Is design thinking a nice idea for the creatives-types or a strategy for transformation? 3 ways leaders create the context for transformation by design

Leading change today requires a set of skills that is responsive to the collaborative and empathic culture that many organisations now value. In times past, leadership was transactional, aimed at efficiencies and relationships, negotiated within a hierarchical structure.

Sustaining a culture that is built on empathy and collaboration, requires an approach that values people and grows the capacity to embrace solutions beyond what is already known.  For schools it means that we shift the focus from a content delivery priority, to creating the context for optimising engagement – an ‘each learner’ culture.

A sustained commitment to transformation means that design moves from the realm a few keen creative-types, to becoming a culture – ‘we transform by design’. This can be achieved by becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, embracing the unknown, enabling divergent thinking and celebrating failure as an option. 

As with any change, maintaining momentum for the long haul starts with leaders providing the necessary guidance and support and walking the talk. It can often be challenging for leaders to relinquish control and refrain from making arbitrary decisions by default, but this is what needs to happen. 

In “The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking” (HBR 2019) Bason and Austin outline three ways that leaders can create the context for transformation by design:

  • Leveraging empathy by helping teams to take a positive path:
    • Letting go of preconceptions and long-held beliefs
    • Reframing problems into positive, such as ‘How might we…so that…’ statements
    • Getting closer to the user
  • Encouraging divergent thinking and navigating ambiguity.
    When generating ideas, Bason and Austin suggest coming up with seven ways. The first three come easily, while the next four bring potential new solutions beyond the easy answers
  • Rehearsing new futures – also known as prototyping and testing, making, drawing doing, not just talking about it.

“Such tangible artefacts generate conversations that tend to be much more detailed, concrete and useful than hypothetical discussions are”

I witnessed this first hand recently. When I facilitate workshops, using design thinking it’s practical, hands on and playful. This sometimes messes with particular participants’ expectations of professional development (I can usually spot them, in the opening sessions). 

Recently, as the days progressed, I witnessed one such person open up and go with the flow. On the final day, as we were building and making prototypes, it was encouraging to overhear the language and concepts being applied to the prototyped designs. 

Each of the ideas can feel like slowing down the process, often a challenge for the leader. But it needs to, yielding more creative and unexpected ideas.


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