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The myth of leadership is that it has to be top-down. The CEO has all the answers and leads by handing down mandates. But any chief who thinks he or she has all the answers is limiting the scope of the operation.

Why? The leader as autocrat is an outdated mindset that belonged to the era of operations efficiency, when companies were run like machines with predictable outcomes. In that day, you ran a reporting system that looked for exceptions to the rule and made strategy decisions based on those reports.

As I wrote in HBR, today’s design-driven organizations require a much more nuanced style of leadership. Instead of playing a single role, I’d suggest these four stances:

1.     The Explorer

Anyone who’s playing a leadership role is one step removed from the day-to-day and can ask bigger questions. Organizations have a habit of not zooming out enough to glean that perspective. The exploratory leader asks the most relevant questions that get the company to go find the right answers. Ellen MacArthur is a great example of this. She literally set out to sail around the world, and experienced firsthand that we’re all connected on a planet with limited resources. Out of that perspective she conceived the Circular Economy, and is now working in partnership with many businesses on new initiatives that have circularity at their core.

2.     The Gardener

I mentioned this in my last post. Setting the conditions for creativity has to do with cultivating a certain organizational culture and environment. Everything from ensuring there’s tolerance for risk-taking, to rituals that facilitate sharing what you and your team are working on today, to a setting up maker spaces at work where people can draw their ideas with pen and paper and use scrap materials to prototype them quickly.

3.     The Player/Coach

Instead of leading from a silo, the player/coach sits and works alongside employees. That way, leaders can help teams when they most need it—especially when the business requires a pivot. Playing this role builds respect, empathy, and enthusiasm for one’s team, because you see all the hard work up close and connect to your employees in a new way. Being a Player/Coach also serves the purpose of increasing the speed of decision-making, as the CEO can see firsthand what needs to be done and what resources are required to get there. Neil Grimmer, an IDEO alumnus, who’s now the Founder & CEO of Habit Inc., was that kind of leader. He worked alongside his teammates as a designer of his company and its product and that gave him the speed and knowledge he needed to launch two successful businesses (the other one, Plum Organics, was bought by Campbell Soup Company in 2013) in the years since he left IDEO.

4.     The Storyteller

One last thing to add to this list: In order to lead the people who work for you over the mountain, you have tell them a good story—one that is driven by purpose. If you are an organization that practices human-centered design, you know to strip away anything that doesn’t matter, leaving only the most beautiful and useful essence of the thing. Organizations who do that well are fulfilling their purpose to serve the humans who are also their customers. Leaders may have a blue-sky vision of how to do that from a 10,000-foot peak, but they have to articulate it in a way that people at every altitude of the organization can see it.

If I was to collage together the explorer, gardener, player/coach, and storyteller, it would create a portrait of the modern entrepreneur. Leaders who can embody these four roles set the culture of a design-driven organization almost by default. Those who do it well receive dividends, and those who do it poorly will pay for it later, even if the business succeeds at first. In order for leaders of major companies to launch new ideas, they have to have this entrepreneurial mindset.

That mindset is essential when you’re creating (and selling) something new. Steve Jobs, with all of his fireball charisma and powers of persuasion, created a reality distortion field—he told the story of Apple’s Macintosh in a way that was so convincing, he made the market. The leader of a design-driven organization will both paint a picture of the promise land, and embolden his team with the courage to go there.

Some of today’s most successful companies—Airbnb, Nike—have CEOs who are also designers. And leading organizations across industries, like Apple, 3M, and Pepsi, have highly influential Chief Design Officers at the helm. Making design a priority isn’t just about meeting the glossy expectations of today’s consumers—it’s is a key differentiator that drives organizations to outperform the market. But you don’t have to earn a degree in fine arts to be creative, and while the designer CEO or CDO may set the agenda, design-friendly behaviors need to flourish at every level of the organization.

