1. We Are All Designers

Cynicism is a Luxury Leaders Can’t Afford

#2 Begin with Fact-Based Optimism.

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Bruce Mau likes to remind us that, as design thinkers, we are called to be critical but not cynical. Our responsibility is to design a new or better way of achieving or creating something — a product, a process, a piece of art, an experience, etc. If we don’t believe a better solution is possible — the cynic’s point-of-view — we’ve failed before we’ve begun. Buck Freeman understood this when he embraced the value of enthusiasm, which remains a core Freeman value today. Freeman values are essentially design values.

Although we can’t afford to be cynical, we can’t forego the rigors of critical thinking. Bruce urges us to qualify the essential challenges before we try to solve for them: “We have to start with, ‘This is really the true problem and we’re going to figure it out. What about this problem can we measure, and what kinds of proxies could we measure to help us understand the problem?’”

This is where data enters the picture.  In the history of live events, good metrics were hard to come by, so we relied on anecdotal evidence and hunches. Today, most things are measurable if we have the will to seek, analyze and believe the data. There are two problems here: One, we collect so much data, without thinking about what we need to learn, that we become inundated and just fall back on assumptions; Two, we initiate surveys or focus groups designed to affirm our assumptions, or make us look good to our bosses and our clients, instead of unearthing insights that could drive improvement.

To be designers, we have to be honest. “And when you start to think like that,” Bruce concludes,  “then the process that you’re in is a design process, because you’re actually looking for the truth.”

Integrity, of course is another Freeman value that aligns with a design-thinking approach to leadership. If we punish our people for delivering bad news, they will quickly learn to bring us only the good news. This begins the spiral of complacency and slow, sure death.  If we choose to believe that the things that have always worked will continue to work — that the next generation of attendees at our medical convention or auto show or user conference will engage the same way as their predecessors — we are doomed to fail. Conversely, when we form the habit of collecting meaningful data, when we think about what kind of proxies and metrics we can start to gather, and design that continuous cycle of learning into the process, we are well on our way to being a design-thinking company.

Cynics are usually just waiting for something bad to happen so they can say, “I told you so.” They treat the future as a minefield they refuse to cross. Designers consider all the bad news early in the process, when they think about the opportunity for improvement and formulate their plan. Having flagged and defused all the landmines, they can afford to be optimistic about their success for the future.  And people are inspired to follow them.

You can read more about Freeman’s decision to become a design-thinking company here.