• eagzki

The Design Thinking leader

Have you asked for help lately? If you haven't then your reluctance to show vulnerability might be holding you back. Design Thinking powered by vulnerability can transform your leadership.

Design Thinking, if you aren't familiar with it, is a solution-finding approach that innovators exploit to delight customers with new products and services which either solve their problems or offer attractive new benefits. The idea is that the needs of the human, or customer, is at the centre of the design. Key underpinning principles are that teams with diverse perspectives gather inspiration from the real world, before generating as many divergent ideas and solutions as possible before they test, refine and implement them.

Brené Brown describes vulnerability as: uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

If this sounds like a strange juxtaposition or just plain scary, I would like to convince you that these two concepts can work powerfully to transform your leadership.

Even before Covid, today’s work environment was complex, volatile, uncertain and ambiguous. Despite labels like “new normal”, our brains reject the notion that uncertainty is normal. Instead our brains perceive uncertainty as danger, and danger triggers our stress responses: fight, flight or freeze. If we can’t dissipate the perceived danger immediately, then we remain stressed and our brains continue to look for and gravitate towards certainty and safety.

I know how this feels. I had an enlightening experience leading a team of knowledge workers through a very ambiguous challenge, where I tried to tough out the stress with an increasingly constricting grip on their activities. Needless to say, my approach was counter productive! As the team lost their sense of autonomy , one of the fundamental drivers of self-motivation, transparency reduced, tensions increased and I felt I had even less control.

The collaborative, messy and emergent nature of much of today’s work makes it impossible for leaders to assert detailed control over every activity. What I hadn't realised was that I was responding to a complex situation with solutions fit for relatively simple circumstances; and that my overall leadership was being compromised by the one thing I didn't know. I was unwittingly demonstrating Liebig's Law of the Minimum (read more about this here) and I only realised when someone from another professional field introduced me to concepts that were much more suited to leadership in my current situation than my stock responses.

This is where Design Thinking can help. Design Thinking offers a mindset for problem solving in uncertainty because the process calls for a range of people with diverse perspectives to spark ideas and learn from one another. It also puts the human for whom the solution is being designed at the centre of the process. If we put ourselves as leaders at the centre of the design process and ask “what do I need?”, then we are not limited to what we already know and open ourselves up to the expertise and inspiration of others.


But this takes courage. The principle of collaborating with others to find solutions to our leadership challenges means we have to admit to them that we don’t have this thing nailed. And we have to be prepared to experiment and potentially fail.

If you are feeling uncomfortable at this point, you are normal. We often avoid admitting our limitations to others because it triggers another perception of danger in our brains. Brené Brown’s research identifies this danger as shame. Society has evolved to take a negative view of what we don’t yet know or haven’t yet mastered and labels them as weakness and failure - in spite of them being inevitable and prerequisites to learning. Her research concludes that the only way to achieve our potential is to push through these feelings, to get uncomfortable, to make ourselves vulnerable.

"Vulnerability is having the courage to show up in life."

Brené Brown

If this still feels scary, there’s another reason why it might be worth it. Vulnerability builds trust. There is a virtual cycle between trust and vulnerability, where we have to reveal a little of our vulnerability in order to learn who we can trust. When our vulnerability is received without judgement and with empathy, and we can do the same for others, the trust and rapport is established and reinforced. On top of this, by revealing our vulnerability we are likely to trigger an impulse in others to help us. Unless we are convinced of the malevolent intent of others, vulnerability is usually a risk worth taking.

The simple logic of including stakeholders impacted by our leadership actions in understanding how to make positive improvements means our solutions are built on real world evidence and observations - another principle of Design Thinking. It also increases motivation, by allowing our teams and others to contribute and feel a sense of control over their work. The benefits of Design Thinking our leadership powered by vulnerability are self-reinforcing.

The key is to implementation is to engage at all stages with at least some of your “design team”, which could include your team, boss, peers, customers, coach, mentor and so on. If you are nervous about making yourself vulnerable, try talking your approach through with a coach or mentor first. Test early and keep the experiments small - don’t waste time building a solution that flops as soon as it hits reality.

Some tips for each stage:

1) Ask what it is that you need? Aim for a question that is “just right” - in the middle of too abstract “how can I be a better leader?” and too narrow “how can I delegate more?”. It might be something like “what can I do to empower my team to take responsibility for quality?”.

2) Gather inspiration. Talk to peers, mentors, role models, professional networks and find out what they do. Include real world observations on your leadership as well - 360 feedback will help identify any personal behaviours that may be contributing to the challenge.

3) Generate ideas. Use the inspiration you have found to generate as many ideas as possible.

4) Make ideas tangible. Combine your ideas to come up with as many solutions as possible. Consider what the obstacles might be and iterate to come up with better solutions.

5) Test. Home in on a solution that could work and test it; or for anything more than simple solutions break them down in to parts and just test the parts that might not work. Review learning and if it worked keep going; if it didn’t then and refine or replace the solution.

My experience is that just opening the conversation to reveal that I am stuck and need help creates a whole new atmosphere for trust, support and creativity. My team told me they were inspired, energised and ready to help… and they did.

If you would like to know more about leadership and change management, including our 3D virtual experience for change leadership insights, then please get in touch with us at the GoodLife+Work Project: eva@evalutioncoach.com and david@k3cubed.com.



david@K3Cubed.com   |  Registered Company Number (UK): 7424254

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Knowledge Management . Change Management . Transformational Leadership . Change Leadership . Team Development . Coaching Culture . Knowledge Sharing Culture . Stakeholder Management . Applied Influence . Cultural Change . Change Informatics . Knowledge Informatics . High-Performance Teams . Micro-Experiments . Change Impact Assessment . Knowledge Management Benchmarking . Agile Learning Benchmarking .