How To Implement Design Thinking Leadership in Your Company

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I didn't realize it, but I've been following the steps in design thinking for my entire career, which goes back to 1978. Around then, the company that would become the design firm IDEO was credited with pioneering the design thinking concept built around its human-centered design approach.

In essence, design thinking is an algorithm for creative problem solving that has been used in a variety of industries, especially technology.

There are five steps in the design thinking process:

1. Empathize.

2. Define.

3. Ideate.

4. Prototype.

5. Test.

The first step, empathize, is the most challenging, but also the most disruptive. In order to empathize, you need to let go of what you know and even what you think as you dig deep into the needs, desires (spoken and unspoken) and minds of your market.

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Companies often hesitate to do that because they don't want to discover that what their market needs and wants is not in line with what the company sells (and has likely invested hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in developing).

Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are considered visionaries for their ability to see into the future needs, desires and "gotta haves" of their markets — before their customers even recognize those needs themselves.

Jobs' famous quote reflects this: "Some people say give the customers what they want, but that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, 'If I'd ask customers what they wanted, they would've told me a faster horse.' People don't know what they want until you show it to them."

As I said, I have unknowingly been following the tenets of design thinking to address nontechnical issues, including design thinking suicide prevention, design thinking relationships and design thinking culture.

Here, we'll apply design thinking to leadership. When you empathize with people and find out what they truly want in a leader, most will agree that they want to feel a sense of trust, confidence, safety, respect, admiration, commonality and inspiration from their leader.

If you don't believe that, consider the opposite. How much less motivated and secure would people feel if their leader projected feelings of distrust, doubt, vulnerability, disappointment, embarrassment, dislike and discouragement?

I rest my case.

The second step in design thinking is define, as in define the problem. For example, your defined problem might be, "How do we motivate our people, and more importantly, how do we attract and retain top talent?"

The next step is to ideate a solution that would solve this problem. In other words, what observable behaviors in a leader would make their people (and for that matter, anyone who comes in contact with them) feel the top seven feelings toward them? And, can we turn that into a prototype that can be tested?

The following are by no means exclusive, but I believe that any leader who exhibits these observable behaviors will fit the criteria:

1. They're clear, concise, accountable and unflappable. They articulate problems, strategies and roles, and they take ultimate responsibility when bad things happen. They remain calm and centered in any challenging situation.

2. They're knowledgeable and wise. They know what they're talking about and don't shoot from the hip. They base their claims in facts and evidence, not conjecture. They know what's a priority and what isn't.

3. They take charge. They can deal with any challenging situation without being controlling. This creates a psychologically safe organization where no one is afraid of someone based on their personality or leadership approach.

4. They stand up for the company's values and code of conduct, and they stand up against anyone who violates them.

5. They are a role model and someone you'd be proud to have as your leader.

6. They have a sense of humor, don't take themselves too seriously and genuinely enjoy their people beyond what they do for work.

7. They lift people up and help them feel hopeful, especially in difficult times.

The prototype involves creating an assessment of the leader based on those seven positive feelings, followed by the observable behaviors. You can do this on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is rarely, 5 is sometimes and 10 is almost always.

The final step is to see if the leader agrees with the above criteria and find out how they rate themselves. Then, if they are willing, you should do a 360 with key stakeholders who are above, below and at the leader's peer level.

Finally, an internal or external coach may be assigned to follow up and follow through with the process. They may do assessments in three-month intervals to chart progress.

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