Leading As Design And By Design

Learning takes our exposure to new things and transforms our thoughts and actions. How we do this is – and whether its done well — is where design comes in.

Our learning is framed by where we are and where we want to go. The volume of content available to people puts attention at a premium, so we are more likely to pay attention to things that are relevant and fit our identity and our planned future.

This is where leadership comes in. Leaders focus people’s attention on a direction and help them get there from here. It’s the connective tissue between where we are where we’re going. Leadership is really strategic design with a specific focus.

When done well, leadership requires we understand where we are (the situation), where we’ve been (history and past experience), what relationships are in place (the context, system), what we have to work with (the resources available), and the goals (the direction). All of these are design issues.

Leadership put into action is about creating the conditions in which these issues can be dealt with and communicated.

Designing Leadership

The approach to good leadership by design isn’t complicated.

You take the same set of steps that we find in things like the Design Helix. Begin by imaging what is possible and take the steps to produce it in practice. As the model implies, it’s a weaving of perception, research, testing and prototyping, tinkering and evolution.

This model of leadership goes against most of what we see in the popular literature. Leadership, using MBA-speak (with apologies to those with MBAs) is usually more heroic.

But, as noted in the Harvard Business Review, the dominant model isn’t working with three main gaps:

There are three main reasons for the disjointed state of leadership development. The first is a gap in motivations. Organizations invest in executive development for their own long-term good, but individuals participate in order to enhance their skills and advance their careers, and they don’t necessarily remain with the employers who’ve paid for their training. The second is the gap between the skills that executive development programs build and those that firms require—particularly the interpersonal skills essential to thriving in today’s flat, networked, increasingly collaborative organizations. Traditional providers bring deep expertise in teaching cognitive skills and measuring their development, but they are far less experienced in teaching people how to communicate and work with one another effectively. The third reason is the skills transfer gap.

Mihnea Moldoveanu and Das Narayandas, Harvard Business Review (2019)

If we were to take a design-oriented approach, we would uncover the different motivations, a match between what we have available and what our design is meant to be, and developed a theory of action that would explain how leadership would develop over time.

Thinking like a designer, we can start to create leadership that is fit for purpose for all involved – leaders, followers, and the organizations that support both of them.

Image credit: Cameron Norman

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: