top of page
  • Writer's pictureMatt Arnold

In a Sea of Complexity, Organizations Must Remember to SWIM.

Peter Drucker famously said, "because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two--and only two--basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business."

Unfortunately, many enterprises struggle with prioritizing and delivering effective innovation and marketing programs. I agree with Drucker’s assessment and add that sensemaking and wayfinding are how we understand, share, and stabilize our systems to continuously innovate and market.

So, how do you create (and keep) customers in the age of experience? Remember to SWIM - sensemaking, wayfinding, innovating, and marketing. Organizations need to focus on their ability to effectively cultivate:

  • Sensemaking

  • Wayfinding

  • Innovation

  • Marketing


Sensemaking is what helps us translate the unknown, chaotic, and complex into something that can be understood, explained, and drive shared action. When needing to act within a complex adaptive system teams and networks need to:

  • Explore a wider system

  • Create a map of that system

  • Act in the system, to learn from it


Sensemaking pairs with wayfinding to drive coordinated action. Wayfinding is the process that helps one orient their route -- where they are and where they need to go.

Early in my UX career, I saw that the majority of user error and frustration on websites was due to poor wayfinding affordance. I now believe that the lack of good wayfinding and affordance is the root cause of most errors and frustration in real life across all channels. Wayfinding isn’t limited to labels on a website or signs in a physical environment. Wayfinding helps the actors in your ecosystem know where they are and where the need to go next. You don’t have to have the entire journey laid out, you simply need to keep making progress. Good wayfinding communication will reduce uncertainty, manage expectations, and provide direction.


When your enterprise is innovating, you’re breathing new life into the organization. Innovation needs to be a part of your business operations. You innovation programs should be intentional and can take many forms. However, it’s critical that your program fits within the culture or context of your business goals. Innovation can be based on customer needs and goals, market trends and directions, or new technologies. Your innovation can focus on continuous improvement; simple extensions of new features or into new markets; or it could be breakthrough game changers.


Extending Drucker’s quote on the role of business, “ and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.” Understanding how your offer is unique is critical. Drucker further explains the importance of this function “the aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits (them) and sells itself.”

Most marketing efforts are not grounded in customer understanding. Don’t skip research. Customer understanding is essential to tell a credible and meaningful story. Customer understanding will improve your signal to noise ratio when communicating with the marketplace. While customer goals provide stable design targets, customer expectations continue to evolve and you need to understand how they are creating value in their life. Customer insights and understanding will make it easier to tell your story and avoid random acts of marketing that can confuse and frustrate customers.

Effective marketing and branding convey the symbolic identity of your organization and help stakeholders and constituents derive meaning, motive, emotion, and identity from their relationship with your enterprise.

Your marketing messages should continuously and effectively address three questions:

  • What is unique or distinguishing?

  • How do we make that distinguishing proposition real for our stakeholders?

  • Is this a profitable place to play

Just Keep Swimming

Image of Dory, the blue tang from Disney Pixar's "Finding Nemo"
Dory, the Blue Tang, from Pixar's "Finding Nemo."

Like Dori, the Blue Tang from Pixar’s Finding Nemo, “just keep swimming.” This is how Dori continued to make progress -- she had a simple rule that helped her make sense of the complex.

Because complex adaptive systems don’t yield to previous best practices, it is important to have a few simple rules. In this case, the SWIM framework will assist in reducing risk and driving growth in the experience economy. SWIM will help you:

  • Understand and explain the situation (sensemaking)

  • Align and coordinate action (wayfinding)

  • Extend the life of your enterprise (innovating)

  • Tell a compelling and credible narrative that engages your constituents (marketing)

When you find your team struggling with complex collaboration, check your SWIM form and ask yourself:

  • Are you contributing to sensemaking and wayfinding? Providing explanations and direction.

  • Are you innovating and marketing?Focused on the true functions related to creating and keeping customers.

SWIM Lessons?

Does your company need to learn how to SWIM or simply improve its form? Spark can help. Contact us today to reduce risk and drive growth -- we'd love to help you SWIM and succeed .


bottom of page