Leading with design thinking

BlueyCheck (far right) and earlier prototypes by Claire Metcalfe. On display now in ‘Shape’ at the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Sydney, Australia.

I’ve been reading quite a bit about design thinking for an article I recently wrote in a new design publication, Design is Political. It’s been a joyous process for me. Through my reading, the issue of leadership has surfaced, with some thought provoking ideas sprinkled through talk of what leading with a design thinking mindset looks like. One of the ideas that has captivated me is a simple, and not very novel idea: how leadership can be reinvigorated by including ‘outsiders’.

Take, for example, the not-for-profit sector (or the third sector, or charities, as it’s also known). Recent articles have critiqued this sector for its lack of interest in or ability to engage with technology in the way they operate. Having not worked in this sector, this information surprised me. I thought all areas of industry, both public, private, and volunteer, had embraced the digital/technology mantra. True, this might be to a greater or lesser extent depending on context and resources, but I wasn’t aware the not-for-profit sector was particularly noticeable for an absence of technological take-up.

But then I started thinking about leadership. And reading about boards of trustees in this sector. Layered over this was my knowledge from having worked in the university and public sectors, and the membership of such leadership bodies.

I started to think about what happens when you disrupt the norm in leadership bodies. What would happen if you included someone entirely different in the membership? And what might this look like and mean for introducing design thinking to groups of people who may not have given it much thought?

For example, academic boards are one of the central leadership groups in Australian universities (and possibly universities across the world). They comprise a range of staff, but mostly those from the leadership of the university, and mostly academics. Some universities are smart and have adopted a compulsory student representative on what are very top heavy boards. It’s a really simple strategy that can shift thinking in a big way. Of course, the student representative needs to be confident, articulate, and willing to speak up for this scenario to work. And others on the board must work to consciously include their voice and hear their opinions. The idea of being the sole student voice is a big load to carry for the student, too. So all of this needs to be considered and handled carefully. But the bonus is, if this all works the way it should, academic boards will make decisions with their key ‘user’ group included: students. It’s so obvious it sounds ridiculous, but so many times, decision making bodies of organisations forget this element.

So what does this mean in terms of leadership and design thinking? Well, imagine this if you will. A key not-for-profit struggling to engage with technology in their organisation, and they don’t know how to change. Perhaps most of their board aren’t even aware that change is needed, and that technology might be a big part of the change. Perhaps it’s the use of technology to communicate the organisation’s key message, so that fundraising becomes a more dynamic and inclusive part of the way they do things. Or perhaps the change needed is about a new product for its key users, something that can improve their lives. Or perhaps it’s an internal system design that needs reimagining. You’ve got the picture? Now, imagine if the organisation’s board membership included an award winning design and technology high school student. Someone like Australian student, Claire Metcalfe, perhaps. Why? Well, Claire just designed a product called BlueyCheck, a handheld device that registers the breathing flow of young children with asthma that then sends the data to their carer’s phone. Her product is functional, playful, and addresses an important issue facing children in Australia and elsewhere.

Imagine if a not-for-profit board had a representative like Claire on it as a normal part of its membership? Imagine if that kind of innovative, design thinking voice could be heard and included in the decision making of the business. Think about the questions she might pose. The scenarios she might paint. The kinds of things that a top heavy board, not engaging with technology or design thinking, might become aware of. Imagine…

Sometimes, a disruption in the state of play, is what we all need. Someone, or a series of someones to be in the mix, to shake up the accepted way of doing things. ‘Outsiders’ if you will. This kind of practice can lead to a different mindset. One where things are less predictable and more open. Where questions are asked, and other ways of doing things becomes part of the culture. And involving a designer into the mix brings with it the possibility of infusing the qualities of design thinking into the organisation and its decision making. Qualities such as creative problem solving, an interest in ambiguity, and solution orientated positivity.

It’s such a small idea. And I said earlier, not a new one. But it’s something that any organisation could implement if they recognise their need to change and want to be more oriented to a design thinking mindset. All it takes is to make the first step.