A Vision for a New Type of Leader

The world’s most challenging problems demand a new type of leader.

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The grand challenges of today are just that – they are grand. They are complex, interconnected, and multifaceted. Education, for example, is not only an education challenge – education is a challenge of healthcare, of equality, of infrastructure, of empowerment. These grand challenges are deeply rooted in cultural norms and values, compounded by the complexities and richness of human behaviour, and often don’t fit our existing understanding and simplified models of the world.

We must, then, address these challenges with approaches that are just as dynamic and integrated as the challenges themselves.

Today, we leave the responsibility of these challenges to leaders from silo-ed industries. We ask urban planners for housing solutions to accommodate the projected growth in urban population. We ask engineers for energy and water infrastructure in rural communities, or for software and technology that will scale access to education. We ask business leaders for ways to bring insurance and micro-credit to those that need it most. Along the way, we leave many questions unanswered for lack of an identifiable field to take leadership. We forget that these challenges are not challenges in silo. These challenges require cross-disciplinary thinking. We need leaders who can work across disciplines, who know about science and technology, about business and political science, about behavioral sciences and development economics.

It is by building an understanding across these disciplines that we can broaden the set of questions we are asking and deepen our understanding of the whole system. Often, we simplify the challenges we are designing for too early – reducing them in complexity on the surface, and neglecting the connections of the challenge to the system around it.  On our current project with the Designers of Tomorrow Fellowship, for example, we are asking how we might reduce the time women spend on unpaid house work – in this case, it is not enough to simply bring a laundry machine to the community – we must also consider cultural and societal norms, we must question if appropriate opportunities exist for women to take up alternative activities when they have the extra time, and we must consider the use and impact of new technologies, such as the laundry machine, on the environmental health of the communities. It is, then, through this systems level understanding of the challenge, that we can truly frame up an appropriate problem statement to design for.

We also need to equip leaders with creative, iterative, and participatory approaches to design. Many of our social impact efforts today go wasted and solutions left unadopted. Too often, in our attempts to design solutions that are scalable, beautiful, technically innovative, or viable within a predefined scope and budget, we forget that we are designing for people. In recent years, the design industry has made significant progress in highlighting the importance of putting humans at the center of our designs – coining the terms Human Centered Design, and Design Thinking. The design thinking methodology encourages us to bring people into the center of the design process, to start with empathy and immersion in local context, and to validate and iterate on designs until they truly meet the needs of the people we’re designing for.

It is not enough, however, to expose this new breed of leader to design thinking approaches and mindsets. We need to train them in the new areas of study required to effectively apply these approaches. As Don Norman highlights, “The new areas are more like applied social and behavioral sciences and require understanding of human cognition and emotion, sensory and motor systems, and sufficient knowledge of the scientific method, statistics and experimental design so that designers can perform valid, legitimate tests of their ideas before deploying them.”  There is significant work that needs to be done on tailoring the lessons from these fields into the context of design. At the same time, we must create space and opportunity for these leaders to practice living the mindsets this approach requires.

In our quest to accelerate positive change in underserved communities around the world, social impact leaders will need to pair these critical skills and experiences with a change in consciousness. We must start with the recognition that we are not outside the systems that we are designing for. As Kathia Laszlo puts it, it’s about making the jump from “systems thinking to systems being” – seeing that we are all connected to one another, and that our everyday actions add up to be just as important as our grand vision of the future. Our new leaders must embrace the courage and humility it takes to recognize that change starts with individual action.

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Grand challenges demand grand leadership. My vision for us  – the designers and social impact leaders of tomorrow – is access to a field of study that is uniquely designed to incorporate creative, iterative, and participatory problem solving approaches with the rigour and grounding of theory from an integrated set of disciplines. A field of study that teaches the ability to understand and navigate systems level connections, and creates the space and opportunity to practice moral leadership.  

It’s exciting to see many leaders in industry already working to make this vision a reality – we are starting to question the role designers play in society, the importance of leadership that is grounded in empathy and humility, the way design education is structured today, and the need for collaboration and integration of traditionally separate disciplines.

The DOT project is a contribution to this vision, experimenting with a learning platform  focused on: creating the opportunity to immerse, developing exercises/assignments designed for perspective building, building a multi-disciplinary community, working on real projects, and placing emphasis on exploring potential and practicing moral leadership.

The work is far from finished. It’s up to us to come together – engineers, business leaders, policy makers, social scientists, and designers – to define a new integrated discipline for the leaders of tomorrow.

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