How To Be A Great Manager

29 Dec

The Role (and Value) of a Manager – A manager is the key position in any company and their performance is the foundation for any truly high performing team of employees. Therefore, front-line managers are the most important role-based employee in any company. Call them supervisors, managers, whatever you want. Your employees who are responsible for the day-to-day task execution of your business by leading a team of other associates are the oxygen on which any company depends. From now on, I’ll just refer to them as managers for simplicity.

Over fifty years of research has proven time and time again that the key to higher organizational performance depends on the manager leading great teams. Having great employees on that team, making sure they have adequate resources, and having a solid business strategy are all important and necessary. However, what I’m talking about here is truly differentiated performance. If you want your company performing at that next level, you have to have high performing teams … and to have high performing teams, you MUST have great managers.

The Golden Rules – While not debated and thoroughly researched for decades, the value of great managers has never led to clear and concise guidance for actual managers. Literally tens of thousands of research studies and thousands of books have led to a confusing mess of guidance. Luckily, the key to great management is actually pretty simple.

Great mangers are critical but what does it mean to be a great manager? When looking at managers and all that has been written about them, you can quickly surmise a few golden rules, if you will, for being a great manager leading high performing teams. I’ll save you about five years of research and ten years of reading and summarize these rules for you:

  1. Great managers have a bond with their teams built on trust
  2. Great managers are clear in their guidance to the team
  3. Great managers are constantly zoned in on their team’s performance

Well … that’s about it. Yes, half a century of study and research, writing and pontificating, consulting and preaching all boils down to these three basic rules. I’m no genius but this is what I’ve found in the nearly fifteen years of self-study and academic pursuits. Additionally, I’ve got fifteen years of on-the-job experience as both a front-line manager and learning and development professional directly responsible for creating great managers. I do have some credibility on the subject but if you want, go look for yourself. However, all those management books at the airport and HBR articles you download for free usually get down to these three basic elements.

The One True Goal – While I just outlined three golden rules for great management, I think I can reduce that list to just one item … or one goal. That’s right. One simple activity any manager can do to be better. One target for any manager to shoot for that will lead to better team performance:

  1. Great managers coach their teams every single day

A manager must be the personal coach of their team members. All of them. At a personal level. On a daily basis. A great manager must create one-on-one relationships with their team members, they must know them as a person first, and they must build that necessary trusting relationship with the team member. A great manager must understand what the team member’s role is on the team, know what the team member should be focused on, and be able to communicate that goal to the associate. Finally, a great manager must constantly monitor that team member’s performance providing support, instruction, and guidance when required on a daily basis. This single goal of a manager beautifully brings all three golden rules into one target for managers.

Coaching for Trust – A bond between a great manager and a team is built on trust. To have trust, a manager has to have personal rapport with each of the members of their team. This sort of trust requires concerted effort from the manager. It requires knowing about their lives, their goals, their issues, their joy, and their sorrow. Great teams are a collection of human beings after all and a great manager is well served to remember that. The ups and downs of performance always mirror the daily lives of the members of the team. A manager with a solid rapport with each team member keys in on this and understands the larger picture. Understanding equals caring. A team who knows their manager cares trust their manager. Trust is never a one way phenomena. Given time, trust is always two-way. A manager who is trusted will trust. That bond between manager and team pulls them through a lot of ebbs and flows. That trusting environment is the fuel a great team feeds on and a great manager has to take the first step in establishing the trust.

Coaching for Clarity – Great managers also provide clear guidance. This is the simplest of the golden rules to link to every day coaching. Great coaching requires clear guidance and a manager has to know where their team needs to head in order to be a great manager. Great coaching requires clear communications … a great manager has to be able to unequivocally paint a picture of expectations and directions for their team. For a team to be high performing, each team member needs to know how they support the team’s overall objective and a manager must be clear in expectations. A manager that coaches their team every day is also providing guidance and communicating direction every day. Daily communication norms the team and gets everyone on the same page. Communication methods are constantly tweaked and adjusted … as the team bonds, they are learning to communicate. An everyday coach is constantly practicing that team communication. As this high performing team gels, their communication becomes tailored to their distinct make-up. Clarity of communication ensues.

