In a recent article, we outlined how important it is for future leaders to become designers. This touched on the evolving and diverse skillsets required to address the rise of ‘wicked problems’. The first step for leaders is to gain a clear understanding of what ‘design’ is and to appreciate its vast forms in context of each other.
Manifestation of design
Design as a verb is defined in two ways – the first being ‘to decide upon the look and functioning of (insert object of design)’ and the second (and less commonly used) ‘to do or plan (something) with a specific or deliberate purpose in mind’.
The wide range of activities that manifests as ‘design’ has led to a rich set of content but a lack of clarity on how to usefully frame it for business leaders – what it means and how it all ties together. Objects of design range from products and services to digital and communication and even architecture and social / business models.
Whilst we may be quite familiar with traditional designers – artists who make beautiful and aesthetically pleasing visualisations or industrial designers who solve for functional outputs (think electrical appliances or furniture), there is an emerging breed of designers that are taking their skills and capabilities to the heart of businesses.
The image below suggests how to think of the various forms of design as a spectrum, from the concrete and technical towards the abstract and social. Tackling today’s wicked problems requires us to explore the upper parts of the design ladder to better understand complex and ‘wicked’ challenges. The bottom-left corner of this spectrum involves using design to improve the aesthetics and visual elements. The next step up the ladder focuses on improving ‘usability’, where we can leverage design techniques to produce functionally brilliant products. As we progress into the more abstract and social concepts, design is incorporated into the entire ‘experience’, focusing on how users think, feel and act throughout an experience.
Figure 1: Visualisation of the design spectrum
You may come across some design practitioners who are increasingly infiltrating the corporate world to design services and customer experiences, undertaking customer needs research and producing outputs such as journey maps to bring it to life. A rarer breed are the ones practicing at the top end of this spectrum – which looks at systems and strategy (aligned decision making capability as an organisation) as the object of design.
Steve Jobs was successful at driving a design-led company and said that “it’s not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works”. Importantly, Jobs was not just describing the functional elements of the Apple product suite, but also the ecosystem and integrated experience that he was crafting. This involved fusing design through usability, experience and strategy.
Mindsets over tools
Building a design capability involves two elements:
a) the thinking (mindsets) and
b) the doing (tools)
More often than not, efforts to embed design in organisations have resulted in an over emphasis on design tools. While tools are important in shaping the outputs and outcomes of a task, the mindset of thinking like a designer shapes organisational culture.
Harnessing the power of design as you progress up the ladder requires a greater focus on the mindsets that enable us to truly challenge the status quo. In our experience, mindsets are more important as the tools evolve at the upper order of design applications.
In order to shift mindsets, future leaders need to learn to:
- Challenge the status quo and be relentlessly curious
- Ask ‘what if’ and ‘why not’, exploring the art of the possible
- Listen, empathise and walk in people’s shoes, understanding beyond the problem and into the broader context
- Be open to new ideas, build their creative confidence and tolerate failure as a learning pathway
- Look for patterns in seemingly unrelated things and surface unconventional insights
When successfully embedded, design helps leaders shape a firm’s culture to be more open to innovative ideas. Design-led companies such as Apple, Coca-Cola, IBM, Nike, Procter & Gamble and Whirlpool have typically outperformed the S&P 500 over the past 10 years by a remarkable 219%. This shows the real benefit of embedding design mindsets as we look to build the businesses of tomorrow.
Enhancing not replacing
Leveraging the power of design is not about throwing out analytical techniques. Merging the creative process and the scientific rigour of analytical thinking creates a sweet spot that is commonly referred to as design thinking.
While many people have outlined the value of design thinking, in practice this has resulted in an approach that ‘throws the baby out with the bathwater’ and tends to marginalise the analytical process – in the frame of new world paradigms and redundant repetitive jobs in the future.
Design lets us enhance and transform the traditional approach (not replace) and when used properly, leads to the generation of more options that create new value for people, society and business.
The discipline of strategy and analytical thinking provides laser focus on making choices and understanding trade-offs, while creativity and design thinking minimises the need for trade-offs through integrating the possible choices.
We should maintain a constant focus on how we can integrate and infuse design to augment the traditional analytical problem solving approach into the business world that is bound by it. Doing so will enable us as future business leaders to unlock new value and create, capture and deliver new ideas.
 Design Management Institute
 Rotman on Design