I finally have a more comprehensive account published of what I’ve been working on for a long while now. I was asked to prepare a 6 part, one hour long “living workshop” by the Ignite Institute who are developing a “wisdom based leadership” curriculum. My “living workshop” titled “Wise Design Leadership” is now available on their website. You will find a number of others including one by Hap Klopp offering insights from his experience as founder and CEO of the North Face called “Building a Brand That Transforms“.
This workshop is, for me, a prototype. So, in line with good design process its a test and you, my dear reader, are what we’d call in human-centered design (HCD) language, a “user” (I hate that term and a lot of its connotation as much as you might). So insightful feedback is more than welcomed, I request it.
(A transcript of all 6 modules is at the bottom of this post.)
Module 1: Introduction (10:27)
Module 2: Design Thinking (13:47)
Module 3: Spirituality (10:01)
Module 4: Justice (10:06)
Module 5: Social Innovation (8:49)
Module 6: Additional Resources (8:31)
Module 1: Introduction to Wisdom Based Leadership
I’m Neil Goldberg.
And in the next hour I’d like to bring you into my world. The world of a designer.
No, I’m not going to teach you to draw, use computer aided design tools, or suggest you wear cool designer clothes.
I’m going to help you look at the world through a design lens – the perspective of someone who creates stuff for a living. As a vocation. As a calling.
My goal is that you will come to recognize that you already have all the makings of a designer. I will show you how you can harness that innate ability to become the wise leader that you have come here for.
In this 6 module course we’ll explore design as a model of leadership – what I’ll refer to as design-leadership – that is called for in a time of massive disruption, and change.
In this, the first module, I’ll share my own story with you that I hope will describe some of the elements of the lens that has brought the path of creative leadership into focus for me.
In module 2 I’ll introduce you to a framework of practice called Design Thinking that will help you get a handle on your inner designer.
In module 3 I’ll introduce you to a way of getting to know yourself as the complex and complete design leader that you are – through a soul-map from the anceint Jewish wisdom tradition of Mussar.
In module 4 we’ll deepen into the question of what kind of world is available to be created by wise leadership
In module 5, we’ll put both design thinking and your soul-map together under the design lens as the foundation of a powerful and ongoing practice you can engage in to deepen your leadership capacities.
Finally in module 6 I’ll wrap up with some resources and references to make sure that you’re not alone as you embark on this exciting journey towards wise design-leadership.
But first, that design lens, and the journey that has polished the lens through which I view change.
You might have guessed from my accent that I come from South Africa. I grew up there in the 1960’s and 70’s when the country was in the grip of the apartheid system.
Amongst my earliest memories was spending time in the factory that was my father’s business – the Western Automatic Turning Company. It was a factory for hire, making all kinds of parts in plastic and metal. What I knew as a small boy, about four or five when my memories begin, was that it was a hot, cavernous space with row upon row of machines that loomed overhead…noisy monsters that smelled of burning oil. Each was accompanied by a person who pressed buttons, opened gates, trimmed parts and showered me with a constant stream of stories that kept me enthralled and entertained.
Now and then a part would be spit out of the machine with a clatter, or a clunk into a box. To me it was miraculous. I was watching the world being made, one small part at a time.
I fell in love with the machine operators. They were warm, and kind, and funny. They made me feel big.
And they were Coloured, or what in America we call mulatto, and so excluded from the benefits of living in an emerging industrial economy. But at 5 I didn’t know that. To me they were just people that I loved, making the world one part at a time.
Fast forward to when I was about 9, we moved to a new house and were building an addition. In the same way that I fell in love with manufacturing, I fell in love with construction.
I was older now. This time I realized that there were two sides to this creation story – the Coloured workers who were building my bedroom one brick at a time, on the one hand. And the architect who designed it, on the other. My design lens started to take shape – building and architecture, making and design, are two sides of the same creative coin, but they’re not the same thing. And I wanteded to be an architect.
If this was my design consciousness coming into focus, it was also the beginning of my political consciousness being stirred. It just didn’t seem fair to this 9 year old that the people who were building my house, could never live in it, nor ever visit me there.
