Which is more important–the consumer’s voice or the leader’s voice in creating a transformative Design Thinking experience? It is not an either or choice as both are essential. The Consumer Voice is essential in developing empathy and co-creating for her/his needs but the Leader’s Voice is essential for having anything happen as a result of that empathy and insight. Yet, so many organizations do little to prime their leaders to set a context in which Design Thinking can contribute. And, just like identifying how to engage and collaborate with the consumer matters, so does identifying how to have the leader engage.

Recently HBR published an article that began to explore the Leader’s voice and role in getting great Design Thinking. Why is it so critical to have strong leadership? In their article “The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking,” Bason and Austin said it well “to employees long accustomed to being told to be rational and objective, such methods can seem subjective and overly personal….Consequently employees who are unfamiliar with design thinking (usually the majority) need the guidance and support of leaders to navigate the unfamiliar landscape and productively channel their reactions to the approach.”  They go on to identify three key practices that leaders should use to set the conditions for Design Thinking to succeed:

  1. Leaders must “support employees with distressing emotions that arise when they effectiveness of their work is questioned (by consumers). Unexpected findings can generate defensiveness and fear, interfering with empathy and undermining motivation” (Bason and Austin).  In Design Thinking I have seen this defensiveness first hand.  The intentions of the work deployed are good and it is not insufficient or failing because people did not work diligently on it.  However, when empathy work leads to ‘calling the employee’s work baby ugly’ their defensive mechanism can be unleashed and they can fear being seen by management as having failed, perhaps jeopardizing their job.  Great leaders in Design Thinking role model curiosity and interest in truth and are not tempted to begin the blame game on how we got to where we are. They are all about learning a better way forward. This orientation opens up employees to also be curious.
  2. Leaders must “help their people resist the urge to converge quickly on a solution without feeling they lack direction” (Bason and Austin). Having clarity on the goal is essential for the team and a great leader will make sure this is always front and center. Doing this while also encouraging exploration is an art form. Teams like to resolve the problem. Educational systems often teach people to find the three best alternatives and then choose. In Design Thinking, this will only lead to expected solutions. As Larry Loftis is quoted in the article saying, “The first two or three [ideas] come very easily, but then it becomes very difficult to come up with those other solutions. You have to unanchor (from your initial thoughts) and open up your mind.” It is these later solutions which can challenge accepted beliefs or be seen by looking laterally that can be the fertile ground for breakthrough. However, if the leader is not supporting the exploration, and the ambiguity that comes with it, the teams may never get to great ideas.
  3. Leaders must “provide time and resources and address skepticism about the value of the work by conveying to employees that ‘failed’ prototypes represent progress” (Bason and Austin). Furthermore, leaders that understand that any given prototype is just one take on how to deliver value is important. Often, less adept Design Thinking leaders fall in love with a prototype and derail the progress.  Prototype experimentation allows co-creation of value with stakeholders but the goal is not approval of the prototype but learning on what the real value is and solutions require.

But that is not enough.  The Leader, even if he or she role models curiosity and openness, supports exploration and divergence and prototyping, must do more. Great Design Thinking Leaders are aware of their status and work to not have their voice have too much weight during learning and exploration. They are aware of the questions they ask and how these questions can open up or shut down a team. They are humble and willing to hear what the stakeholder’s truth is even it doesn’t match their own. Usually, leaders are unaware of how the organization looks to them for approval in subtle ways and looks at cues from leader statements, questions and beliefs to edit the organization’s actions. To get great Design Thinking, Leaders have to also become self aware and self monitoring.  They wait to speak in group discussions and don’t draw conclusions prematurely. They avoid asking yes/no, right/wrong questions but rather ask open ended ones that encourage exploration and learning. And, they articulate when their own understanding and awareness is changed/deepened by the consumer voice.  When they pay attention to these things, along with the items noted by Bason and Austin, then they are equipped to unleash the power of Design Thinking on their organization.


Cindy Tripp



Take Action

  • Take 10 minutes to read the HBR article by Bason and Austin
  • Consider the questions you ask of your exploration and innovation teams. Do you ask “how many ideas meet our criteria?” or do you ask “what have we learned from our initial ideas about what the opportunity is?” early in a Design Thinking or innovation effort. Pay attention to what subtle signals you are sending in your questions.
  •  Plan with success in mind. Once you have an idea birthed through a Design Thinking process, it is an infant idea and needs to be nurtured and built. The really great leaders identify a team before the idea is fully formed to be part of the process from the beginning that will carry it forward to a testable idea in market. Too many ideas suffer from lack of nurturing as leaders underestimate how a good idea will flourish on its own. In reality, good ideas, once identified, need caretakers to bring them to their full potential.
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