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Democratizing the Tools of Design

Leadership

America has a long history of championing rugged individualism and visionary leadership, especially when it comes to innovation. From Henry Ford to Steve Jobs, we have culturally tied our identity to the single charismatic leader moves our society forward. And today, with rampant short termism, whether it be quarterly earnings or two-year election cycles, the dominant narrative is that we simply need more visionary and courageous leaders.

While no one would argue that visionary and courageous leaders are a bad thing, a second narrative is gaining prominence, one that is more communitarian and focuses on the shared responsibilities of leadership. This narrative is illuminated by crowdsourcing solutions to problems, innovating through hackathons, and self-directed cross-functional collaboration.

According to this second narrative, leaders are more like the flint that sparks little fires across their organizations than a single bonfire. The bonfire surely appears more spectacular, but is also more vulnerable to concentration risk (what happens if your leader gets hit by a bus?), burnout (super human leadership is rarely sustainable), and is less stable.

These contrasting narratives are playing out in the design community as well, especially as it relates to design thinking. As design thinking gains momentum and increasingly permeates the collective conscience of business, a struggle over who “owns” design has emerged. Like any powerful set of tools and labels, the struggle over status is alive and well, and misguided.

To truly unleash the power of design and design thinking, leaders of this movement should join together to diffuse design thinking through organizations. To truly transform our world, we must transform our organizations, and to transform our organizations, we must democratize design.

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This means not locking design methodologies up behind titles, statuses, hierarchies or other artificial barriers. It means that our leaders must be teachers who empower others in their organization with their skillsets, especially the tools of design thinking. While this will necessarily require the relinquishing of power and control, leaders will be handsomely rewarded with the type of distributed and sustainable innovation and value creation, that elusive sustainable competitive advantage, that is often discussed and rarely achieved.

The companies, nonprofits and government institutions interviewed for this book invested in this movement of democratizing design through their work and by sharing their stories. In their work, we witness the transformative impact that design thinking can have on organizations ranging from Fortune 50 companies to municipal governments. In these stories, we find clues for how each of us can embed design thinking into our organizations and cultures.

Through this process, these organizations help us to see our own worlds a bit more clearly, to better understand ourselves and our organizations, and to plant the seeds of design thinking so we might cultivate teams and organizations that understand their stakeholders a bit better, and design products, services and policies that help our organizations and each other reach our full potential. For in unlocking design thinking, taking it off the pedestal and getting our hands dirty teaching it to communities and organizations around the world, we can create a more empathetic and human-centered world, and that, after all, is the goal we all share.

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