With the rise of the black-consciousness movement led by Steven Biko as I was finishing high school, I came to believe that my priviledge would only put me in the way of change, and so I left for England – determined that by design, I could make the world a better place for all.
Instead of architecture my father convinced me that I should study industrial design. I had no idea what that was. He said it was the “architecture of small things”. Seeing as he would be paying for my ticket out, that was good enough for me – it still seemed like I’d be able to make the world a better place by design – just one small thing at a time.
As I advanced through my education I became disillusioned with the education I was receiving in the British design education system. The concentration on superficial styling, was, well, superficial. We learned little about identifying real people’s needs, or creating real solutions. It seemed to me we were being trained to sell more stuff. That isn’t what I had signed up for.
I wanted something better. I read everything I could about the newly emerging design methods movement – and wrote off to a professor of architecture in North Carolina who had written about “participatory design” – the idea that it is nescessary to include the people you’re designing for in the process by which you’re making up their world. In Henry Sanoff I found an ally who could help me translate his ideas and methods from architecture to the architecture of small things.
Out of college I got a job with Herman Miller, the furniture company famous for introducing modern desgin to American homes, and then transforming the modern office too with systems furniture.
Half a decade later I decided to bring what I’d learned there about user centered design to Silicon Valley and founded a design agency around the promise that we wouldn’t just “design the product right, but that we’d design the right product”. I called this strategic design and came up with the cheeky tag-line “people designing products for people”.
What I didn’t call it, though, was “design thinking”. The folks at one of my competitors down the road, an innovation agency called IDEO came up with that, and made it stick so that today “design thinking” and not “strategic design” is what is being taught at universities all around the world.
Not only in design schools, but in business schools, science faculties and medical schools. Design thinking is being adopted by governments, NGOs, grade schools and hospitals as a method for making the particular part of the world they inhabit, a little bit better.
What gives me the greatest satisfaction though is that the method for making the world better that I went in search of is now being taught and used in the new South Africa in the aftermath of Apartheid to help make a more just and beautiful society for all of its people.
Every step of this journey has shaped the way I view the world; the design lens through which I’d like to help you see – as a leader who is intent on making the world more just, and better for everyone.
What does this have to do with leadership? That’s what I’m going to talk about in the next module.
I’ll leave you with something to reflect on before we go:
Look around where-ever you are right now. Consider this – everything you see that isn’t a part of wild nature is an artifacts of the human imagination. Each was designed – by someone. Not nescessarily skillfully; nor with awareness.
Pick one that you love and another that you don’t, and ask: “who was the maker of this object? Was it designed well for my purposes? Could it have been made more practical? More beautiful? More just? Make notes, and notice your own design consciousness beginning to rise.
Module 2: Leadership
1. Design Leadership
Let’s talk about leadership.
One of the thrills I had working at Herman Miller was meeting and working with DJ de Pree, the founder of the company, and his son Max who took over leadership during my time there in the 1980s.
The old man was 93 when I started. He had long retired from day to day responsiblity but took pride and joy in his role as emeritus chair, watching the success his two sons were having turning the furniture company he founded in the 1920s into a multinational furniture powerhouse.
Every now and then he would come from company headquarters in conservative West Michigan to visit the design-research group in edgy Ann Arbor where we had a skunkworks – to see what we were working on.
DJ was a devout Christian. We’d spend a delightful couple of hours with him sharing what we were thinking, and mostly letting him regale us with stories about the early days of the company and the values he tried to instill in our culture.
The story that stands out in my memory was of his meeting with Gilbert Rodhe – a furniture designer that had discovered modernism on a trip to Europe – and an avowed socialist. When they met, the country was reeling from the crash of the economy and the small company in rural America was in trouble with its line of traditionally ornate, heavy wood furniture.
He wanted to pursuade DJ to manufacture a line of modern furniture. For Rodhe, modernism wasn’t a stylistic preference. It was a moral imperative. He espoused “Truth to materials” and the virtue to be found in honest forms that reject superficial ornament as dishonest. It was in the field of ethics that the two men met.