Coaching for Performance – Great managers zone in on their team’s performance and coaching is the fundamental activity that addresses this. In other words, a great manager has to be able to monitor and address performance issues in real-time. This requires a manager to be very present … on a daily basis … in order to deal with problems as they occur in real time. A great coach is there when they are needed. Zoning in on performance means a manager has their thumb on the performance pulse of the team. This micro-coaching that occurs every day ebbs and flows with the team becoming more right-sized for the unique team composition the more a manager coaches every day. Trusting team members are oriented around clear goals and begin to understand more and more what their manager expects. The bond between manager and team means a manager’s performance management is custom to the team and more meaningful as a result.

This is why I can reduce fifty years of management research and publishing, fifteen years of personal experience, and those three handy golden rules to this one goal for managers. The only way a great manager can bond with their teams, provide clear guidance, and zone in on their team’s performance is to coach on an everyday basis. Coaching requires trust but builds and strengthens it, coaching requires clarity but supports the sharing of that message best, and coaching requires targeted performance management but provides a means to deal with performance issues.  It is simply the required activity any manager must do.

Putting It Into Practice – Okay, so this goal of a manager is clear and easy to understand. Its link to the three golden rules is pretty easy to explain. At this point, you are either sold on the idea or at least must admit that being a coach for your team on a day-to-day basis won’t hurt anything and likely will help the team. However, you can tell it’s hard to implement. Doing this every day with every team member is tough. I can concede a lot … but I won’t concede these points. Great managers bond with each of their team members by whatever means works for each person. This requires tremendous EQ on the manager’s part. Great managers are clear in their guidance so they know the job required and where the team needs to go in order to achieve the results they need to achieve for the organization. Managers have to be great communicators. Finally, great managers must be laser-like focused on team performance constantly monitoring, adjusting, addressing issues, and securing resources required for their team to perform. This takes nearly all their time and attention at work.

By now you have moved past the “damn, this doesn’t look so hard” phase to the “damn, does he know I’m just one person” phase. At this point, I’m going to get a big brusque. Forgive my directness but let’s just say, I’ve engaged in this sort of conversation before with managers. Let’s also say, I’ve been in all the situations I’m going to talk about below. I’ve made every mistake and crawled out of most holes I’ve dug for myself. Just to be clear, a large part of my credibility is due to the mistakes I’ve made and … most importantly … learned from along the way. Here is my response to some common challenges I hear from current managers all the time:

  1. I do not have enough time … you are focused on the wrong thing when you are at work. This should be your priority. If you don’t think building a trusting relationship with your team is important or worthy or your time investment, you likely have no emotional intelligence which likely puts your management career on ice anyway in the long-term. If you know you need to but aren’t doing this, you might be afraid of building the rapport. Maybe you haven’t had this modeled for you by good managers in your career. Either way, learn how. EQ is a learnable trait … address it … it will serve you well in your future. If you have too many personal projects and deliverables keeping you from focusing on these relationships, your manager is cheating you and your team. You aren’t a manager and everyone under you is suffering … you are an individual contributor. You either should not be a manager or your manager needs to increase the size of your team so you can carve out time to actually be a manager. If your manager just placed you in the position as a manager to clean up their org chart … see the next note. If won’t work.
  2. I have too many team members to do this … your team is too big. You probably are looking at a few teams then. You are either a micro-manager, your manager is trying to create a fake team being led by an individual contributor (you), or you haven’t done your job to create new managers under you. You’ve likely taken on too much or had too much forced on to you. Either way, the system is broken and team performance is suffering. Coach the next great managers on your team, split up the team, and do everyone a favor and focus on a little bit less. Step up for yourself and your team. In the end, your organization cannot afford for you to be so weak-kneed.
  3. I can’t measure our performance … you don’t understand what your team is doing or their value to the organization. If you can’t do this, neither can your boss and you and your team are in trouble. Many managers like to say their team performance is too complicated to put in words or to measure. This is a smokescreen protecting their ignorance. If you cannot track and measure your team’s performance you are either not spending enough time with them or … must worse … you have no idea how to measure their performance. Get back to the basics and look at your strategic guidance and team objectives. Is everything linked to where the organization is going? How does each team member support what the team needs to accomplish? Get help from your manager. If you don’t know what great performance is for your team, you cannot be a coach and therefore you cannot be a manager.
  4. We’re too complicated for this … your team is spread too thin without a clear objective and … to top it off … you aren’t being a good communicator. If you don’t know what everyone should be doing … your team doesn’t either! See the above issue we just talked about. You have to be able to clearly state your expectations. Write it down, practice giving guidance, and ask for help from your manager. If you cannot communicate where your team is headed … being a coach is a non-starter and so is your role as a manager. If you cannot but someone else is … you aren’t the manager anyway … no matter what the org chart says … and you can stop worrying.

