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Three Ways Thinking Like a Designer Can Make You a Better Leader

Design Based Thinking

What can a designer teach a leader about running a complex business, managing teams and budgets at scale, and dealing with challenging business issues? 

The answer is A LOT. 

The leader who is not a learner is destined to demise. To stay stuck in your thinking and not reach for new knowledge available through lessons, insights and contributions of others is to guarantee a stagnant career path and limited individual + team performance. 

At Fluency, we’ve been thinking about thinking so much these days! The biggest log on this fire is Adam Grant’s amazing new book Think Again, which provides the spark for anybody to learn new things, unlearn the things that are holding us back, and create a new framework that opens our minds (and hearts) to unprecedented levels of learning. 

Where It All Started 

So that got me to thinking about the richness of design-based thinking and how that could be a treasure trove of opportunity for any leader. The signpost I’ve used to guide me to the world of design-based thinking through the lens of careers and leadership habeen Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. 

In 2017, my coach and mentor Gary Selick introduced me to Designing Your Life. “I think this might be purposeful for you in your next career chapter,” Gary offered. He couldn’t have been more accurate. Bill and Dave brought a fresh and inviting approach to life planning and career development, using the mind and toolset of a designer as the guide. DYL was the genesis of my journey into coaching. It became the catalyst and grounding for me to articulate a more fulfilling, rewarding career path and gave me the courage to build my way towards a new chapter in leadership and coaching. Fast forward to 2019 and I gained additional  credentials as a Certified Designing Your Life Coach and accelerated my learning and curiosity in the world of design-based thinking.  

Today, we use a number of DYL tools in our coaching practice, particularly with clients who are designing the Next Chapter of their careers.  

But the insights and approaches designers bring to their work offers much more. In fact, there are some powerful and purposeful guides that any leader can learn and draw inspiration from. 

Here are my three favourite design thinking approaches that are fully available to leaders and easy to put onto the field of play   

Failure Immunity 

A recent web session, led by Dave Evansexplored the concept of “Failure Immunity”. What that means is we can create a state in which we move beyond the self-limiting beliefs we use to hide from failure…things like fear, culture, and consequences. In design-based thinking, we harvest all the learning from a failure, things like “what went wrong” and “what do we now see that we didn’t before” and “how will this make our next work even better”. When we position ourselves in a state of learning, then there is no failure. The only time we can truly fail is when we don’t reflect and gather the learnings, for ourselves and our teams. That’s truly a loss. We can create the conditions to be immune to failure if we are open to the lessons, the new insights, and the commitment to iterate and build our way forward in the future. 


As a leader, we can spend enormous amounts of time, energy and resources into “the plan”, which is the singular and constrained path forward we architect for our teams and businesses. When we think like a designer, we abolish the view of “the plan” and we start with “the plansThis is rooted in the belief that when we begin, more ideas (prototypes) are better than less, and that we work each prototype until it does one of two things: it breaks and shows us it’s not a viable plan, or it shows positive momentum and we give ourselves permission to keep working that prototype. Eventually, our prototype gathers momentum and gets stronger and more fully realized. Suddenly, it becomes “the plan” we can execute and bring to life. And if along that journey that plan starts to show weakness or challenge, we can still go back and iterate other ideas, because no work is wasted when you think like a designer.   


In all the goodness I’ve learned from design-based thinking, collaboration is arguably the most powerful. When we collaborate and talk to people, we change our entire mindset from the internal to the external. Rather than figuring everything out in our heads (which is really challenging place to do great work), we lean into the conversation, ideas and perspectives of others. Designers are never afraid to share their work with others; in fact, they know no other way to work. We should follow their inspiration and bring that collaborative mindset to all our work. It produces better results AND it fuels our connection to the human element of work. 


Questions for Reflection 

What have you learned from your recent failures? How open are you to the learnings from those failures? 

What would it look like if you changed your plan to plans and explored multiple prototypes right now? 

Who is waiting for you to be a great collaborator in the future? 


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