DJ was skeptical of the persistent socialist, but swayed by his passion. So by 1933 his company launched a new line of modern furntiure for the home. It saved the company; and put them on the way to multi-national success.
DJ beamed when he told this story and with a cheeky glint in his eye declared that “it was divine providence” that had brought the socialist to him, and made him listen to him, and that accounted for their success in bringing ethical design to America. DJ led with a pure religious faith.
His son, Max de Pree was also a devout man though he held a more sophisticated leadership philosophy. In fact the year after I left the company in 1989, he would write what has become a leadership literature classic. “Leadership is an Art” which, I recommend you read.
He begins the book with this powerful line:
“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you.”
I first heard the phrase “design leadership” from Max. As far as he was concerned, everyone at Herman Miller was a designer, and not only those of us with the title or the design luminaries that we worked with.
He would say – repeatedly, I might add – that the janitors who swept the factory floor or kept the offices clean were designers and leaders in their own domains – identifying problems and solving them creatively, recruiting others to help them get the job done. Defining reality and saying thank you when it was done.
This ethic was deep in the company culture. It made a deep impression on me.
My design lens brought Max’s leadership message into focus – the methods and practices that I had chased half way around the world make a perfect model for leadership in the midst of change. Not just the methods and practices, but the designer’s way of thinking and knowing.
Which brings us back to the “design thinking” that you may have heard about. This wasn’t a term that Max de Pree used – but it is exactly what he meant.
I’ll pause here to give you a moment to rest your eyes before I shift to discuss exactly what it is.
2. Design Thinking
So, what exactly is “design thinking” when you turn it into a noun.
Before that, I need to offer a definition of design:
Design is simply intentional creativity. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it requires divine providence, but the “intention” piece is just as important as the “creativity”. To use language that a devout man like Max de Pree might have – setting right intention, then making it so.
Design thinking, then, is a framework for design practice that puts as much emphasis on setting the right intention for what is to be designed as it does to the creativity that is required to achieve it, and then checking to make sure that you have, in fact, met them.
The framework, as most commonly presented consists of 5 steps, a choreography that can be danced together by creative people with common intent.
It goes like this:
Let me elaborate on each step.
Step 1. Initiate. Getting started is the most important part, and the most difficult. That’s where the inertia is greatest. What is needed, and what needs to be changed. It is the beginning of setting a clear intention for creative effort.
Step 2. Define. It has famously been said that “a problem well stated is a problem half solved”. Design thinking offers specific techniques by which we whittle down all we have discovered about a need, a challenge, into a precise statement of intention.
Step 3. Ideate: The brilliant inventor Thomas Edison said: “To have a great idea, have lots of them.” While ideas may come to us in the shower or on a walk in the woods, design thinking offers methods for having ideas on demand, for allowing us to build on the ideas of others and for allowing us to whittle lots of ideas down into an even better one.
Step 4. Prototype: Ideas are cheap. They’re only worth anything once we get them out of our heads and into the world. Prototypes do that – quickly. They allow us to experience our ideas and share them with others.
And finally, step 5. Test: Its not enough to just prototype an idea, but to test it against reality. The question you’re asking is, “how well does my idea meet my intention?”
And there’s one more thing. Not quite a step – more of a shuffle that we insert every time we shift our thinking from one part of the process, to another. Reflection.
This is when we learn what we have learned and we fold that into the next step/iteration/cycle before we move on
The problem with reducing something as chaotic as creating with intention to a 5 step program is that it can create the impression that design proceed in a linear fashion. It doesn’t. It can’t. Which brings us to another facet of design thinking that is just as essential to our leadership model as are the steps.
The designer’s mindset that sets the thinking in motion. The thinking behind design thinking and doing.
Designers have an implicit understanding that every creative act is cyclical. It may be a 5 or 6 step process, but you have to cycle through it again and again, 5, 10, 100 times to get to a form that is perfectly aligned with your intention and an intention that is perfectly aligned with a need.
