How the mindset of designers can make us better leaders

The author, second from left, is seen in this photo in a designed leadership dialogue session. The techniques of designers can help make us better leaders. (UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs)

How the mindset of designers can make us better leaders

When I decided to write a book on how design has informed my leadership experiences, I spent time and energy searching for a better word for my title.

After all, there are thousands of “leadership” books filling up business and self-help shelves or on the “others read this book” lists on our favourite online bookseller. But I was unsuccessful in finding another word for leadership.

But designed leadership is about how the mindset, tools and techniques of designers can make us better leaders, and so that’s the title I gave my book.

Designed leaders paint their way forward. Rhonda K/Upsplash

Leaders with a design mindset have a clear and transparent thinking or problem-solving process that works well with any number of people — family members, a community, an organization or a business. They “paint” the way forward with colourful, wide brushes to ensure a diverse range of perspectives.

I have only really ever learned in studios — places of learning-by-doing that are project-focused and highly integrative.


Read more: Why learning from experience is the educational wave of the future


Studios are magic because they invite experimentation and creativity, although design is by definition a rigorous balance of the critical/analytical and the creative/generative.

The trick is knowing which aspect of our thinking processes to listen to at the right time. Is it time to converge on an idea or action? Or is it time to diverge to create more options? Whatever the action, designers have to lead.

Ask. Try. Do.

Designed leadership uses design and thinking processes. I am agnostic as to “what” design and thinking process others use. I use strategic design: ASK. TRY. DO.

When I joined the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business after four years as a deputy minister in the B.C. government in the Ministry of Advanced Education, I was challenged to introduce design methods for business innovation to business students.

I knew I needed a simple “hook” to remind students quickly of a useable process. I came up with ASK. TRY. DO. It works.

(Author provided)

Ask is about research and asking questions.

Try is about generating ideas and quickly testing them.

Do is … well, do is about doing, monitoring and evaluating.

Here’s a simple example. Leadership is often about making the best possible decisions. Say your family wants to plan a weekend adventure. Like many aspects of leadership, this decision process is collaborative and involves the whole family.

You would probably want to ask a lot of questions: What are the facts? The five W’s work well here: Why? What? When? Who? Where? It’s also probably useful to establish some criteria — what does a successful weekend look like?

Now move on to try generating ideas and testing them. This part may be the most fun as the family can call upon its creativity to generate a lot of ideas — a time for taking risks and then testing some of the ideas against your criteria for success: Safety, fun, uniqueness and cost.

And finally, do — decide on budget, time line, roles and responsibilities. And then monitor, after the weekend adventure, how the family enjoyed it. What did you learn?

All of these steps can be applied to business decisions as well by successful adherents of designed leadership.

Designing something better

I see the concept of “design thinking” that’s now relatively common as being a set of tools under the umbrella of strategic design.

Strategic design is more than design thinking. It utilizes design research, design thinking and design delivery. It drives our thinking toward transformation, to action and change, to designing something better.

There’s no recipe for this. In fact, like design, designed leadership takes different twists and turns often modified by changes in context, scale, mood and even whim.

I realized that using strategic design in leadership roles is a way of looking at the principled pragmatism of getting things done.

Design is a process driving towards a solution — a product, a service, or sometimes something intangible. When done well, the results have both utility and the elegance of complex requirements resolved.

But when solutions are held accountable to diverse interests and standards, silos of expertise often cause structural and cognitive barriers. A new set of skills and knowledge is required. Rarely do experts weave together human nature, business pragmatism and political influences to update and upgrade systems, products or organizations.

Linking values to actions

From one perspective, my work is at the increasingly hybrid convergence of diverse public, private, special and self-interests in a digital age.

A vital link between strategic design and leadership is the idea of using principles to link values to actions. More specifically, principles guide decisions and provide common points of reference for performance, accountability and improvement.

In Designed Leadership, I note 10 principles that I learned, and relearned, and relearned, which allow me to work with amazing people from different cultures, education, expertise and levels of experience to get things done.

These principles are derived from theories that are the platform of built environment design that is my background: Landscape architecture and urban design.

I thought about the various ways that we make decisions and test ideas in the built environment — and then imagined how useful they could be to the strategic design of organizations or services. Here they are:

1) Make values explicit.

2) Know place and experience.

3) Value diversity.

4) Emphasize edges and boundaries.

5) Bridge gaps and make connections.

6) Evaluate for fit, scale and context.

7) Learn from natural systems.

8) Apply the Jane Jacobs test, meaning, among other things, applying permeable thinking and mixed methodologies in your strategic design ideas.

9) Attend to patterns.

10) Never finish but always complete.

As background to the principles, I emphasize different kinds of values: Core values (like accountability, effectiveness and respect), process values (like complexity, resilience and diversity) and foundation values (like long-term, cost-effective, efficient). These values form the basis for the principles and for the practice of designed leadership.

In my book, there are also chapters on thinking visually and spatially, places to practise designed leadership, learning and education and some case studies.

But I look forward to correcting, improving and updating the book. Because designed leadership is always a work in progress; indeed, that is also its strength and what keeps our organizations dynamic and young.