As you can tell, I have trouble mustering much empathy for managers who challenge the core tenets of management and the role of the manager. Managers must embrace their role and responsibility to get really good at that role for the sake of their team and the organization.

In Conclusion – Great managers are critical to an organization’s success. Luckily being a great manager is actually pretty straightforward. Focused on the golden rules of great managers, a manager who coaches their team every day lays the proper foundation for a high performing team. A manager who coach’s their team everyday strengthens the trusting bond between the team and themselves, polishes a clear set of expectations for the team everyone understands, and creates a performance culture adjusted to the day-to-day realities of the team. Coaching a team on a daily basis is the single unifying activity any great manager can do that address all three golden rules. When all this comes together, a high performing team is the product. While fairly clear in design, coaching teams every day takes tremendous effort on the manager’s part. What we have to remember is that the performance of the team is the bottom-line responsibility of the manager so the work required to support high performance is … in the end … the manager’s role and reason for being a manager.

Leadership and Modal Jazz

23 Dec

The Dorian Mode … Team Leadership via Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage or The Modal Jazz Idiom … An Applied Artistic Expression of Right-Sized Leadership

Summary: Modern workplace managers would increase their leadership effectiveness by trusting well-built teams offering guidance but not smothering team effort with micro-management. While a simple proposition, it’s rarely achieved. Looking to the post-bop modal jazz movement in America during its artistic peak in the 1960s, this essay compares Herbie Hancock’s highly articulated band leadership style with the well-balanced goal of modern management.

Maiden Voyage (Hancock).jpg

On his “Maiden Voyage” recording, Herbie Hancock strikes a minor eleventh chord (Am9/D) and establishes his voice creating a rhythmic ostinato variation on the bossa nova rhythm. He simply sets the tone and then Freddie Hubbard and George Coleman take it from there. With Ron Carter and Tony Williams setting the foundation, the quintet improvises their way through a now classic jazz standard.

The title track “Maiden Voyage” is a beautiful song in its balance and simplicity. For me, the amazing part is that Herbie jumps in when required resetting the tone, calibrating the voice of the band, and then fading out as his band drives on. Herbie was just enough … never getting in the way of greatness. Herbie was the perfect leader on “Maiden Voyage”.

It seems the best leaders are those that rather than dictate by setting parameters and then getting their teams to push through exploring the best way towards an objective.

Leading a team is hard … really hard. While studies have shown that an elementary teacher makes more decisions on a daily basis than any other profession … I believe a corporate front-line leader is a close second. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Anyone can be named a manager of a team but only a few take the time and effort to learn the strengths of their team and then work like hell to create an environment that juices full throttle performance from every team member.

Herbie demonstrated this sort of next level leadership on his recording sessions for the Maiden Voyage album in 1965. However, Herbie was a young jazz musician just breaking away from the shadow of Miles Davis. In fact, Herbie was just building his leadership model on the Maiden Voyage sessions. With all the success possible … the prospects of failure was real.

In May 1965, Herbie and his quintet booked the already legendary Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio to cut a new album. On May 11, Herbie and his crack squad of sidemen ran through several takes for a few songs but it never really clicked. Freddie Hubbard was on cornet and Stu Martin was on drums. What Herbie heard in his head was not on tape yet and something had to change. By the end of the week, Herbie had Freddie on trumpet and brought in a new drummer … Tony Williams. What resulted on May 17 was an epic session that produced the seminal Maiden Voyage widely regarded as a cornerstone jazz album of the 20th century.

