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  • Writer's pictureBill Fischer

The Canvas Revolution

This post first appeared on on May 31, 2024

The recent announcement, by Thinkers50, recognizing Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur’s Business Model Generation as a “management classic,” was also a well-deserved acknowledgement of how much leadership style has moved from believing that senior management has all of the answers, to appreciating how much more powerful having good questions can be for leadership success. As a result of its widespread adoption, Business Model Generation has literally changed the way we think about innovation; broadening the scope of value-propositions available, and moving such conversations deeper into the organization; while also reducing the power of intellectual property, and scientific and engineering assets, as barriers to entry in many industries.

Much of the management literature of the second-half of the twentieth century was characterized by a spirit of optimization, where answers were the goal, complimented by a belief that anything and everything could be quantified and, ultimately, optimized. Linear programming, Monte Carlo simulations, queuing theory, lot-sizing and order point reordering; the list went on and on, and the influence of optimization was impressive. We saw it in our leaders as well; Jack Welch even tried to optimize a conglomerate, at General Electric; although he would never have used that term.

Today, we are told that good questions can be better than answers. Hal Gregersen has written a book entitled “Questions Are The Answer,”which certainly reverses the traditional relationship, and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg has suggested that the key to getting better answers is not to accept questions as they are, but to reframe the questions that we are trying to address, before we search for answers. Albert Einstein is endlessly quoted as saying “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions,” and, along the way, E.E. Cummings is often cited as observing: “Always the beautiful answer / who asks a more beautiful question.”

What, you might ask, is a “beautiful question”? Journalist Warren Berger, who has written a book about this, suggests that “a beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.” If questions are more important than answers, what we are looking for is an approach, or methodology, that helps us reframe, to use Wendell-Wedellsborg’s term, challenging leadership situations into an easier and more powerful manner. Fortunately, we live in a time when such approaches are receiving a lot more attention, specifically in the form of what is popularly termed “canvases.”

The Business Model Canvas as a new approach

What Osterwalder and Pigneur have given us with their “canvas” approach is a tool that alters leadership’s traditional reliance on decision-making into an approach that is more design-based. Osterwalder suggests that “canvases are tools that allow you to design options before deciding which one is best, which is philosophically different from decision-making’s traditional preference for choosing among existing options.” By using canvases, and adopting a design attitude, leadership opens itself up to welcoming more, rather than fewer, choices; and more, rather than fewer, co-creators participating in the choosing. This design attitude is supported by several key attributes of the business model canvas:

·       It was very early in employing visual- and design-thinking to engage the manager-reader. The book was, and remains, distinctive, simply by its format. This is key to making its arguments easily accessible to a multitude of possible audiences; thereby enlarging the candidate field of those who are better equipped to participate in such activities.

·       It provides a common vocabulary, and framework, for turning an age-old meme into an analytical approach to innovation and strategic decision-making, and insists on precision rather than abstractness or casual responses, to generate better choices. For the first time, we now all know what someone is talking about whenever they use the term “business model.”

·       As with all good frameworks, it asks questions, rather than giving answers.

·       By its very architecture, it turns business models into coherent stories that can be made, or unmade [disrupted], depending upon their authors’ intentions.

·       It democratizes business model development, by inviting co-creation; by its layout, architecture and visibility.

·       As the logic of the business model canvas demands more granular data in determining target market segments and value-propositions, pushing the modeling deeper down in an organization, closer to the ultimate user, it also creates persuasive arguments to question the hierarchical integrity of large, complex, bureaucratic organizations.

These are important distinctions, as they serve to distinguish “canvases” from more traditional, and more static, frameworks.


Antecedents of Canvases

The management literature has a long history of employing strategic frameworks, to help clarify what would otherwise be complex decision-making situations. Some of these frameworks have become quite famous, in their own right, such as: Michael Porter’s Five Forces industry analysis; BCG’s matrix approach to strategic portfolio decisions; and Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Scorecard, all of which purport to aid decision-makers in making strategic choices. At various times, these frameworks have occupied significant content within the business press, and have anchored MBA programs, around the world; but are these actually canvases, or antecedents to canvases?

Business Model Canvas co-creator, Alex Osterwalder, has mentioned that the term “canvas” was deliberately employed to evoke the image of an artist’s canvas, where trial and error ruled [not optimization], and where, in some cases, several artists and observers would be invited in to add their insights to the business model being created. The term “canvas” was also seen as recognizing that the more participants involved in a strategic process, the better; and, as with a tablet, the layout and architecture of the canvas was intrinsically inviting to participation by others. In fact, co-canvas-creator Yves Pigneur refers to canvases as “visual inquiry tools,” a term that captures both the design and experimental intentions of their form and application.

The adoption of a design attitude for leadership in business-model development is a powerful piece of the canvas’ value-add. In the early days of its inception, Osterwalder and Pigneur were “inspired by the book Managing as Designingwhich discusses the experiences of the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, as they worked with architect Frank Gehry in the designing of their new building.” In brief, the editors of the book, Richard Boland & Fred Collopy, who were on the faculty of the Weatherhead School at the time, strove to understand the surprising behaviors of the design team which ultimately led to better solutions being generated than those which had relied upon conventional analysis and a traditional “decision attitude,” and which had been considered satisfactory prior to the design process, which was characterized by a “design attitude.” Osterwalder and Pigneur set-out to create a similar outcome for leaders facing business-model opportunities.

