Design Leadership as Slow-Motion Facilitation

A lot of traditional models of leadership, especially in the corporate and political worlds, take on military language. There has been a lot of it recently. When you refer to customers as targets, talk about your decisive strategy to win, or of crushing competitors as part of your daily language, it’s no wonder leadership literature often take on similar metaphors. McKinsey famously compares itself to the Marine Corps, after all.

It creeps into leadership training too, but I have often seen this approach fall very flat when design leaders are exposed to it. Designers are less likely to say, “Follow me into battle and we’ll crush the enemy!” than, “What’s the reason behind why we are fighting and what are the needs of the other side?”

Design Leadership, like any successful leadership, is about making the best of your strengths rather than trying to compensate for “weaknesses” that aren’t actually weaknesses. They’re often just character differences. Putting a lot of effort into trying to master something you’re just not that into is a recipe for the imposter phenomenon to take hold.

Many designers have had a lot of experience with and are strong in facilitation of workshops and co-creation sessions. It’s an area many design leaders excel at far better than their non-designer colleagues. So, instead of thinking about setting up and managing teams, departments or studios as switching away from design and into “business” mode, think of it as slow-motion facilitation instead.

A good facilitator understands who is being invited, who is being excluded, the power structures at play, what the purpose of the session is, what tools, methods and spaces are required, and what the cadence of the day is. She’s able to read the room and see when people need an energiser, or when a person on a table is off to one side and disengaged during an activity, for example. She knows when to encourage divergent thinking and when to draw things back together to land the day with a good sense of closure and clarity around what comes next.

If you’ve done this, you’ll know how the smallest things, like poor spaces or food, cheap sticky notes and patchy WiFi can tank an otherwise great workshop. All these things are true for design teams and individuals, too. Structural work—remuneration, career pathways, responsibilities, etc.—are important, but daily irritations can make or break a studio’s culture through worn down morale. Fixing them is often a quick way to generate a lot of goodwill. A decent coffee machine is an investment that pays itself back tenfold.

Penny-pinching on budgets for the tools people use every day (like real Post-It™ notes and Sharpies™), being told by I.T. that you can’t use the software you’ve gained years of muscle memory using, or a lock on the beer fridge are the body language of your organisation. They say, “we don’t think what you do is important enough for us to take care of and we don’t trust you to be adults either.”

Just like in workshops, teams and individuals sometimes get stuck. Sometimes a team—or even a whole studio—is in the messy middle, all at sea with too much data and too many options. They need some structure to bring focus, just as you would bring to the post-ideation activities in a workshop.

The secret, I found, was that it often doesn’t matter so much exactly what that structure is. I would regularly help a team get over the initial hump of synthesis by drawing some kind of synthesis template on a flip-chart page as a way to start filtering the data.

Invariably, I’d walk in an hour later and the team would tell me my template wasn’t quite working so they had modified it. That’s perfect. I don’t need them to follow my orders, I need them to follow their own order. My shitty first draft helped get them unstuck precisely because it gave them boundaries to overstep.

Teams can get bogged down in the weeds, waste a lot of time bickering over methodologies and their field of creative vision narrows or they go into autopilot.

If you’ve ever been in an ideation session in a co-design workshop and ended up with loads of AI chatbot and drone concepts, you’ll also know that sometimes teams need to be given lateral direction. They need release from structure or at least something that opens up the possibilities again.

That might mean taking off the pressure or re-setting a sense of perspective. What Fjord’s Mark Curtis often called “a moment of madness.” I once told a client leadership team that in 60 years almost everyone in the room would be dead as a reminder that their corporate power struggles weren’t as significant as they had come to believe.

As with workshops, there’s a flow of information that you may need to release in sequence, cognisant of how it will influence the thinking in the room in future activities. The input-output sequence of activities echoes production paths and working styles in an organisation. Equally you’ll want to strive for a diversity of voices, of imagery, examples, and regularly hand-off to co-facilitators. Sometimes you need to zoom out, sometimes you need to focus on the details.

As someone who likes fractal metaphors I found you can apply this approach at different scales, but I won’t go further into comparing every facet of facilitation. If you possess this experience, then try using that lens as a way of thinking about how you approach design leadership. You may find it more palatable than trying to pretend you’re a Marine Corps General. And if you are currently in a more junior role, facilitation is an excellent way to prepare yourself for a future leadership role.

If you’re interested in my Design Leadership coaching, please get in touch. My approach is far more facilitation than drill instructor.

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Photo: Neil Thomas on Unsplash

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