That Am9/D chord starts the opening track “Maiden Voyage”. Upon the album’s release and that very chord, Herbie broke through Davis’ shadow and established himself as a preeminent composer and bandleader. May 17 was a good day for Herbie and a great example of right-sized leadership.

What strikes me about “Maiden Voyage” and all the great modal jazz recordings of the 1960s is the inventive positioning of the band leader in each of the cuts. Miles had already established a new pattern for a jazz recording. His 1958 Milestones album started the surge of modal jazz and he arguably perfected the art in his 1967 cut of Nefertiti with his second great quintet. Miles redefined jazz by flipping the traditional song structure on its head having his bassist and drummer drive the melody of the song while his horn section vamped to the side reestablishing chord voicing when required … reminding the listener of their goal and objective … being leaders. Herbie did just that for Freddie, George, Rona, and Tony on the “Maiden Voyage” cut.

Leading a team in a corporate environment is not much different than leading a jazz quintet in the modal idiom. As a leader, your role is to set the tone, trust your team, and provide their opportunity to succeed.

The sheer beauty of modal jazz can be seen in the functional “block and tackling” of the jazz style. Born in Puerto Rico in the 1930s, modal jazz found a welcoming home with the post-bop generation of jazz musicians in New York of the late 1950s. Looking for freedom of expression breaking out of the staid bonds of big band song structure, these band leaders like Davis and his acolytes Wayne Shorter and Hancock were searching for a way to free up their high caliber groups. Modal jazz evolved into a loose set of rules bound by a simple chord chart of modal scales that provided all the necessary guidance a trusting jazz band leader needed or wanted. As a musician, all you had was the outer boundaries represented by these scales …. your job was to explore within them.

This freedom create a free flowing exploration for any decent jazz band. Modal jazz was a natural evolution of the art of jazz maximizing the benefits of legions of expert jazz sideman in the 1950s and 1960s. With that much talent in the 50s and 60s, American jazz leaders could well afford to let their musicians loose. In many ways, the environment of American jazz mid-century mimics the corporate America environment of the early 21st century. We have an over-abundance of talent, a dearth of time and patience, and the ever present “tick tock” of competition and shareholder demands. American managers could benefit learning from Davis of 1958 or Hancock in 1965.

American management needs to realize that it has evolved into an ossified corporate manifestation of the 20th century holding their own teams back despite their well-intentioned efforts. In short, management would increase team performance by limiting themselves greatly.

The polytonality of modal jazz is an acutely accurate representation of a high performing team in a corporate environment. High performing has the connotation of great leadership, and in fact, it’s required. The strength of a high performing team is its ability to achieve at the maximum performance of individual members while staying tethered to a central theme or strategy. This describes a great jazz group and proves true with Herbies quintet of the late 1960s.

“Maiden Voyage” is their finest documentation of this high performing team culture anchored by a competent and trusting leader. In other words, Herbies quintet in May 1965 was the perfect team. However, this was not by accident. “Maiden Voyage” was recorded because of a lot of hard work creating the fertile grounds of Herbies quintet and their subsequent success.

Reflecting on this, getting to this space with a team requires a few steps and some trust. A leader has to have the right team members. Just as Herbie had to put Freddie back on saxophone and find another drummer altogether, a corporate leader has to have the right team. Once you have that team and they are trained to do their job … you need to model the performance you are wanting, guide as required, coach when necessary, and always remember to stay out of the way.

High performing teams have delicate balances where too much leader spoils the flow every time.

The amazing thing is that just the right balance for a leader and their team frees the leader up for much higher value add work coaching their team and performing as a team member. Having a team you trust that is performing in the direction you intend is an incredible feeling. IN fact, I cannot think of a more rewarding experience.

