Why Future Leaders Need to Become Designers

It is hard to participate in a strategic conversation about the future these days without hearing about disruption everywhere, the increasing ‘clock speed’ of change, exponential rates of technological advancement and the pressing need to innovate. We hear about the flurry and hype emerging from a bubbling start-up scene, constantly shifting customer preferences and the need to be more ‘nimble’ and agile.

The New VUCA Normal

We find ourselves in a new reality of operating within confusing and complex business environments. This backdrop is often referred to as living in a ‘VUCA’ world where we are constantly navigating volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This has given rise to the prominence of ‘wicked’ problems – issues that are ill-defined, difficult to describe, constantly evolving and ambiguous with tangled root causes.

Strategy 2.0: Capability not Positions

The value that we bring as business leaders and corporate advisers is to help organisations make ‘better’ strategic choices and difficult trade-offs – the analytical ability to research through reams of data and information, making sense through analysis to land on a logically sound position.

Doing so in a VUCA world has become increasingly difficult given the rapid pace of change facing businesses today. As change becomes constant and market dynamics are constantly redefined in a digital world, competitive positions are more difficult to defend and are eroding faster than ever.

We are seeing the role of strategy shift from identifying and defending market positions to become an ongoing capability requiring constant dialogue that surfaces and resolves tension. The only remaining competitive advantage is adaptive and agile leadership that can enable the business to navigate this VUCA world and avoid extinction.

The ability to generate more and improved options, make swift choices, drive change with more traction and pivot faster at speed requires a skill set that is beyond the traditional analytical approach to strategy and transformation.

Leaders must morph from analysts and experts into coaches and facilitators of organisational strategic dialogue

The Logic Shortfall

The ancient philosopher, Aristotle speaks about two different ways to construct arguments and thought processes. We are well acquainted with logical arguments – determining whether something is true or false through a process of objective deduction – moving from premise to conclusion through ‘proving it’. This mode of thinking values control, outcome certainty and numerical data.

This underpinned the era of scientific inquiry, which led to technological advancement, the industrial revolution and exponential increases in wealth and capital. However, we have over-emphasised the importance of this mode of thinking thus far. As we navigate a world of increasing uncertainty with ever growing unknowns, we are starting to see the shortcomings of applying analytical reasoning to wicked problems.

The current environment continues to highlight a common flaw in modern-day problem solving that has over-emphasised the first mode of thinking. We are starting to find that the analytical logic we have relied upon is no longer sufficient.

“It is impossible for us to analyse our way into the future, for the simple fact that it does not exist” –  Roger Martin 

As we continue to move through a world with growing mystery and complexity, the role of second mode of thinking – persuasive rhetoric becomes increasingly important.

Design as the Modern Rhetoric

Rhetoric is important when intuitively exploring for solutions in a world in which “things can be other than as they are”– constructing arguments that simultaneously proceed in multiple directions and protracted indefinitely. Rhetorical arguments rely on coherence, confidence and dialogue to persuade, regardless of the logical truth, which is very useful in exploring the future, as it cannot be ‘proven’ into a logical conclusion.

So how can we shift away from such a zealous application of analytical thinking to solve any and all problems? Ultimately, thriving in a VUCA world requires re-balancing of the analytical and rhetoric modes of thinking. In a world that has traditionally overemphasised analytical logic; the discipline and philosophy of design offers an avenue to further develop our strategic toolkit for the future – one that is centred on creativity and creating ‘new’ value.

Richard Buchanan, whilst at Carnegie Mellon University, puts forward an argument for design as the modern-day discipline and philosophy of exploring the rhetoric. As we cannot rely solely on the analytical to define our future beyond the incremental, we must look to design as a value lever that can be pulled to help develop options and make choices in a VUCA world. Design has the power to facilitate exploration and ideation in order to shift our mindsets towards embracing ambiguity for ‘Wicked’ problem solving.

It is imperative that as business leaders we invest in uplifting our understanding and ability to leverage design to strengthen our persuasive rhetorical ‘muscles’ and harness back our curiosity, creativity and imagination to drive innovation in shaping the future.

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