Moura Quayle, July 2017 (Columbia Business Press blog; words)
Looking at familiar places, I realized that the last time I had worked in our capital city was in the private sector, as the principal of a built environment design business – it would now be called a “start-up.” Close to four decades later, looking out my government office window when tasked with reviewing and updating a system of twenty five institutions with assets in around fifty locations and links in a hundred countries, serving over one hundred eighty thousand students, and governed by twenty five boards with combined operating budgets of $1.6 billion, I wondered what in the world prepared me for this task. The products I was dealing with were ideas and people, with no common bricks and mortar, or other tangible form. My task was providing leadership for organizational and institutional transformation.
Yet I felt comfortable and confident in using a strategic design approach. Over the previous quarter century I had studied and applied it, scaled up and out. More importantly, perhaps, I had learned the importance of the old saw that to go far you need to go with others. When applying risk management and fiscal accountability in integrating diverse interests, this meant building common understanding of terms of reference and decision-making values as well as information infrastructure. When the context is complex and dynamic for the long-term, the skills are not intuitive but learned. Designed leadership.
I realized that using strategic design in leadership roles is a way of looking at the principled pragmatism of getting things done. Design is a process driving towards a solution – a product, a service, or sometimes something intangible. When done well, the results have both utility and the elegance of complex inputs resolved. Yet when the solutions are held accountable to diverse interests and standards, silos of expertise are often the cause of structural and cognitive barriers. A new set of skills and knowledge is required. Rarely do experts weave together human nature, business pragmatism, and political influences to update and upgrade systems, products, or organizations. From one perspective, my work is at the increasingly hybrid convergence of diverse public, private, special and self-interests in a digital age.
Designed leadership depends on having some sort of problem solving or opportunity seeking process to help you when you need to plan or when you are “stuck.” Even when you may not be quite sure of where you are going, having a thinking process is essential. It is a touchstone along the journey. Therefore, job one is becoming comfortable with a problem-solving process. As result of designing a business innovation course at the UBC Sauder School of Business, my colleagues and I came up with ASK.TRY.DO., which essentially serves as a hook for remembering the strategic-design method. The excitement around innovation and learning to live with ambiguity and failing fast is one example, but even then often some pragmatic layer is overlooked – perhaps finances, perhaps public safety regulations, perhaps systems for sustained markets. So informed inquiry, testing and updating, getting it done, and following up to improve and upgrade are not new ideas for those in quality management. However, the scope and complexity with which designed leadership works with may be.
A vital link in strategic design and leadership is the idea of using principles to link values to actions. More specifically, principles guide decisions and provide common points of reference for performance, accountability, and improvement. In Designed Leadership, I note ten principles that I learned, and relearned, and relearned, which allow me to work with amazing people from different cultures, education, expertise, and levels of experience to get things done. These principles are derived from theories that are the platform of built environment design that is my background: landscape architecture and urban design. I thought about the various ways that we make decisions and test ideas in the built environment – and then imagined how useful they could be to the strategic design of organizations or services. Here they are:
- Make Values Explicit
- Know Place and Experience
- Value Diversity
- Emphasize Edges and Boundaries
- Bridge Gaps and Make Connections
- Evaluate for Fit, Scale, and Context
- Learn from Natural Systems
- Apply the Jane Jacobs Test
- Attend to Patterns
- Never Finished but Always Complete
As a background to the principles, I emphasize different kinds of values: core values (like accountability, effectiveness and respect), process values (like complexity, resilience and diversity), and foundation values (like long-term, cost-effective, efficient). These values form the basis for the principles and for the practice of designed leadership.
In the book, I also dip my toe into the cognitive science of decision-making and the evolution of strategic design in business thinking as examples of both the scope of relevant information and of the convergence in diverse disciplines around these ideas. There are also chapters on thinking visually and spatially, places to practice designed leadership, learning and education, and some case studies.
Of the half-dozen concluding takeaways, perhaps the most important is that of continual learning. I had fun working on this book and look forward to correcting, improving, and updating it. Designed leadership is always a work-in-progress; indeed, that is also its strength and what keeps our organizations dynamic and young.
Look for the next blog on unpacking some of the principles of designed leadership.