Design leadership

Things paradigm or people paradigm?

Hello Marc. I want to ask you something else. You have, over the years, introduced to the Japanese audience design leaders of big enterprises — -such as Greg from GE and Phil from IBM, who came to Japan as guest speakers and gave companies insight and ideas for implementing HCD. In your opinion, what are the qualities of a true design leader, or what is good design leadership?

Shinohara-san, your questions are so big! But I like them. I like that you ask about both leaders and leadership. In my view leadership is social. It is strongest when shared among a group of people. So I think less about leaders and more about the processes of leadership.

I believe leadership is something that happens when a group of people connect their efforts to a purpose bigger than any of them could pursue on their own.

I would like to answer with a few words about design leadership as part of a larger change in leadership practices, then mention a few of the key qualities you asked about.

Leadership is changing

I don’t know if this is true in Japan, but in the U.S. we are seeing change in how leadership is perceived. Most older managers and executives inherited concepts of leadership from the industrial era. Those concepts are based on what I call a “Things Paradigm” (influenced by Robert Chambers, a respected leader in international development).

As the left side of this diagram describes, the Things Paradigm assumes that leadership involves working with things we can directly control.

Adapted from Robert Chambers’ workshop on participatory development

Almost every sector — business, government, health, education, development, is seeing movement toward a “People Paradigm.” The things paradigm is appropriate for some challenges — building a bridge or shipping ten million doses of vaccine. But most challenges are mostly made of people. And most long-term goals are more about more than simple revenue or “growth.” Applying the Things Paradigm to human and societal challenges is one of the main sources of our current global troubles.

The People Paradigm says leadership involves systems made of living people and relationships. And we can’t control those directly. If the rest of my comments seem strange, it may be because I am speaking as a believer and practitioner of the People Paradigm.

A story about leadership as a social practice

We tend to think of leadership as something done by individuals we call “leaders.” The idea of a leader as a kind of hero is another idea we have inherited from our past. We may have skills, we may have a good team, but we look to a “leader” to guide us in the right direction. The leader is responsible for leadership. The team is responsible for results. A more modern idea, based on decades of organizational development and leadership studies, is that leadership is something we do together. Leadership is an outcome of group practices.

Five years ago my colleague and I conducted a workshop with the IT department of a global food company. They develop software for all the other internal departments: sales, manufacturing, inventory, human resources, etc.

This is how they described their challenge. “We deliver reliable software with very few bugs. But people don’t like it. They don’t want to use what we make!”

We asked, “How do you decide what to make?”

They said, “Once a year the head of IT meets with the other division heads, and together they set the development agenda for the next year.”

We asked, “So you don’t talk with sales people when you make software for them? Or with people who use the inventory system when you build updates?”

“No,” they said. “We build to specifications created at the beginning of the year. And we’re good at it!”

This might sound like a story about problems with waterfall development processes. But during the workshop, a very interesting story of leadership emerged.

We gathered for four days with people from the IT group, as well as people from the Sales division. The first day of the workshop was not about the problem of undesirable software. We designed the day to bring Sales and IT into good conversation together. The goal was for them to see each other’s world. The three themes of that day were: “Who are we?” “What’s going on?” and “What’s possible?”

It was satisfying to see how surprised they were once they started to know each other. “I didn’t know you could do that!” “I didn’t know you had those problems!” And it was satisfying to see their excitement during the “What’s going on?” exercises. No single point of view is sufficient for seeing the complexity of an organization. This was the first time they had a picture on the wall of “what’s going on” from the many points of view in the room: IT and Sales, manager, staff, and executive.

But the final question provided the key moment. “What’s possible?” IT staff described their ability to build almost anything the Sales group might want. “You ask for it, and we’ll build it.”

Then Sales said something that surprised IT. “No. Stop doing that. We don’t know what to ask for. You understand technology and its possibilities so much better than us. You have magic that we can’t imagine. We don’t want you to take our orders like you’re the McDonald’s of software. We want you to be our imagination partners. We want you to lead.”

This transformed the rest of the workshop, because it transformed how the IT group saw themselves. All the ideas and future-stories of the next two days explored the new question. “How can IT take its place as partner and leader with the rest of the organization?”

In those few days they began their shift from Thing Paradigm leadership to Person Paradigm leadership. Some ideas aimed at increasing the time that IT staff spent with people from other divisions. They planned time to visit departments and learn about their operations outside of any project. They planned to change the way projects were conceived, so that IT and department staff would work as co-designers. There were many ideas, and there was much excitement.

They began to practice leadership as a group outcome.

Key qualities of design leadership

You asked about the qualities of a “true design leader.” I don’t think it’s most helpful to focus on individual qualities. In large organizations, no one person can provide the leadership that’s required for great design. I have known many different kinds of people who are “leaders” in different ways according to their personality. Some are outgoing, friendly, confident in a group. Some are more quiet and do best with one or two other people at a time. Some have great technical skills, while others do not.

