Leader as Designer

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Last year brought innovation and some pretty cool new inventions to a lot of industries, yet we still see very little innovation or large-scale change in education. We continue to face many of the same problems we have been facing for years—problems of equity, achievement gaps, outdated instructional practices and lack of funding just to name a few.  As I ponder the problems and solutions we’ve collectively tried, I am convinced it’s time to more widely embrace design thinking and mindsets of designers in education.

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach that is human-centered, possibility driven and iterative.  Engaging stakeholders in design thinking has the potential to bring something new to the conversation.  Many businesses have accepted design thinking as a practice to solve their “wickedest problems” with great success. Our problems in education tend to be bigger, messier and in at least my opinion, the outcomes matter more. We aren’t just focused on improving the bottom line or designing a new product, we are focused on designing a better future for our world. Embracing design thinking can help us approach this work differently.

In order for the world of education to fully utilize design thinking, we need leaders who are able to embrace new mindsets and incorporate design principles into their leadership. Leaders who understand the importance of empathy in their work, leaders who are willing to question the status quo, take bold risks, and constantly iterate in pursuit of what is best for students.  It’s time for education to embrace “leader as designer.”  Why designer?

  • Designers love problems.  But even more, they love starting with people who are impacted by the problem.  They ground themselves in empathy and are clear for whom they are designing.

  • Designers love questions. They are curious and constantly questioning the way the world works.  Good designers not only ask a lot of questions, they reframe questions to allow space for new insights and ideas.

  • Designers embrace ambiguity.  They see that they are multiple possible solutions and there isn’t one perfect answer or solution, so they embrace “better over best.” They know the first idea is unlikely the best idea, so they stay in the dark a little longer playing with lots of ideas and possibilities.

  • Designers build to learn.  They don’t just live in theory and think about the future or solutions.  They acknowledge the impossibility of knowing what will work without trying it, so they actively build prototypes with a transparency and feedback loop that allows for quick iterations.

Education desperately needs leaders who can lead like designers.  While researching our upcoming book, Design Thinking for School Leaders: 5 Mindsets & Mindsets that Ignite Positive Change (coming May 2018) we were especially interested in researching leaders who were using the mindsets and habits of designers to impact change.  

Our working theory was that leaders who have embraced these mindsets are able to impact greater change more quickly than leaders who are working with more traditional educational leadership mindsets. We identified common mindsets that these “Design Inspired Leaders” have and believe any leader can learn to lead in this way.   Without taking the time to understand design principles, many leaders are operating as “accidental designers,” occasionally stumbling upon innovative ideas or solutions that aren’t lasting. In our upcoming book,  we’ll provide knowledge, tools and actionable steps that help leaders shift from being leaders who are  “accidental designers” to “Design Inspired Leaders” acting with greater intention and achieving greater lasting impact. “You don’t think your way to creative work.  You work your way to creative thinking.” -George Nelson


Next week, we’ll begin sharing profiles of “Design Inspired Leaders” we met on our research journey.  While our book is complete, our learning isn’t.  We would love to continue to learn from “Design Inspired Leaders.”  Do you currently lead this way?  Do you know any “Design Inspired Leaders?”  We’d love to hear from you and learn from your experience. Email alyssa@inprogress-consulting.com to connect, look out for our book and in the meantime keep “Leading Like a Designer!”