Design Thinking and Leadership

I recently had the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and colleagues at the UCLA Education Leadership Program's 20th Anniversary Symposium. A rewarding keynote about the challenges facing the nation's education system in a time of rapid demographic change (with a special focus on how California is uniquely positioned to lead the country) gave way to panels on the charter school movement and a roundtable on global citizenship.

I spoke at a panel on Trends in K-12 leadership. I took this opportunity to share some thoughts on why educational leaders might look to the tools and principles of design thinking to inform their leadership practice in schools, particularly as it speaks to leadership capacity building. Leadership capacity is a critical notion in schools. Poorly resourced schools have an acute need of faculty, parent, community and student leadership as budget cuts have deprived these schools of the deep teams that can provide forward-looking energy in this time of rapid social change. Well resourced schools with these teams nevertheless benefit, and not in a small way, by distributing leadership in as many high functioning teams as possible.

The key notion here is high functioning. Contrary to general belief, leadership isn't something that most people are born natively being able to do. It's a richly complex skill, developed and nurtured over time. A well executed plan of leadership capacity building based on the principles of design thinking, as I argued, has the potential to inculcate into the novice leader a most important leadership habit of mind - the persistence needed to continue to lead after having either made a mistake or after launching a new initiative only to learn that it was the wrong approach or that it was wrongly timed. High functioning teams are those in which the team members have experienced what I will call "successful failure" - a failure which served as a growth opportunity and which their organization allowed them to make without recrimination. Schools that do not allow their leadership teams to make mistakes have the lowest leadership capacity and the least resilience.

The design thinking principle embeds within it two notions - iteration and prototyping - that offer the novice leader the skills to engage in productive leadership, productive learning and, if it comes to that, productive failure. Once the team identifies a problem, design thinking asks them to develop a process that is both creative and empathetic to solve it. Because educational problems are uniquely complex, they almost always require complex solutions. Faculty teams engaging in design thinking learn together to ask the right questions, align solutions to the correct audience and implement these solutions quickly, so as to gather meaningful data as quickly as possible. As they discover what they need to know, they can re-iterate and re-prototype as needed, learning what works, what almost works and what doesn't work.

Our future as a society is based on the foundation of excellent education. Excellent education is itself based on the capacity of teachers and schools to lead and teach in a rapidly changing world. Embracing the design thinking process can go a long way towards helping schools solve pressing problems.


A Design Thinking Bibliography

Tim Brown. Change By Design.

Larry Keeley. Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs.

Tom Kelley. The Ten Faces of Innovation.

Jeanne Liedka. Solving Problems With Design Thinking.

Thomas Lockwood. Design Thinking.

John Maeda. Redesigning Leadership.

Idris Mootee. Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation.

Daniel Pink. A Whole New Mind.

Websites and Blogs

Tim Brown

Tim Parsons

"Leading is Learning"

Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford


Designing Empathy Based Organizations

Emily Pilloton: Teaching Design for Change

John Maeda: How Art, Technology and Design Inform Creative Leaders

Design, Startups and the Question of Jobs (not Steve)





From our friends at comes this fascinating infographic about the nature of Web 2.0 startups in the last five years or so. These companies are all, to some degree, on the cutting edge of American enterprise and represent key expressions of 21st century entrepreneurialism. Whether these companies will still be a going concern in 2020 is an open question, of course, because in an entrepreneurial environment, ideas are floated and tested in part to determine which ones work and which ones don't. The environment in which these companies do business (through mobile devices, tablets and other virtualized spaces) is also not especially well understood. A reality of America 3.0 is that these companies are increasingly seen as the engines of economic growth and development - the primary method by which this country will compete in emerging global markets and contexts.

But what do these companies do, exactly? While I am not even in the top 10,000 of most socially networked people in the country, I am no slouch. I know what about a half of the companies in the infographic do (go on - test yourself - how many of these guys have you heard of?) or at least what markets they are trying to shape, create or conquer. If you don't know what these companies are or what they're trying to do, and you're still in the workforce, you should be paying more attention because they may be telling you something about the future that you will want to know. Have a closer look at these companies, at particular one that you have almost certainly heard of - flickr (a photo-sharing hub). How many people does flickr employ? According to the infographic, less than 40. Think about that. Ever been on a full school bus? There were more people in that bus than there are in flickr's employ. If these companies are the future, or even part of it, how will the workers of tomorrow prepare themselves to compete for jobs when the companies most reflecting the spirit of the time employ, essentially, nobody. The great scions of America 2.0 like General Electric (287,000 employees) were both entrepreneurial and job-creating. Squaring that circle - how do we transform our economy while maintaining entrepreneurialism and job creation, when the companies of the future can get the job done with so few hands, might be one of the great 21st century challenges.