I can offer a few activities and qualities which I see as key aspects of design leadership in an organization. This list is not complete, but I hope it is helpful.

Leadership quality: Hold the big story
Good leadership holds the connection between daily work and a story that matters. This is true all the way from whole-organization leadership down to work on a single feature of a single product.

I know a community leader who organizes people to check in on neighbors and help arrange for their near-term needs. His “big story,” which he makes sure is shared by everyone involved, is that month-by-month they are establishing a self-propagating, intergenerational culture of mutual care.

The IT managers I mentioned above found a new Big Story. “We are moving our culture from habits of isolated reactivity toward connected partnership and shared leadership.”

This doesn’t happen because an individual leader keeps reminding people of the story. It happens because the story actually does matter to people. They feel motivated to make the story come true, and so it becomes part of their daily conversation. Individual leaders help by noticing when the story is getting lost. There are many reasons the story can get lost. Teams become mired in difficulty. They are distracted by technology obsession or team disagreements. The list is long. But in a team that holds its own leadership, we remind one another of the larger story that brought us together.

Leadership quality: Nurture conditions for co-creation
Design is a process, a way of seeing and working. In organizations it requires collaboration. It brings people together who don’t see things the same way. They may not like each other! They may disagree about whose way is the “right way.”

And design requires something uncomfortable of people whose career has depended on certainty. If you’re accustomed to linear decision-making, the design process is a stretch.

So design leadership gives attention to relationship and collaboration. It nurtures conditions in which people can come together as equals, embrace the complexity and uncertainty of their challenge, and move through a creative process together.

Design leadership is facilitative leadership. It is more about hosting honest conversation and guiding group process than it is about any specific outcomes. It sees conflict as an expected and necessary part of the work. It insists on including many views and voices in the process.

These are more reasons why leadership must be a group process.

Leadership quality: Connecting
Many studies of leadership in organizations point to “social capital” as a key. Social capital is a measure of the relationships in a community, organization, or system. In that literature, “bonding relationships” form between people with similar characteristics: age, profession, home culture, etc. Good bonding relationships are a sign of cultural health. But when these studies look at groups that repeatedly “succeed” in their goals, they see a high number of “bridging relationships” — relationships across boundaries and differences.

A quality of a good leadership process is that it seeks and builds relationship outside the boundaries of the team. It embraces dissent, makes room for diverse views, and connects people who would otherwise be creating in isolation from one another.

Leadership quality: Listening
I’ve heard Dick Costolo, the former CEO of Twitter, say he suggests new managers and executives spend 60% of their time listening. Listening and observing — paying attention — is the beginning of any design process. And it is an essential aspect of leadership.

We can learn to listen without judgment, listen to understand (not merely to respond). We can learn that when someone says something difficult or challenging, or however much we disagree, they are telling us what is true for them. That is a wonderful gift for the work of leadership.

For design leadership in organizations, both internal and external listening are important.

Internal listening: listening within the organization, up and down the hierarchy of power. I’ve seen groups make a “listening agenda.” After a little training in good listening, the team went all over the organization listening to the reality of people’s lives and work. I don’t know how else to see what’s going on, and I don’t know how else to build good relationships.

External listening: this is a key aspect of design leadership. How can we increase the amount of time people spend in conversation with the people our decisions affect? How can we increase the number of people, roles and departments in our organization that have get outside to listen?

I can’t think of an activity that has more impact than good listening.

Leadership quality: Wholeheartedness —
play, wildness, patience, generosity, joy
The last quality I will mention is wholeheartedness. I don’t know how this translates into Japanese. Maybe it is something like hitotsukokoro (一つ心,
ひとつこころ)? I mean that people experience an authentic connection between the work and their personal creative joy.

Work may be difficult and long. There may be conflict. There will be times when you can’t tell what’s going on, the way forward is uncertain, and you feel inadequate for the task. When we are wholehearted, this is all part of the joy. When things are difficult, good leadership is able to be generous and kind toward the people around them, knowing “we are all in this together.” They are able to be patient, trusting the process and trusting each other to move through the long uncertain work of co-creation. They accept the wildness of life, which resists analysis and control, and which invites us to bring both our strength and our weakness into each day.

Wildness is a little scary. That’s part of leadership too. As Sonja Blignaut points out, “It’s hard to survive in the jungle if you were trained in the zoo.”

People who bring the spirit of “wholeheartedness in the jungle” to their work, and who create invitations and soil for others to do the same are great design leaders.

This is part of a collection called Hello Shino: Short essays on design management. You can learn more about the author, Marc Rettig, from his personal web site and his place of work: Fit Associates.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Marc Rettig

Marc Rettig


Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Carnegie Mellon School of Design