Archives For leadership



Hunter Gatherer, one of the inspiring international company examples in Leading for Creativity.

The world of business has never been more volatile or unpredictable. Sources of competition and disruption can appear anywhere—not just disruption in products, services, and technology, but also in channels to market, policy, talent, brands, and supply chains.

In order to survive in today’s complex world, organizations need to generate, embrace, and execute on new ideas. That takes creativity and a creatively capable workforce. It’s the secret sauce, or in evolutionary terms, it’s what keeps you fit. Organizations without it can’t compete.

When we first think of creative organizations, design firms, advertising agencies, or tech startups typically come to mind. Building a creative workforce takes more than hiring a bunch of designers and hosting happy hours. It requires a mindset shift that begins with leadership.

I’ve observed leadership styles across diverse industries: teams in financial services, working with frontline customer support; healthcare organizations, improving patient experiences; and tech companies, learning new ways to retain talent. These team leaders didn’t come from “creative” backgrounds — they weren’t innovation experts, designers, or writers; they were sales leaders, human resource specialists, and software engineers. And they led their organizations in ways that allowed every individual to participate creatively and arrive at better solutions, even when the path was unclear.

Creative leadership isn’t about leaders simply becoming more creative. It’s about individuals leading for creativity. That means you, as a leader, must unlock the creative potential of your organization, no matter the industry. It’s your job to set the conditions for your organization to generate, embrace, and execute on new ideas. It’s a competitive imperative that will keep you ahead in the marketplace.

Holding a curious mindset is a great starting point when you’re leading your team or organization. If you’re in a truly new space, you won’t always know the answers. Your team won’t either. You’re going to venture into the unknown together. Asking questions is one of the best ways to practice a curious mindset—questions that challenge assumptions, inspire others, open up a broader context, and cause reflection.


Supporting creativity requires a suite of approaches that empower individuals and teams to search for solutions and take ownership of what they do.

  1. The explorer. Leaders need to have an inspiring vision and set the course for a new direction. If they don’t, people won’t follow their lead. They hold to that vision and take risks to get that much closer to their destination.
  2. The gardener. Leaders need to set the conditions for creativity to thrive, such as providing inspiration when energy is low. When challenges crop up, they act swiftly to address them and make necessary adjustments.
  3. The coach. Leaders need to stay present and engaged. They’re on the field, at eye level, offering guidance on the fly. They help their team navigate ambiguity, learn from mistakes, and ask the right questions.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to explore on this topic. If you want to continue this conversation, I hope you’ll join my course, IDEO U’s Leading for Creativity, and help your organization thrive in today’s complex world.


IDEO Chicago’s roof garden, and some of its bounty
I love to cook almost as much as I love to eat. When making a meal, the spontaneity of grabbing fresh herbs and other homegrown ingredients from the garden is an essential part of the whole process. Over the years, I’ve given a lot of thought to what gardening, design, and creative leadership have in common.

Gardening is generative, iterative, and user-centered
When designers in our Chicago studio first planted a roof garden, they noticed people were picking and eating the strawberries and tomatoes and leaving the eggplants and tomatillos to rot on the vine. They soon realized that planting a work garden for 60 busy people is very different from planting a home garden for a family of four. Project deadlines simply took priority over cooking, so any plants that took extra steps to prepare were ignored. The next year, the designers planted a “Grab and Go Garden” that contained only fruits and vegetables that could be eaten straight away. This time, more plants were eaten, less were wasted. A good garden, like good design, needs to meet the needs of its users.

Gardening helps us frame future design challenges
The old assembly-line metaphors of the Industrial Revolution won’t help us design the future. Our world is complex. Like a garden, we must tend it, cultivate it, steward it, and encourage it to meet our needs instead of always trying to be in control of it. Our solutions must accommodate the competing needs of humans and the rest of nature. Successful design, like successful gardening, is never finished and is constantly changing.

Gardening teaches us how to be creative leaders
My colleague Michael Hendrix recently wrote an article about his experiences co-leading our Boston studio. He describes his approach to creative leadership as “Gardening, not architecture.” It’s a powerful thought. An architect makes the physical world obey. A gardener helps living things thrive through attentiveness and dialogue. Good leadership starts by finding talented people, giving them a safe space to cultivate their creativity, and letting them grow into their full potential under careful guidance—not a controlling thumb.

What personal pursuits have helped you with leadership challenges?



Recently I had the honor of speaking about design for impact during the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York. In the audience were some of the most influential, action-oriented, and socially responsible leaders in the world. It was a wonderful opportunity to talk with Fast Company editor Linda Tischler about design’s role in creating positive change. Here are five key takeaways from our conversation on stage:

• Design at its essence is about being intentional.

• Great design is anything that meets the need of the community that it is developed for.

• To design for impact, we must deeply understand the communities that we serve.

• Being embedded in a community allows designers to get insights that may lead to products or services that serve that community.

• One trend we see is that designers are not just visiting communities-in-need to do ethnographic research. Instead, designers just stay and start prototyping in the field in collaboration with the community. This allows an idea to evolve to the best solution within a particular community.

I expand on a few of these ideas in Linda’s subsequent Co.Design article: 5 Reasons Global Firms Should Serve The Developing World.

IDEO and‘s Fred Dust, Patrice Martin, Sandy Speicher, and Jocelyn Wyatt also spoke at CGI 2012. Watch them—and see my full conversation with Linda during the plenary opening session—here.

Beyond the inspiring and provocative talks, CGI hosted five interactive Design Lab sessions this year with the goal of spurring new commitments to turn ideas into action. A number of other great designers focused on the social sector participated in the labs, including John Cary from Public Interest Design, Heather Fleming from Catapult Design, Krista Donaldson from D-Rev, Liz Ogbu from California College of the Arts, Kate Canales from Southern Methodist University, and Sarah Stein Greenberg and David Janka from the Stanford Design Lab participants worked to generate solutions to specific “how” questions, such as: How might we design healthier urban environments that help prevent chronic diseases?

More than $2 billion in funds were committed by the end of the CGI conference to a wide range of solutions expected to benefit nearly 22 million people. Now that’s impact.

(posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)