How Design Thinking Can Help Women in Leadership
We all have an inner alchemist – that latent resource which holds the potential to radically transform us.
No one knows this better than Elise Roy. She turned her lifelong disability into her biggest gift. Her inner alchemist transformed her biggest limitation – being deaf – into something profoundly liberating by using her unique experiential perspective to reframe the world around her.
In her TED Talk, she talks about that moment of epiphany: “What if we changed our mindset? What if we began by designing for disability first and not the norm?” That potent question changed the course of her life.
What’s the magic that made it all happen?
“I stumbled upon a solution that I believe may be an even more powerful tool to solve some of the world’s greatest problems, disability or not. And that tool is called design thinking,” Roy said.
Design Thinking is a versatile and proven protocol for innovation, for problem solving and discovering new opportunities in any area. The overarching premise underlying this approach is “human-centered” or people-oriented. It is rooted in the belief that people who face those problems are the ones who hold the key to accurate solutions. The most innovative solutions emerge from a deep emotional understanding of people’s actual needs.
So how can this personal transformational tool help women reframe and solve their leadership challenges?
The core of women’s leadership struggles, according to Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, is our own unsteady relationship with power. “Until we [women] understand and redefine our relationship with power, we will stay stuck in our half-finished revolution,” Feldt said.
I’ve been a design practitioner for over 12 years. I’ve brought into the world a wide variety of things from avant-garde fashion to interactive digital experiences and others in between. As a Take The Lead Leadership Ambassador, I believe women need a design thinking toolkit that will help them create a Strategic Leadership Action Plan by identifying and solving their own specific leadership challenges.
When design solutions focus on systemic change or have to alter the social and cultural tapestry of communities, pausing long enough to ask the right questions is the most critical step. For women, in most cases, the true struggle exists in a few layers below the surface and reaching that requires framing the questions with thought and intent. The role of design is to identify and provide for that deep, often unarticulated need.
“Solving for solutions,” according to the Interaction Institute for Social Change essentially promotes the same ineffective outdated approaches. This is can be especially problematic when we can’t fall back reliably on what we already know or when we want to change the status quo.
So how can design thinking help women in leadership?
“Design thinking teaches us to look sideways, to reframe, to refine, to experiment and, probably most importantly, ask those stupid questions,” writes Warren Berger in the Harvard Business Review article on design thinking.
Design Thinking can be broken into three broad phases:
Asking Questions. This includes asking stupid questions, or the ones that challenge existing realities and assumptions. This might just be the secret sauce for innovation. At the core of design thinking is the premise that a creative mindset can be a powerful force for looking beyond the status quo. This becomes much more pertinent when the status quo proves to be a limitation as in the case of Elise Roy. People with a creative mindset believe that they have the ability to improve an existing idea and positively impact the world around them, whether at work or in their personal lives.
Building Empathy. It may sound counter intuitive to look for answers in places where questions arise, but design thinking believes that the wisdom for the most effective solution lies within the community despite its perceived scarcity. Tapping into it requires deep, self-reflective listening with a serious intent. It requires designers to truly immerse themselves in the community and disregard any preconceived ideas. Begin with a clean slate.
Iterating solutions. Design is a process especially suited for divergent thinking—the exploration of new choices and alternative solutions. Coming up with diverse solutions is key during ideation. That’s the reason human centered design works best with cross-disciplinary teams. A mix of thinkers, makers and doers is the right combination to tackle any design challenge – wider the perspective, more robust the solution. Design thinking starts with what is desirable, not what is feasible, in order to seek out the best opportunities to create value and impact for the user.And lastly, embracing failure is an underlying mindset. Fear of failure holds us back from trying, learning, taking risks, and tackling new challenges. Creative confidence asks that we overcome that fear. Mistakes will appear in the shape of failed prototypes, time spent on a dead-end direction or ambitious ideas that couldn’t take flight but each is movement forward and that’s critical.
Stanford University offers a course, ‘Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life’ based on design thinking for personal transformation. It offers tools and frameworks to tackle and navigate life’s “wicked problems” like how to have a fulfilling career or how to “wayfind” in a chaotic world by reframing dysfunctional beliefs that get in the way of success.
As a designer, social innovator and a change agent, I’ve created a manifesto to use design-thinking strategies to help women in leadership:
Build a questioning mindset.
Creativity is not a privilege limited for designers. It is innate to everyone. Tapping into it requires a questioning mindset that is also not judgmental. Women are subject to cultural discourses that clearly hinder our professional growth. Breaking free from it requires being able to identify and eliminate these dysfunctional beliefs while not being judgmental towards yourself or others. We’re all in this together. The big fear holding most people back from creative confidence is the fear of being judged.
Tap into the collective gender intelligence.
Struggle for women at work is not a new phenomenon. Shades and varieties of this struggle have existed as long as women have been in the workforce. Along the way we as a gender have accumulated valuable knowledge and strategies to maneuver around obstacles. Tapping and leaning into this pool of knowledge helps everyone involved. The struggle for a female engineer in Silicon Valley differs from that of a financial executive on Wall Street. But they are all rooted in stale and redundant cultural discourses that limit female leadership.
A new study co-authored by MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and Union College researchers documents the existence of collective intelligence among groups of people who cooperate well, showing that such intelligence extends beyond the cognitive abilities of the groups’ individual members and the number of women in the group is linked to effectiveness in solving difficult problems.
Build emotional agility through rapid prototyping.
The prototype is an early model or experiment to rapidly create solutions to challenges. Many prototypes utterly fail often sending a team “back to the drawing board.” Rapid prototyping means translating your ideas into things very quickly. People who spend a long time “building” something often become emotionally attached to the product and that complicates the process.
Struggles and solutions for women lie on a broad spectrum. What works for one woman may not work for another. But it is imperative to try as many different ways of tackling the problem as possible without getting attached to one promising solution. Failed prototypes are an inevitable reality. Like any slow moving systemic change, frustration and dismay can easily set in for the stakeholders. But the path to personal and professional fulfillment is rarely straight. Resilience and emotional agility are muscles that build with use.
In her book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, psychologist Susan David says that emotionally agile people know how to adapt, align their actions with their values and make small but powerful changes that lead to a lifetime of growth. These small successes are intrinsically rewarding, and help people to go on to the next level. We as women need to adopt this approach.
Paola Antonelli, author, editor and curator of Museum of Modern Art, New York articulates the power of design in her book Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design: “Design is not simple problem solving. Design is a way to give problems new form, so people can solve them by themselves. They [designers] walk along very human paths, trying to make things easier for other human beings.”
About the Author
Shalini Sardana is an experienced designer with a passion for social innovation, pairing her leadership training with design thinking. As an immigrant and social entrepreneur, issues of diversity and inclusion have personal resonance to her. Having been educated and worked in both India and the U.S., she brings a unique perspective drawing upon two different cultural outlooks.