With each turn you learn something about what works, and what doesn’t. You make mistakes. You fail forward, again and again. Thomas Edison, again, said it best “I have not failed”, he said. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
I’ll say it again: getting started is the hardest step of any process. So design thinking is biased to action. Nike, the shoe brand, put it in a tagline. “Just do it.”
Empathy is the mindset most commonly, and essentially, identified with design thinking. Design thinking is human-centered design.When we design things, it isn’t the thing that matters as much as the people we’re designing it FOR. Designing an engine of a specified horsepower and torque is a fundamentally different matter than designing a car that is safe, comfortable, easy to operate and gives a sense of wellbeing to its driver. To design things for people you must have a penetrating understanding of the full spectrum of human need that Maslow talked about – the basic needs, psychological needs and the need for self-fulfillment and actualization. Empathy is the quality most essential to human centered design.
You cannot create what you don’t believe you can create. To design, you must be confident that you can address the brief, the creative challenge, with an appropriately creative solution. It’s just what you do. Another book I highly recommend you find and read is Creative Confidence by David and Tom Kelley of the IDEO global innovation and design agency.
The last of the mindsets I’ll talk about is the designer’s ability to tolerate ambiguity. When I was interviewing for my job at Herman Miller, the man who would become my boss looked at me sternly and asked a single question – “what is your relationship with ambiguity?”
I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since. I have learned that the outcome of the process cannot be known at the outset of the journey. The nature of the challenge, the problem to be solved, is hardly ever clear. So, we stay with the process, trusting that clarity will emerge and managing our doubt, our frustration and our need to know the outcome of every drama.
Reflection, as I say is a critical step on the creative journey. So let me suggest something for you to reflect on before you begin the next module when we’ll talk about mindfulness, and the characteristics of the design-leader.
I invite you to write as you think. You’ll be amazed to learn what it is that you think when you write with the filters off – the little critic and editor that sits on all of our shoulders. Let the pen, or pencil slide across the paper and watch in amazement what comes out.
Begin with this question: What are your common creative challenges?
Let me suggest a few:
Getting dressed in the morning. Are you meeting with a button down client? Or is your team going on retreat? How do you put an outfit together to fit either occasion?
Or another; assembling a work-group to address a difficulty that has been brought to your attention. What skill mix do you need? What personality profiles will serve best?
Or, creating an incentive system that keeps your team motivated that is in line with your organizations values and culture.
Don’t limit yourself in any way – write down whatever is ready to be discovered.
Module 3: Spirituality
Let’s talk about wisdom….
We don’t make the world on unturned ground. Whatever wisdom I might have to share is built on the traditions that have fed me, inspired me and informed my perspective on the spiritual dimensions of leadership.
Through my life I’ve not only lived on three continents in more than a dozen cities. I’ve been a spiritual migrant too.
I am Jewish by heritage and grew up in a tradition I call secular-orthodox. We didn’t observe much of orthodox Jewish law, but we did make a note every time we did something that wasn’t kosher. It just didn’t mean enough to us to be worth the effort. As you might imagine this bred in me a cynical attitude toward organized religion and as soon as I left home, I stopped even pretending to care.
Political activism became my spiritual practice – in the anti-apartheid movement, the peace and anti-nuke movement and the solidarity movement that at the time I was involved, was focused on U.S. aggressions in Central America. In activism I found something bigger than myself that I could be a part of and I aspired to being the best person I could be, by seeking transformation towards a more inclusive, loving, sharing and just society.
By the ‘90s the groups in which I had found community petered out, to be replaced by a new generation with similar ideals, but a different culture that I was not connected with. By that time I was in California focusing my energy on building my business. For a few years, you might say, I wandered in the desert.
When I began to look again for ways of filling the spiritual emptiness I felt, I found an all-you-can-eat buffet on offer in San Francisco and I began sampling from the table looking for something to fill the void.
Native American shamanic practices gave me a connection with the new grounds on which I stood.
I began to meditate and went on Vipassana retreats to deepen my body’s connection with my soul.
Sitting on a cushion didn’t do it entirely for me and and I began an ecstatic dance practice where I discovered my ability to pray by moving my body.
