Design Thinking and Leadership

Inspiration is a primary outcome for design thinking and leadership is the vehicle to deliver it.

In a previous post I mentioned an assertion by Bruce Mau that the principal outcome of design is inspiration: without it nothing goes forward.

Second to this is leadership. Leadership is the means of converting inspiration into action.

While leadership is often discussed as an idea within the design community, it receives scant attention in design education. Most designers have little idea how to practice leadership in ways that suit the design challenges tied to inspiration. Instead, much of what I see passing for leadership is really charisma. That might have a role to play, but it’s not leadership in itself.

Leading With Design

Designers fall into the same trap that academics and healthcare professionals fall into: that data (and logic) drive decisions. Certainly, this is a contributing factor, but design is largely a vehicle for innovationconverting learning into value — meaning that evidence is always in short supply. While we might know some of what goes into a decision — the science of materials, design qualities, and implementation strategies — the evidence for the innovation will lack the precision that some desire.

One example of leading with design is from Apple’s effort to re-define the music market with its early iPod and iTunes music platform. By many critics (and consumers’) assessments at the time, the Microsoft Zune was a superior product, yet it failed dramatically when it came to sales and sustainability. Where Apple succeeded was creating an ecosystem and provided leadership from top to bottom of the music experience chain. It’s what Spotify is doing now from a software and streaming perspective.

The now famous ‘1000 songs in your pocket‘ was the lead, the development of a line of hardware and software tools that brought those songs to life in a way that was accessible for more than a decade was where the leadership came in. Steve Jobs was at the head of that.

While Steve Jobs was charismatic, it was the many people behind him that contributed to the design leadership of Apple and they often remain unknown to outsiders. Great design leadership can exist in small organizations delivering services, local mom-and-pop retailers, restaurants, non-profits or multi-national conglomerates. To do this, you first need to exit the theatre.

Exiting the Theatre

Both in public events and private conversations, I’ve heard much said about how ‘design thinking’ becomes an exercise in leadership theatre. Senior leaders and their immediate teams attend design workshops, get excited, and then fail to do much else of true value to their organization because design is treated as an event, not something to nurture, systemically. Design Jams, Hackathons, Design Sprints, and other events organized around applying design thinking in practice are great at building excitement, but often fail to deliver truly useful, sustained products. There are many reasons for this — and I’d encourage reading Kevin Richard’s take on Design Sprints for one example of ways these approaches fail — but one of the biggest is that management does not embed design thinking in practice or provide the systemic supports for design thinking to flourish.

Consider the pathways through design thinking below:

Just as learning fails in bad systems, so does design thinking (in part, because it is a vehicle for transforming learning into value). If staff are given tools to design, yet little opportunity to frame problems, perform research, engage in sensemaking up front then design thinking will wind up being an exercise in marginal improvement without systemic change.

If, on the back end, staff aren’t trained in evaluation or given the freedom to observe, document and note limitations as well as successes, then the design will also fail to achieve anything substantive or sustainable. It will not evolve.

If design and design thinking cease to spark real change — even small ones – the feedback to staff, partners and other collaborators is that design thinking is a one-off thing and perhaps just an exercise in creativity and that’s it.

Sustainability and Impact

Recent research from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management has shown that co-designed protocols, policies and incentives can yield more positive work environments overall. This leads to improved performance and greater worker satisfaction and potentially more impactful work. Steven de Groot’s study of organizational aesthetics provides similar evidence for the role of codesign and design thinking to support healthier workplaces. This is where leadership and design comes into full force: creating healthier, more beautiful, and engaging workspaces for people.

In a time when many industries are up-ended, the need for innovation is high, and employment and job roles are more precarious than ever in recent memory, the need for strong leadership and practical, impactful solutions is enormous. Design thinking, in the right hands, can answer the charge.

Practical design thinking requires basic training and support from an orientation and training through to coaching implementation. If you’re ready to take this on and need help, contact me. This is what my team and I do.

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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