In addition, apart from precision and coherence, the business model canvas has no implicit predilection towards better or worse choices. The business model canvas is purposely outcome-neutral, allowing many as many possible proposals to arise, as there are proposal suggestions. None of the purported antecedents of canvases, as renowned as they are, or were, come close to a canvas in terms of inviting multiple contributors in, or resulting in as many possible outcomes. This reliance upon the power of diverse contributions is part of the canvas’ magic; it as much about how it is used, as about the outcomes it produces.

Futhermore, the suggested antecedent frameworks, cited above, are all relatively static in their application, and aimed at achieving answers, rather than questions. A true canvas, in contrast, anticipates dynamism through the expectation of continuous experimentation. All in all, not to detract from their own usefulness, it appears clear that canvases are really a distinctly different species of managerial tool from those frameworks used so frequently in the recent past.

Additional Canvas Extensions

The likely impact of the business model canvas approach, going forward, can be seen in the recent creation of many different alternative, and complimentary, canvas applications. Strategyzer, the site of the original business model canvas, has continued to publish additional canvases for such applications as: non-commercial mission models; value-proposition crafting; corporate strategic planning; and for teams and experimentation. In addition, there are other canvas-crafters, inspired by the business model canvas, and the Weatherhead School experiences, who are also exploring very interesting applications. Two, who are particularly noteworthy, are:

·       Christian Rangen’s StrategyTools’ suite of more than 450 canvases, ranging from corporate business models to ecosystem development, and from angel investment to venture capital strategy. These canvases are refreshed and redesigned in collaboration with an ecosystem of more than 150 consulting partners who share insights and help co-create new canvases for applications.

Building on visual-thinking approaches, the company has also developed seven visual strategy simulations, which are in use by business schools and companies globally. StrategyTools has been quite generous in acknowledging the roots of its work, and runs courses for both clients and interested observers. StrategyTools’ canvas-based simulations are provocative ways of generating the questions, and possible new solutions, necessary to move organizations into an unknown future.


·       Boundaryless’ Simone Cicero describes the essence of their canvas design as “it’s not about the canvases, it’s all about the conversation.” Boundaryless has undertaken to develop canvases addressing, first, the design of platform-product strategies, and, later, the achievement of reduced bureaucracy, and increased business unit autonomy, as well as interpretations of Haier’s RenDanHeYi philosophy. The Boundaryless toolkits - which started as an evolution of the Business Model Canvas into a Platform Design Toolkit a decade ago - have later extended the future of organizing with their 3EO Toolkit, a set of canvases, originally referred to as the “entrepreneurial ecosystem enabling organization,” which emphasize the managerial choices possible for the unleashing increased entrepreneurial energies within an organzation that can power platform-ecosystem strategies.

Boundaryless has assembled a sizable community of practitioners and designers, and maintains an active, and public, on-line conversation regarding the issues it is pursuing and the approaches that it is engaged in. It’s recent Manifesto for the Platform Organization, provides a statement of beliefs and design principles that summarize how Boundaryless sees its mission in “future-proofing platform organizations that can thrive through the challenges of 21st-century markets.”

The Future of the Canvas Revolution

Imagine a leadership model based upon questions rather than answers, and co-creation rather than top-down directives. This is so far away from our leadership legacy, born out of the twentieth century, that the Drucker Forum has launched a five- year effort to redefine what management will look like “next.” As Drucker Forum founder and director, Richard Straub, has recently written, “ the management we have inherited from the past was devised for a world of atoms and not bits, and a time when most people labored with their bodies more than their minds…” raising the question of “could it possibly be that the social technology of management as it currently exists—as mainly a set of practices and tools describing what worked best in twentieth-century corporations—could serve as well in a twenty-first-century context? Surely too much has changed all around it, as the discipline itself has changed too little”.

The Canvas Revolution is responding to Straub’s search for what Next Leadership might look like, by emphasizing a design-attitude approach to leadership style. Support for this approach is rooted in the thoughts of Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, who included business, along with engineering, medicine, architecture and painting, as activities “concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent – not with how things are, but how they might be – in short with design.” Boland & Collopy gave such leadership style the title “form-giver,” reflecting the belief that “the manager’s professional responsibility is not to discover the laws of the universe, but to act responsibly in the world to transform existing situations into more preferred ones.”

What the canvas revolution, launched by the now-classic Business Model Generation, is teaching us is that next-generation leadership will be a search for better questions and prompts, rather than the confirming of directive solutions; it will involve co-creation, early and often, between insiders and outsiders, and between top and bottom; it will be explicitly built for experimentation; and it will focus as much on ecosystems as it does on business units. The canvas revolution is also all about conveying design-attitude messages in practice as well as in preaching. Canvases, by their use, convey all of these messages viscerally, through direct inclusion and participation, and as difficult as it is to convince managers, senior executives, stakeholders, and business students that questions are better than answers, in an unknown future that is the only logical outcome. Get ready for a world where “knowledge management” involves idea-hunting, co-creation and curating, rather than building knowledge stocks or pretending to know everything.

The author wishes to thank Alex Osterwalder, Chris Rangen and Simone Cicero for their their very generous help in explaining their canvas approaches, and also the stories behind them. Unattributed quotations come from private conversations between the author and canvas designers. The author has employed the canvases of each of these canvas-designers, both in class and in consulting projects. All errors remain the author’s.

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1 comentario

José Antonio Vanderhorst-Silverio
José Antonio Vanderhorst-Silverio
14 jun

Dear Bill. I replied to Alex post on LinkedIn as seen on the shared image. I replied to your post on X/Twitter. Then I sent a comment on LinkedIn.

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