5 leadership lessons from the d.school

Earlier this month during the International Design Thinking Week (IDTW) in Berlin, I had the chance to speak to George Kembel. George is the founder of the Stanford d.school and its long-time Director. He has now taken the role of a Global Director responsible for bringing the d.school beyond Stanford and into exciting new corners of the world.

IDTW, for those who don’t know, is an annual event thatconcentrates the latest thoughts and practices in Design Thinking. I wrote about it here. It’s organised by HPI School of Design Thinking in partnership with Stanford’s d.school and is open for international participants. Co-led by the heads of the two design thinking schools — Claudia Nicolai and George Kembel, its aim is to introduce the main principles of the Design Thinking process by throwing the participants into a real design challenge.

The challenge this year was about designing the co-working space. You’d expect, the conversation was mainly about space innovation, but in fact it was a lot about team creation and leadership. Here are the five lessons I picked up from my encounter with George on these topics.

Making the work-life balance

According to George, work-life balance exists when you don’t separate work from life. It is important that you know what’s happening in people’s lives within your team and to support them accordingly. “At the d.school we are very intentional about how people can show up as themselves. It’s very relational and this makes for a rare environment.” said George Kembel. And indeed we all know that personal life affects how you perform at work and vice versa, so why build a wall?

Recruiting people

“Never hire for a job title!” This was George’s advice. His recruitment recipe is to always find somebody who can not just fit the role, but fit the team and also approach the work in an unique way. He picks people for who they are and told me “Whom you pick, matters! We want people whose general posture is openhearted. If you bring somebody that is good for the job, but closed, it closes the others. It’s like a balloon — it only needs a needle to pop.”

Designing your space

George said he was inspired by David Byrne’s thoughts on how space influences innovation (yes, David Byrne from Talking Heads!). In his famous TED talk from 2010, David explores how architecture has pushed music innovation. The question he examines is “Does the venue make the music?” or in other words “Does creativity follow context?” and he shows many examples from the history of music as a proof.

George too is convinced that context impacts creativity. That’s why everything at the d.school is designed to welcome collaborative experiments. Whiteboards on wheels, so you can quickly start jotting ideas and toolboxes are just some of the examples. George says that often in life we try to show our best. “We do the same in office design — we put nice receptions, modern lobbies, etc. At the d.school we want people to show as themselves so the space too is designed differently.”

The d.school recreates the feeling of being in a kitchen if you enter from the front door and the ambiance of a garage if you go in from the side door. “These are special places, especially in American culture and are charged with creative energy, and creative energy is our core value! Every co-working space should strive to find what they stand for, their own value and recreate it in their space.”

Transparency vs quietness

Both Claudia Nicolai and George Kembel talked about the importance of visual and even acoustics transparency in the space — the possibility to see and hear what others are doing and jump in. To balance out the open way of working and the hyperactiveness of the space, both schools have quiet spaces, where people can take a break from creativity.

I asked George what is his favourite place in the d.school and he told me that he has a favourite time instead. He likes to go there early in the morning before everybody else, when it’s quiet and warmly lit, and to enjoy how the place gradually gets fuller.

In-between times

During the day when the place is buzzing, George likes to take “coffee pilgrimages” with his colleagues. These are spontaneous walks to a nearby cafe, which allow you to chat along the way. “People often think that official meetings are the most important times, but it’s actually the in-between times that matter most.” In-between times are those inofficial moments like when you go to a meeting and chat in the corridor or you come back from the cafeteria. It’s in these meetings-without-an-agenda when people are themselves and can freely discuss and mix ideas.

These 5 leadership lessons, might look like details to some of you, but it’s often the small things that make a change for the team. “Leading a team is like gardening” George told me at the end. “There are many things you need to take care of, but then it’s out of your control.”

How about you? How do you create the context for your team to blossom? How does your space look like? What are your leadership lessons?

About the author: Elina Zheleva is a Design Thinking Evangelist trained at the HPI School of Design Thinking and Stanford d.school. Previously she has worked in the European Aviation Safety Agency taking various roles in planning and controlling. Currently she is the editor and curator of Airport Hub & Passenger eXperience and an independent expert and blogger on passenger experience in air travel. She also works on bringing Design Thinking to Bulgaria and SEE where she originally comes from. She is the founder of designthinking.bg

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