Here are the top 5 approaches that we believe will have the biggest impact:

1. Cultivate curiosity

Human-centered designers share one quality—they like to ask questions, lots of them. Adopting a posture of humility and curiosity is how you develop empathy for your customer’s needs and desires, and when you’re in constant contact with the people you’re designing for, it creates a productive feedback loop. But that can’t always be a one-to-one conversation. In order to scale curiosity you need to design algorithms that collect and analyze data in a rigorous and human-centered way.

2. Experiment early and often

Designers never stop at one sketch. Likewise in business, being able to “sketch” or test the viability and desirability of several ideas at once is a critical skill. We have a tool called Creative Difference that organizations can use to test the effectiveness and creative capacity of their teams. Now that we have collected and analyzed quite a bit of data, what we’ve found is that teams that explore and iterate five or more solutions at once produce 50 percent more successful launches. Experimenting like a designer means valuing divergent thinking as much as convergent thinking.

3. Collaborate across silos

Designers don’t subscribe to the myth of the lone genius. Alighting upon breakthrough ideas requires collaboration across disciplines. And today, the challenge goes even further than getting internal departments to talk to one another. To predict the disruptive solutions of the future, one must now go outside the building and cross the boundaries of industry. That’s the only way organizations can avoid making a common mistake—defining the competition too narrowly. (Who would have thought, for example, that a search engine like Google would end up becoming the biggest competitor for the media industry over advertising dollars.) For CEO’s, this might mean looking for interesting partnerships or investments outside of the company’s core business. It might also mean bringing talented people into the organization from outside the sector. A lot happens across the boundaries of silos, so adopt a practice of gathering knowledge from unexpected places.

4. Spread ideas like a virus

Developing a storytelling practice isn’t typically seen as part of the designer’s toolbox, but it’s an essential skill. The ideas you generate will die on Post-It notes if they don’t have an animating force. Tell a great story, activate networks who can help you build your idea, and do anything you can to make the idea contagious within the organization. Don’t let the idea get tossed back and forth between teams—that’s a quick way to kill it. If the idea started with a leader who has low visibility, the trick is to quickly assign it to a product owner who can spark a movement. The earlier you have an owner who sees it as their job to generate excitement and momentum around the idea, the better chance it has at survival. Data collected from our Creative Difference work has shown that leaders and product owners who foster clear purpose and consistent intent have 20 percent more successful launches.

5. Go big and go fast for the win

Design-driven organizations understand that more is more. If you start with a surplus of ideas, then you can sacrifice a few darlings along the way and not be sunk by it. Companies like IKEA have a firehose of new products every year; it’s become habitual for them to produce at that rate. And with 30 percent of revenue coming from new products, the company doesn’t have time to be too precious. Such abundance requires all of the above qualities to create a sprint-like design process that builds early prototypes, garners evidence and feedback from the marketplace, and responds quickly—all mid-stride.

One last note: Lists of important qualities have limited value if they’re seen as mandates plunked down from on high by a corporate crane. A design-led culture requires skillful and steady cultivation. One way creative leaders can start is to fancy themselves gardeners. In that role, they must seed a common purpose that can take root across the organization. Once that purpose is planted, smart, emergent ideas will sprout up everywhere, across the company’s halls. Everyone must understand why the company exists, and that reason has to go beyond making money. It has to be about designing something extraordinary—something that people dearly want.

Why is Design a CEO Matter?

November 2, 2017 — 1 Comment

There was a time when efficiency was enough. When the role of the CEO was to optimize business as if it were a machine—making sure the supply chains and manufacturing systems and marketing channels were produced maximal output at minimal cost. Those days are over. And though I don’t suffer any romantic notions about the “good old days” of quality management and core competencies, being a CEO was certainly a more predictable job back in the 20th century.

Efficiency and delivering solid returns still matter, of course, but the old methods of getting there are threatened. Actually, I’ll go even farther: The old methods are incapable of preparing you for what we are seeing today—the most volatile and disruptive business climate the world has ever known.