Special Note: I am not a music major or musician actually in any way. What I hear interests me endlessly. To calm that urge, I relentlessly study music history and theory. My goal is to understand what I’m hearing. While I will never deserve any sort of credibility in the world of musicianship, I do my homework. That being said, I’m never perfect and all mistakes and notations in the above post are mine alone. Finding mistakes is expected … following up with me and helping me get better is desired.

The OL Pivot: Building the Business Case for Better Learning

12 Mar

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF)
Organizational Learning (OL) remains a transactional process within the training function and therefore an overhead cost to the business. In order to dig itself out of this rut, organizational learning (a.k.a. learning design, instructional design, instructional systems design, learning technologies, or training) needs to pivot and build the business case for its value.

Why Are We Here?
While some HR functions seem to align more easily with the LOBs, OL remains in the background. OL processes have been commoditized in large organizations so their value proposition is limited. OL needs to pivot to a business partnership and/or a performance improvement role where learning/training remains one of many potential solutions to an organizational performance issue. OL has become enamored with technology so much so that it has lost sight of its original intent of improving human performance. OL practitioners (OLPs) have concerned themselves with new technologies and more streamlined processes to create more complex learning engagements with little focus on the actual efficacy of the learning outcomes and a link to the original organizational issue.

The Business Case Pivot
This pivot with the business lines in mind actually opens new avenues for OL specialists. This approach assumes the standard situation where instructional design is seen as an overhead process that adds costs to a project. While the value of training is not really in question, the value in more engaging learning design (read: more expensive and longer to develop) is in doubt. So, I’m positing that the first step in digging our way out of the OL specialist trap is to show agile value to the LoBs (Lines of Business) which establishes learning’s seat at the table. When there, learning design can flex a bit more muscle and show what more advanced learning design can do for the workplace. It’s a process and ignoring the rut many learning departments are in currently only makes the implementation of higher-end learning design that much more impossible in the enterprise learning environment.

In order to successfully complete this pivot, OLPs need to do the following things in order to better align themselves with the organizational mission and shift from a transactional cost to a strategic partner with the LOB. These three steps: 1) Learn the business 2) Impact the bottom line 3) Stay simple form a trifecta of pivots which would move OLPs to a much more advantageous position within an organization.

Step One: Learn the Business
Language, terminology, strategic direction, challenges … OLPs need to be conversant in the day-to-day business they are supporting. While it can be a strength of OLPs to apply the science to any learning situation, it is not a strength in the real business world to be seen as an outsider. This is the first pivot necessary and the foundation pivot for the other two. OLPs must cease being seen as expensive training specialists outside the core mission area of an organization. The first step out of this trap is learning the business.

Step Two: Impact the Bottom Line
Focus on performance improvement where training or a learning engagement is only one potential solution. Apply the front end analysis techniques when designing learning to a broader context of a performance problem. OLPs seen as performance specialists will be seen as a value add to the LOB saving them money and solving major issues at the same time. LOB are unconcerned with classical OL techniques or specialized differentiation. They are only concerned about solving issues that inhibit growth, profit, mission support, etc.. Once OLPs know the business and then focus on improving the bottom line, the LOBs will see OLPs as partners creating a much more beneficial relationship for OLPs in the organization and position them more powerfully in decisions that matter. Being seen as “a player” gets OLPs to the table where they can begin addressing issues earlier in the value chain showing bigger impact and more proactive support for the organizational mission. This is a self-feeding success loop OLPs must establish moving from the back-room of the HR department to the management meeting room.

Step Three: Stay Simple
Stop pushing complex learning engagements to the forefront to prove value or expertise and focus more on the simplest approach possible to improve human performance when a LOB needs this as a part of the solution to their problem. “Dumbing down” the learning design usually leads to simpler and clearer instruction at a much lower cost and shorter time-frame for delivery. Quickly deliver the simplest solution possible, measure impact, revise to improve impact, and move on once the LOB is satisfied. The art of OL becomes more artful, more graceful, and actually much more impactful when minimally designed and focused on the problem at hand. The beauty of a light learning engagement cheaply developed and quickly implemented does more for OLPs business case than anything else. OL is a science and well-design learning has its place in any organization. In order to maintain footing as a specialist, OLPs need to take it upon themselves to minimally obstruct the performance of workers while still improving their performance when required. This positions OLPs as an instigator to profit/production rather than an overhead cost center. Staying simple in design and development will further OLPs positioning as a strategic business partner with the LOBs.

