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10 Top Attributes Elevate Design Thinking Leaders


Design_thinkingAs a business advisor, I strongly believe that continuous innovation and design thinking are the keys to long-term viability and success. Recent surveys of global business leaders show that they overwhelmingly agree, but less than a third believe their organizations’ culture and leadership are ready today, They and I are always on the lookout for ways to prepare current and future leaders.

“Design thinking” is a methodology used to solve complex challenges, such as the ones faced by every business in today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive environment. A design mindset is not product-focused – it’s solution focused and action oriented towards creating better customer experiences and value. In businesses, this requires a new internal culture and leadership.

Probably the most recognized design thinking business leader was Steve Jobs at Apple, as he drove the company from personal computers to new markets, including the iPhone and iPad. Yet I believe the role and requirements continue to evolve, as detailed in a new book, “Innovation by Design,” by Thomas Lockwood and Edgar Papke, based on their most recent studies.

I support their list of key requirements for you as an aspiring design thinking leader or entrepreneur. I’ll paraphrase and outline the top ten from my perspective:

  1. Use empathy to understand the experiences of others. By understanding experiences, you will better understand the needs of people around you, including your customers and partners. That leads to trust, motivation, and a greater ability to convince them of your point of view, and follow you despite the pain of change and innovation.

  2. Focus on creating a benefit for the customer. Keeping the focus on the customer creates a shared understanding and alignment for all to the intended outcome, and a move toward greater levels of innovation. This focus also allows your team to better manage disagreement and conflict by reminding everyone of the shared intent.

  3. Listen with mutual respect and fearless exploration. Using design thinking as a framework not only increases your ability to listen, but also develops your inquiry and conflict resolution skills. You are able to reframe difficult questions in a way that allows your team to identify root cause challenges and execute more powerful solutions.

  4. Openly express ideas and what you think, see, and feel. Giving and receiving feedback isn’t easy, especially considering that people can quickly fall into defensive modes of behavior and feel ill at ease. Design thinking leaders make it safe to critique ideas, but keep the focus on the process and work, rather than personal views.

  5. Pursue knowledge by being curious and asking questions. Rather than being authoritarian, design thinkers are explorers. You learn by asking hard questions and listening fearlessly to the answers you receive. This facilitates the dialogue and the mindset in all participants to find the right solution, without undue emotion and conflict.

  6. Demonstrate the ability to be vulnerable. Everyone recognizes that vulnerability requires a higher level of strength and courage, including an ability to accept your own mistakes and weaknesses. Leaders demonstrating this ability are more trusted and convincing in their roles as design thinkers. They become the model for their followers.

  7. Coach others, rather than competing with others. Coaching is helping a person increase self-awareness and adjust their role to take better advantage of their greatest strengths, rather than highlighting and critiquing their weaknesses. As a leader, this fosters constructive contribution of design ideas, rather than protective debate.

  8. Rely on the knowledge and insight of others. Leaders who are fostering innovation as a culture in their organization cannot afford to act as the lone genius. Other members of the team have unique customer access and insights, as well as their own perspectives. Only through collaboration can a leader achieve the force multipliers to compete.

  9. Use curious confrontation to manage disagreement and conflict. Curious confrontation is simply facing differing ideas with the desire to investigate and learn. This is a key precept of design thinking, and leaders in this arena must be the models for the rest of their team. They keep business conflict constructive and embrace it in steering through the innovation and change that must be part of every successful business

  10. Align personal purpose with the organization’s mission. Purpose-driven design is more than branding – it is the catalyst that aligns an organization’s actions, character and culture with its purpose. The best leaders are able to align their own vision and power of choice with the organization mission for maximum credibility and impact.

Whether you are looking to further your career as a business professional, or plan to take a leadership position in your own business, developing these key attributes will pay big dividends. None of these are a birthright or require advanced degrees – they can be learned by anyone.

They all play directly into another megatrend I see in business – moving from a single bottom line of economic value, to the triple bottom line of economic, social, and environmental value. Be there with innovation and design thinking, or plan to get pushed aside soon.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 12/03/2017 ***



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