Tag Archives: Leadership

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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