In Conclusion
To build the business case for Organizational Learning (OL), a pivot needs to occur shifting from the current technological wizardry to a bottom-line business focus. Organizational Learning Practitioners (OLPs) have lost focus on their original value to organizations. Simply put, the investment in learning was intended to improve performance of the workforce and increase profits. OLPs have become too enamored in their art and stepped away from what the Lines of Business (LoBs) need … high performing workers. This pivot can be attained in three steps: 1) OLPs need to learn the business 2) Remember the bottom-line/deliver results and 3) Stay simple in their OL processes. This three-part pivot will get OL to the executive leadership table and show real results aligned to business needs rather than the whiz-bang of the OL art. For OLPs, the fun is just beginning at this point.  Getting to the table with a track record of verifiable results will enable OLPs to show the full spectrum of learning engagements possible made possible with the investments of the LoBs. OL has to earn that right … not cite studies and demo widgets.

Learning Environment Design (LED)?

24 Jun

I’ve been moving away from traditional Instructional Design for years now. It was a slow trickle at first (around 2006) than changed to a full-on gush flowing away from engineered online course development to more of a softer side of learning create opportunities or activities for learners (executives and managers in my case).

I’ve been searching for a good term for this and a way to talk to other ISDs about my career/domain shift. I’ve been using the term learning environments for a while now. While I’m certain that is not a unique or profound use of the term, I’ve been searching for a better way or another person sharing the experience. I’ve been seeing this shift not only in my career but also in the way learning programs have been design for some time now … especially in the executive and management development arena.

Jane Hart has a great way to talking about this in an article she wrote this month for her blog Learning in a Social Workplace. I highly suggest her output along with Harold Jarche’s who partners with Jane on several projects. Good stuff. My particular point to this post is in regards to her first point. She entitles this shift in workplace learning as now better situated in creative learning spaces vice the classroom. It touches on quite a bit of what I see in the field.

Something I’m going to call Learning Environment Design (LED) for now. BTW, a quick Google search for learning environment design pops up a ton of links. That’s a great thing … others are thinking about this too.

Design Thinking for Leaders

23 Jun

My Inspiration …

This post is based on my experience with two great articles. One is Leading in the 21st Century from the June 2012 Harvard Business Review by Dominic Barton, Andrew Grant, and Michelle Horn. The other article is Tim Brown’s Design Thinking article in the June 2008 Harvard Business Review. Barton, Grant, and Horn’s article interviewed several current leaders and identified trends for leading businesses in the current business landscape of constant uncertainty. Tim Brown (of IDEO) outlined the central tenets of Design Thinking in his own HBR article focusing on the method itself and the necessary leadership traits  required for successful Design Thinking.

Leadership and Design Thinking

I learned a great deal from both of these articles and see how both address a fundamental issue for leadership: what does it take to make great decisions? Great leadership in this age of complexity requires a more sophisticated way to look at organizational challenges. Management thought and practice points to a second team, collaboration, risk-tolerance, out of the box thinking, etc. which pretty much describes the central tenets of Design Thinking. There seems to be value is looking at Design Thinking as an intellectual rigor well suited for the executive C suite of any organization. When management theory and design theory intersect, they provide a loose construct for leadership decision making built for our modern complex problems.

Big Problems with Many Solutions

Leaders face complex issues in their roles charting the course for organizations. Increasingly, these situations will not have a clear way forward for these leaders but decisions will be needed just the same. Organizations are continually challenged with confounding situations that have no obvious correct way forward or solution. The only solution is a novel path through the situation which has no rulebook or guideposts. The complexity leaders face quickly expose decisions based on assumptions drawn from past experiences. Leaders need fresh views with out of the box thinking to wade through these confounding situations. Novel problems need novel solutions I guess.