In order to compete today, CEOs need evolutionary skills that will ensure their survival in a fast-changing climate. Business fitness now means learning how to be agile, resilient, and creative. It means adapting to the marketplace in quick generational cycles. That requires a brave new brand of leadership, and from our vantage point, as we work alongside companies young and old from around the globe, it requires being able to think like a designer.

The old methods are incapable of preparing you for what we are seeing today—the most volatile and disruptive business climate the world has ever known.

Why? Because if the core competencies of old were Gary Hamel’s “maintain world manufacturing dominance in core products,” the core competencies of today (customer obsession, agility, resilience) are intrinsic to the designer’s craft. Think about it: As the designer of a new service, product, or experience, your purpose is to identify the needs and desires of the customer, prototype solutions, and create something flexible enough to pivot quickly as those needs change, ensuring your continued relevance.

So, it’s clear that a design mindset is important, but does it ladder up to the CEO level? It does. And that’s because the organization itself is a design project. CEOs are charged with setting up a design-friendly culture in which the very metabolism of the organization runs faster. That means giving all levels of the company, from interns to managers to VPs, empowerment and autonomy—the permission to shift when they can see farther than you can. It means creating a safe environment in which they can fail without fear. It means telling them a compelling story about the purpose of your company and getting them invested in that story. You are working together to create something magnificent, and will walk into an unknown future side by side, together.

Knowing that those are the kinds of businesses that will thrive in this environment, a growing number of organizations are building design into their core competency. Ford is doing so today, and we’re proud to be their partners in that. Legacy technology companies like IBM have been investing heavily in design, too.

You are working together to create something magnificent, and will walk into an unknown future side by side, together.

Being capable of real change, of designing a future-proof, evolutionary organism, is no small feat. Take automobile companies: The model was once to sell cars that people wanted to drive. But today, mobility is a much more fluid concept. Now, car companies are designing for driverless cars and deliveries, for ridesharing, for multi-modal commutes, and for high-efficiency electric vehicles. That, in turn, means thinking about the urban infrastructure and how it will adapt to such changes—what happens to gas stations and parking lots? It means thinking through how driverless delivery ripples out to retail. The organization that is designed to sell a hunk of metal that takes a person from point A to point B is past its due date.

But it’s not just the auto industry—almost every business we know is facing this challenge. Shifting the purpose of an organization made for today to an organization fit for tomorrow is the job of the CEO. And, at its core, it’s a problem that requires design thinking.

It has been exciting to see design thinking gaining ground in a growing range of industries over the last few years, but even I have been surprised by the enthusiasm with which some in the legal field have embraced the concept.

The law is not exactly known for creative problem solving. But it turns out that the industry is facing the same set of challenges as everyone else as disruptive technology forces regulators and policymakers to think differently. This is a moment of rich opportunity for design thinkers, and we now have evidence that the world at large is taking notice.

IDEO’s Chief Counsel, Rochael Soper Adranly, has just been recognized by the Financial Times as one of the Top 20 global General Counsels of 2017 sitting alongside General Counsels of some of the largest companies in the world.

Rochael boldly applies creative problem solving in corporate legal departments and legal firms and that has set her apart from the pack. Her approach is based on the fundamentals of design thinking, as the Financial Times explains: “Today’s general counsel need to be both business-minded and human-centered. This means . . . having a clear awareness that legal problems are human problems.”

I truly hope that many more in the legal field take up Rochael’s message of human-centered design thinking.

Illustration by Anuja Shukla

What if we had a new way to design products, services, and businesses that were good for people, the planet, and business? That’s one of the questions we were seeking to answer when IDEO teamed up with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to launch the Circular Design Guide.

Why a design thinking guide for the circular economy? Design thinking is a great innovation tool for tackling complex systemic challenges. It not only offers an approach that generates momentum through prototyping, but also strengthens insight around what works (and what doesn’t). This new guide is meant to help innovators create more elegant, effective, and creative solutions for the circular economy.

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