Design Leadership is about Asking the Right Questions

This morning, my colleague pointed me in the direction of this great little New York Times interview with Tim Brown, the chief executive and president of IDEO. (Wow, he even gets on the NY Times!)
In the interview, Tim shares that (design) leadership is not about having all the answers but asking the right questions. There is no point in creating a great design that answers the wrong question. Unfortunately, this is something that many designers are guilty of. Here’s a juicy snippet:

Q. What other important leadership lessons have you learned?
A. As a design consultant, I get to work with all kinds of interesting people who are leaders of their own businesses. So I constantly learn from watching some of the great leaders do what they do.
A. G. Lafley is a great example. I’ve spent a lot of time with him over the last seven or eight years, until he retired. I’m a member of his design board at Procter & Gamble, and we would get together every four months, and the various divisions would come and show their work.
He was willing to get involved really early on in new ideas — not in a way where his opinion was overly influencing what was happening, but where his support would really push an idea along quickly. I learned a lot from him in terms of style of leadership, which was involved without being dictatorial. He seems to see his role as constantly reminding teams of what they should be focusing on, rather than telling them whether they’ve got the right idea or not.
Somebody else I worked with a lot is Jim Hackett, the C.E.O. of Steelcase. He’s somebody who, no matter how compelling and short-term an issue might be, is always forcing the conversation up to being strategic. How are we thinking about this long term?
As a designer, I’m always looking for solutions to the problems I see in front of me. And the big trick to being a successful designer is always making sure you’re asking the right questions and focusing on the right problems.
It’s very easy in business to get sucked into being reactive to the problems and questions that are right in front of you. And it doesn’t matter how creative you are as a leader, it doesn’t matter how good the answers you come up with. If you’re focusing on the wrong questions, you’re not really providing the leadership you should.
Q. Can you talk more about that?
A. I do think that’s something that we forget — as leaders, probably the most important role we can play is asking the right questions. But the bit we forget is that it is in itself a creative process. Those right questions aren’t just kind of lying around on the ground to be picked up and asked.
When I go back and look at the great leaders — Roosevelt, Churchill — one of the things that occurs to me is they somehow had the ability to frame the question in a way that nobody else would have thought about.
In design, that’s everything, right? If you don’t ask the right questions, , then you’re never going get to the right solution. I spent too much of my career feeling like I’d done a really good job answering the wrong question.
And that was because I was letting other people give me the question. One of the things that I’ve tried to do more and more — and I obviously have the opportunity to do as a leader — is to take ownership of the question. And so I’m much more interested these days in having debates about what the questions should be than I necessarily am about the solutions.

Enjoy the rest of the interview here as it is a pretty good read.

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