Your Leadership Second Team: A Design Thinking Core

Design thinking requires a team of thinkers supported by organizational culture of collaboration, experimentation, cross-discipline thinking, integrative thinking, and iterative problem-solving. Leaders need to build this as a core capability embodied in their second teams. Design Thinking requires the discipline of this team to move beyond simple validation of pre-conceived notions and on to lessons learned gleaned from the iterative experimentation. This culture of this second team will empower a leader facing a more complex world requiring more sophisticated solutions.

It’s not hard to see the connection between the Barton, Grant, and Horn and the Design Thinking article by Brown. The biggest overlap is the need for a second team as identified in the first article and the need for a tightly engaged Design Thinking team by Brown. No one leader will possess all the correct thoughts for an organization nor will they be able to necessarily lead through complex situations alone. If you look at your core Design Thinking team as your second team, you can see how this construct ties both articles.

Edison’s Model: Fail Often and Learn Quickly

According to Brown, Design Thinking has been around for a long time. Born out of the early moments of our technological world, Design Thinking is as valid today as it was during the birth of the light bulb. Menlo Park, New Jersey under Edison is a model for future leadership teams facing a complex world according to Brown. While this progressive experimentation was created for the Industrial Age looking for new products to enhance a rapidly evolving electrified urban lifestyle, it works for us now as well during the Age of Big Data. Leadership groups are facing complex business decisions not unlike designers in the early 20th century facing urban modernity and technology. Edison’s model of accumulating the best talent, experimenting constantly, seeing the big picture, and learning from mistakes drove innovation in his Menlo Park lab just like these best practices can support modern leaders.

What is a Design Leader?

So, usually when you read leadership development articles, the articles invariably come down to three elements. The first describes the best practice and connected results. The second describes the leaders needed to successfully implement said best practice. The final component reaches out to the (presumably less than perfect) reader with a how-to guide on becoming that leader. Tim Brown’s Design Thinking article hints at the personality profile for a design thinking leader by outlining six traits.

  1. Empathy – An acute sense of multiple perspectives seeing the entire set of system drivers
  2. Integrative Thinking – An ability to embrace the contradictions inherent in confounding problems
  3. Optimism – A driving need to see a glass as half-full … there is always a solution
  4. Experimentalism – A desire to think outside the box, test the idea, and then go back to the well
  5. Collaboration – Complex systems and problems require multitudes of perspectives

Integrative Thinking: Your Microscope and Telescope

The Barton, Grant, and Horn article summarized findings into three major tenets for 21st century leadership. By far, the most intriguing for me was the cited need for leaders today to have the ability to look far in advance for strategic direction and very close at hand for highly detailed analysis of today’s issues. Brown identified the personality trait of integrative thinking as necessary for Design Thinking. He describes integrative thinking as the ability to see more than one facet of a complex issue holding two contradictory conclusions at once while looking at both as the possible right choice or direction. Both articles describe a leadership trait of thought dualism. The microscope and the telescope both seem to provide a valuable take on a situation … a Design Thinking leader needs both to make the right choice.

Key Ingredients: The Bottom Line

Risk averse and regimented thought processes work in a staid command and control economy and society but fail within the high-velocity flux of changing times. Rapid transformational times require broader more in-depth leadership decisions based on rigor and we are in one of those times now.

First, successful Design Thinking relies on several key organizational components to set the stage for Design Thinking. I’ve identified five thus far:

  1. Leadership guidance and support including a consistent facilitator
  2. An appetite for risk and experimentation which will drive the iterative nature of the process
  3. Cross-discipline collaboration bringing multiple perspectives to the table
  4. A flexible system for addressing complex issues all participants can understand and buy into
  5. A team of thinkers introduced to Design Thinking and ready to take on these issues

Final Thoughts: The non-Hollywood Reality of the Foundational Mundane

We laud great product design with awards, fame, and worship. We have magazines and academic disciplines built around great tangible product design. Product design is the field of choice at the moment. Think Apple … these are our heroes.

When does great process design see the light of day within organizations? When great process design earns a sliver of the attention product design does, the value of Design Thinking might be truly realized.

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