the long term survival of the business.

This is the inevitable dilemma for managers of design firms; balancing between "unmanagement" and management, between strategic intent and strategic emergence. These conflicting goals are problematic to address with traditional strategic management models. Yet there are plenty of examples of successful innovative businesses. Do they use different tools? Do they have alternative perceptions of strategic management? How do they manage coherence without formal hierarchies? These are some of the questions I address in my thesis.

Traditional vs. Design firm's strategy development process

In my doctoral research, I addressed this gap in knowledge by answering the question: How does business strategy emerge in digital design firms?*

Process

First, I immersed myself in the digital design and digital marketing industry. By interviewing (in person) founders and CEOs of these types of firms in Germany, Netherlands, UK, Denmark and the US, I explored the key challenges managers face.
Based on these insights, I narrowed my focus to a single organization to study strategy emergence in depth. By adopting an ethnographic approach, I analysed strategic decision-making at a medium-sized global digital design firm over a period of two years.
Through in-depth interviews with the decision-makers, close observation and video recording of meetings and daily studio life, analysis of financial and other communication documentation, I reconstructed a decision-process narrative from various individual perspectives. Based on the assumption that there is no absolute truth of the social, I interpolated the various perspectives of individuals in a decision-making narrative process diagram (see illustration below) to arrive at a balanced perspective.

Decision-making process narrative mapping

This enabled me to reconstruct networks of actors that influence the decision-making processes over time.

Outcome

My research provided empirical evidence on how strategy emerges in a digital design firm.

More specifically, my research provided four key contributions:

  1. A detailed ethnographic account of how the dissemination of culture through the development of (internal) branding, online blogs, artefacts, influence the strategic decision-making process.
  2. Insight how managers of creative firms can utilise the power of culture and identity in shaping an autonomous workforce that concurrently adheres to an overall strategic vision.
  3. A methodological blueprint to study how culture, identity and technology influence decision-making

Thesis argument map

For a detailed report on my findings get in touch or see the paper section.

* More specifically, I posed the research question: how does identity, culture and technology influence how top-management team make strategic decisions in digital design businesses?