Design awareness for business planning. by Jill Taylor 

We’ve all heard of ‘thinking outside of the box,’ in order to plan well. What if this model is not as effective as we imagine? Think of that old-fashioned toy called the Jack-in-the Box, where the little puppet jumps out all over the place. Instead, it may be more useful to truly step back from our project to develop an awareness of the thinking behind our thinking, and plan from there, planning from what we call design awareness.

The first step is to look at our biases. Dean Graziosi tells a story about selling cars with his father, an outgoing, talkative man, who would drill down on the features of cars that might appeal to the buyer. Dean, on the other hand, listened, taking note of the desires of the potential buyer. If he had a car for them, he sold it; if not, he directed them to a dealer down the street. This anecdote is not just about listening; rather, it’s an invitation to overturn a bias, to understand that the intention behind the sale is to serve. Cole Gordon also thinks differently about sales: a successful sale will not be the result of pressure or a pitch, which we might assume, but will actually close itself, thanks to a series of open-ended questions that serve the client. Once we step back from our biases and deepen our understanding of the intention behind our ‘why,’ we have a new spaciousness. Our planning strategies come less from pre-conceived ideas and orient more toward the future that is calling us.

Jill Taylor

To resist the impulse to solve one problem here and one problem there is to step still further back, to reflect on the ‘why’ of your company in an open-ended way, particularly the intention behind the ‘why.’ Tellingly, Business Roundtable, a non-profit lobbying group made up exclusively of CEOs, redefined the purpose of a corporation in 2019, shifting from increasing corporate profits for shareholders to a far more inclusive investment in people and communities. As the CEO of one of the most developed financial services in East and Central Africa, James Mwangi, says, “I no longer call it corporate social responsibility – I call it shared prosperity.” Once we’ve experienced the intention of shared prosperity behind the ‘why’ of financial services, a different kind of business planning will unfold, now from design awareness.

Following these models of overturning conventional wisdom, imagine if you were to think of your business strategy as a koan, something that cannot be answered by the rational mind. To shift not only your thinking, but also your level of thinking is necessary. Changing your structures of mind is implicated in widening the parameters of your thinking, and more importantly, your awareness. The best way to do this is to consider the executives and teams as designers. Perhaps you are uncovering a bias right away. You think, ‘I’m not creative. I have others to do that for me.’ Yes, and Jack-in-the-Box rears its head. Once the CEO develops mastery as a designer, the integrated whole is now available, where contradictions are both included and transcended.

As a CEO myself, I have come to see that we can’t afford to do more of the same. Research from a McKinsey & Company business survey challenges the status quo, saying that by 2026, 50 percent of our revenue will come from products and services or businesses that have not yet been created. We think we are addressing this future, yet we are not. The reason we get results that already we don’t want is due to poor design. How will we be able to respond to and shape the future if our planning continues as it has in the past? Just as an architect would not distribute the plans for building a house, putting one team in charge of the bedrooms, another the living room, a third team the roof, the CEO needs to become the chief designer, maintaining awareness at multiple levels, becoming skillful at dynamic inquiry and other facets of design awareness.

It helps me to work with koan practice, such as, ‘The empty sky has no front or back.’ We are present to this, not with the rational mind, but with our awareness. To sit with this koan gives me space in my awareness. And planning now will not be business as usual.

To develop design awareness for business planning, regularly schedule time to step back as a team. You could begin with a koan. What arises? Also, ask yourself, ’What is the highest intention behind our company’s ‘why.’’ And then, ‘What does the future call us to do to develop the uniqueness that is our business?’ Design awareness takes you into the heart of what matters.

Jill Taylor is Co-founder/CEO of three businesses, and has devoted her career to fostering unique methods of transformation for individuals, teams and companies. She co-founded The Taylor Group with her mother, Carolyn Taylor, at the forefront of wellness and leadership, helping clients understand the nature of the changes confronting them and how to become new inside those changes. Then as CEO of Burgerville, Jill helped the company navigate Covid with strategic flexibility while strengthening local economies by working with local farmers to the benefit of all. Together with Shelly Cooper and Daniel Goodenough, in 2023, Jill co-founded the HuPerson Project to transform a leader’s awareness and presence, and to open a new structure of thinking needed to navigate the world emerging. Jill’s changemaker spirit was recently recognized as one of Portland, Oregon’s most influential women by the Portland Business Journal.