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Putting on my design leader glasses/1 — Why we should learn leadership skills before becoming one

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I really enjoyed making the cover :P Let me know in the comments if this form works for you as compared to unsplash photos

No one is born as a manager or a design leader, so we can train ourselves into one as long as we possess a growth mindset. Regardless of the hat we are wearing right now, we should all expect ourselves to be design leaders for the future.

This is the center idea brought by a course called “Leadership by Design” while I was studying at the MDes Interaction Design Program, California College of the Arts. And this idea, which I’m really grateful for as a 23-year old fresh-grad, motivates me to turn it into a series of blog posts.

Although I used “design leader glasses” in my title, I’m reflecting on both design leadership and design management in this series. So let’s take a short paragraph to identify these two roles in the very beginning:

Design leaders provide vision and guidance, acting like a North Star for the team to follow (DesignBetter, Design Leadership Handbook), while the main job as a design manager is to achieve great outcomes from a group of people that work together (Julie Zhuo, The Making of a Manager). As often as they overlap in the real industry, I compare design leaders to the captain while design managers its first mate. They are of course interlaced, but they have their own focus.

Management and leadership come in many, many aspects. Below are some of the initial thoughts I had while reading performance management, organizational impact, and the essence of organizations for the first time.

In my earlier learning journey as a young designer, leadership rarely occurred to me as a skill I need to learn at this age. But as I started the “ Leadership by Design” course, I found a cogent reason for acquiring leadership skills, even though I don’t think I am a qualified leader —

It is extremely important for young designers to understand how our organizations are run, how our teams are run, and who are the key stakeholders in a system.

— Only then can you design for maximum influence and head-start on organizational impact.

Tristan Harris used to say identifying the names of your enemy is a very powerful tool. This is very true. In Reinventing Organizations, Laloux divides organizations into mainly 5 stages: Red, Amber, Orange, Green, and Teal, with Red featuring single authority such as mafia, while Teal represents self-management, evolving purpose, and wholeness.

From my personal perspective, I believe learning these organization types isn’t for us to turn where we are into a Teal organization, but more for us to research and pick which organization best suits our career goal and needs in various stages of our life. As Laloux also discussed in his article “The Future of Management Is Teal”, the only two necessary conditions for developing a Teal organization is top leadership and (board members’) ownership.

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Image Source: Reinventing Organizations

But wasn’t I talking about organizational impact? Yes, because picking the organization is only the first step. With a better understanding of our organization, young designers are definitely on a headstart to identify how to advocate social innovation in their teams and companies. For example, if landing in an Orange organization, we are better equipped to take a step back and systematically apply daily and structural ethical design, by coordinating the tools we use for design, the usability metrics, the process, and collecting alias.

While in a Green organization, we can think about how to contribute to agile company culture, because the dynamics here are set for empowering and hearing from each and every employee and finding balance.

Too often, I hear my friends who just start working complaining about the bureaucracy or rigid performance evaluation, even if it’s chat based. I believe by learning how organizations manage themselves, we will be able to make much more sense out of our daily work, and be empowered to make meaningful reflection and hence, changes in teams, organizations, and ourselves.

I believe by learning how organizations manage themselves, we will be able to make much more sense out of our daily work, and be empowered to make meaningful reflection and hence, changes in teams, organizations, and ourselves.

— — —

Thanks to Sharon for editing suggestions.

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— Yang Q

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👋 My name is Yang, a graduate Interaction Design student in San Francisco learning how to write in Design.

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