How to Design Think Your Leadership

With the growing impact and trends of digital transformation in workplaces across Australia and beyond, new skills are in demand to help this transition. Despite the debate over which professions will suffer the greatest impact from this change, one such skill growing in demand in different sectors is design thinking. Design thinking enables rapid innovation processes to investigate needs for users and design solutions to meet these needs.

I started to wonder how this approach might be used to shape experiences of leadership – how could leaders use this approach to intentionally shape their practice and refine it? Design thinking doesn’t require an identified problem to be useful. This human-centred methodology for improving an experience can work equally well for designing a personal leadership approach. If nothing else, it can help you reflect on what you do and how you do it to see if there are any areas for refinement or development.

Understand your team

Understanding who you are leading is critical. A leader without followers is not a leader. It isn’t just knowing your team or organisation at an esoteric level – it means really understanding them. This stage requires you to empathise with your team – name and notice the things that matter to them as human beings. What do they like? How would you describe them? What are their needs, their pain points, when it comes to a leader? Can you get any data from others about feedback previously supplied on past leaders? Depending on how large the team is, could you use personas as a way of understanding your team? I imagine for most people, personas might be over-engineering the process, but the point here is to take time to think about your team, their characteristics, and their needs.

Define your approach

Take what you have discovered and spend time reflecting on the key needs and wants your team have, which may include problems that effective leadership can help resolve. It is also important to reflect on the purpose of the team, and consider any needs/wants/problems that the team have to face as a whole. This could be identified from within the team (such as a cultural issue) or from outside the team (such as a business problem). In light of this, define what type of leader will best serve the team to help them deliver on their responsibilities. For example, you could define yourself as a leader that needs to be more nurturing towards the team, or one that creates more autonomy for individuals. Keep in mind that whatever approach you define, you will have many ways to implement and test your thinking, and you are never stuck with it.

Ideate your leadership

I remember when I first used the term, Ideate, I was asked if that was even a word. This means to generate ideas, to think of the various methods and options to enact or respond to something. It could be how you construct the team for their work, how you set expectations for norms of behaviour, or how you plan your own work to ensure you can enact the leadership approach you have defined. With your understanding of the team’s needs and your reflections, this design thinking stage is where you identify options you will prototype to see what works the best for you, your team and your organisation.

Prototype and experiment

When designing a product or solution for large scale implementation, this stage is vital to help refine and safely experiment your ideas. Pending on the scale of your leadership, you may choose to prototype your ideas with a smaller group of individuals, For example, if you lead (or will lead) a larger organisation, you may choose to prototype your leadership approach with your executive team first. This way, you can see quickly if the approach is valid, and gather feedback from the smaller team to inform what you might do at a larger scale. If you have a smaller team, you may choose to prototype your thinking with friends or family – or at least share your thinking and get feedback on it before implementing. The opportunity in this stage is to try an idea on a small scale before wider testing.

Test your approach, and refine

This stage is a culminating point for work done so far. As a leader, you are implementing your approach you feel will best meet the needs of your team. Testing and refining is where I think leaders needs to remain. You will have an idea or two about your leadership approach, but it is only when you enact this with others will you get feedback that will help shape whether this approach is working and can be refined, or whether it needs to be changed, and you return to ideation.

I have used a variation of design thinking in my own leadership. I work to understand my team, and keep on understanding them, their needs and challenges. I reflect on these as a whole and define what my focus needs to be to serve my team and our collective purpose. I think of different ways to enact my leadership, informed by material I have read/listened to or observed in others. I then prototype some of these to see which approach has the greatest positive impact and then I reflect on the experience and gather feedback to refine my approach.

I believe leaders must use some form of design thinking in their practice because the cycle of interaction with others  – with humans – demands we seek to understand their needs and how to best meet them. To have an impact as a leader is to combine meeting the needs of the team you are leading whilst meeting the purpose for the team. And it can be done through a process, not by accident.


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