How to use design thinking to be a better leader


When developing a product, designers focus not only on the product they are making but also how humans will use it. If they didn’t tackle problems this way, then the world would be filled with items that weren’t truly fit for purpose – think windscreen wipers on the inside of the car.

It’s no wonder that design thinking is being adopted by organisations far and wide to take a people-first approach to innovation – by addressing pain points first and working backwards to develop a solution.

Solving problems through design thinking is a five-stage process – empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test. While the framework is commonly used in product development and service design, it is a vital tool that should be used for leadership too.

Why? Because leadership is about people, and putting people at the centre of business strategy will transform how organisations operate, what they stand for, and how they make their mark on society.

 Here’s how to use design thinking to be a better leader:

Empathise

 Just as product developers put themselves in consumers’ shoes to understand what makes them tick, leaders too should use empathy to better understand their employees’ drivers, passions and ways of seeing the world. Research has proven that employees work harder when they’re happy, so if leaders want to improve business performance, employee engagement is a great place to start.

The challenge for leaders today is that happiness at work means different things to different people – some people may feel satisfied when they have autonomy and flexibility, whereas others might find working collaboratively in a team makes them feel supported. This is why being an empathetic leader is crucial to unlocking the various sore spots that exist within a workplace and understanding how to address them to move forward.

Define

Leaders are decision-makers, strategists, visionaries, change agents and mentors. They wear many hats and, as such, there is no one-size-fits-all formula to follow. Being able to define your role in the business as well as the roles of others; the problems you want to solve; and the legacy you wish to leave on the organisation is crucial in establishing direction and a clear purpose for your organisation.

Additionally, leaders should define their leadership style. Richard Branson is a prime example of this: he defines himself as a leader who takes risks, is empowering and transformational, while also being a loyal listener and caring for his employees, which is reflected in the organisations he leads.

Ideate

Ideation is not just a tool that helps innovators come up with fresh new ideas. It can help leaders think outside the box and map out the business vision, employees’ personal and professional growth trajectory, and their very own career path.

There may be an ‘I’ in ideate, but that doesn’t mean you should do it alone. Fostering a culture of ideation is integral to leadership success. This can be done through regular brainstorming sessions paired with a vetting process that allows people in the business to ask questions that evaluate the feasibility of the idea. Leaders who bring together cognitively diverse teams will also have access to strong ideation by promoting a variety of perspectives to approach solving problems in innovative new ways.

Prototype

The design thinking framework encourages leaders to view their environment as consisting of two things – problems to be solved and products to be improved. Whether the focus is to improve the culture of the organisation; develop a five-year business vision; or find new, more engaging ways to upskill employees, leaders should prototype these ideas and move along the path from idea to action.

Prototyping doesn’t have to be time-consuming or extensive. Seeing is believing and, though it may seem unconventional to prototype something intangible like culture or a vision, leaders can get their employees involved in developing storyboards, role-playing the values of the organisation, or creatively mocking up what the future of the business should look like through visual content.

Test

Great leaders, like designers, acknowledge there is no one way to approach a problem, and no magic 8 ball to tell you what the best solution is. As such, testing hypotheses and prototypes with the audience who matters most – your employees – is the final stage in aligning all steps to be a better leader.

Every decision you make as a leader – no matter how big or small – has an impact on the organisation. The testing phase should therefore focus on the impact of your leadership to employees and the organisation. Ask for feedback that’s built on honesty and focused on improvement from all stakeholders, and take note of any feedback loops to validate what works and what doesn’t.

Design thinking is a powerful methodology because it looks beyond set-and-forget processes and takes a non-linear approach to innovation. When applied to leadership, it celebrates the fact that people are at the heart of an organisation, and acknowledges that this comes with unique pain-points and complexities. By utilising design thinking as a powerful leadership tool, you will unlock the power to take your staff, your organisation and yourself to new professional heights.


Jeffrey Tobias, AGSM Fellow at UNSW Business School and Managing Director of the Strategy Group.