Eventually I found my way back to my roots – to Judaism – and found a community of Jewish seekers just as eclectic, and curious as I am. Once again I found joy in the sound of the ancient Hebrew language, in the twisted stories of the old testament and ritual practices brought up to date by cutting out the misogyny and chauvenism.
The threads of Judaism and mindfulness practice came together when I was introduced to Mussar, the second element of design leadership wisdom that I want to explore with you.
A description of Mussar that I like from a wonderful book a wonderful book called Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis, calls it “a path of contemplative practices and exercises to help an individual soul pinpoint and then break through the barriers that surround and obstruct the flow of inner light in our lives”. In simpler words, it’s a mindfulness practice directed at making us a “mensch”, the yiddish term for a good human being.
Mussar has ancient roots that it got cut off from through the tragedy of the holocaust of the Jews in Europe and has been going through a revival since the start of the 21st century.
In the smallest of nutshells I can fit it into, Mussar provides a map of the human soul. It offers a list of attributes, referred to as soul-traits, that practitioner brings mindful attention to in a curriculum of self-improvement.
The list has a lot in common with other wisdom-traditions you may be familiar with – compassion, gratitude, equanimity, faith, generosity and loving-kindness.
There are even some that overlap with the design thinker’s mindset – empathy and confidence.
And others that I had given little thought to till I read about them in Everyday Holiness – humility, patience, order, responsibility, silence, simplicity and awe.
It’s not practical, nor nescessary to bring attention to all the traits all the time, but to select those that are most alive in the moment. Each of us, Mussar suggests, must set our own leadership curriculum.
First on my list, as I have shifted from designer to author and teacher, has been to humility. I have struggled to be clear about the value of what I have to offer so that I am able to stand here without reserve. And I have also heard the whisper of over-reach in my ear that this teaching alone might be enough to cause the shift in our relationship with technology that we need. I can assure you – it isn’t.
Humility isn’t what I thought it was – to hold a modest or low view of one’s own importance – but, and this again from Everyday Holiness, humility is to “Occupy a rightful space, neither too much nor too little. Focus neither on your own virtues nor the faults of others.”
In other words, be clear about you gifts, and offer them to the world without reserve. But check any hubris you find. For me the guidance to my creative efforts was clear – show up, but don’t over-reach. Be all you are. But don’t pretend to be more.
Wisdom teaches us to find ourselves in balance rather than extremes; between light and shadow; between yin and yang; grasping and aversion.
Also on my design-leadership curriculum are the traits of patience, simplicity and awe. Later, I’ll share more about each to help you begin finding your way into this profound practice.
Design is also a sort of mindfulness practice. I’m not suggesting that I have sat with design teams on a cushion, eyes closed in a Lotus pose.
Simply that, as the reflection on module 2 may have revealed, we are surrounded by artifacts that have been made with little awareness of the way they came together. We don’t always design with awareness of intention.
Formally trained designers learn a process and with mastery follow it without strain. The genius of design thinking is that it breaks an invisible process down into steps that gives us something specific to reflect on.
In combination with the map that Mussar provides, it allows us to raise specific awareness of the things that hold us back and strengths we have that we can rest in. Each of the 5 steps has its own demands. I am much stronger in the definition and ideation steps and find difficulty with initiation and testing.
The inner doubt that holds me back from getting going on a challenge falls away when I’m free to express all the ideas that come streaming at me. Ideation is my happy place but impatience gets in the way of me sticking with any one idea long enough to see it through to fruition.
At the intersection of design thinking and soul-centered mindfulness lies our potential to learn from our moment to moment experience how we might become the leaders we want to be.
We’ll take a break here.
In the next module I’ll talk about the kind of world that wise leadership might allow us to create.
I would suggest taking some time to sit mindfully with the current module, reflect and write:
What is the mindfulness practice or practices that you have available to you?
What soul map do you have to draw on?
What commitment are you willing to make to yourself to get started on your own path to wise design leadership. Module 4: Justice
Let’s talk about good design, and about bad design. Let’s talk about justice.
If you were to base your opinion about good and bad design on what we see in the style section of the newspaper, or countless websites promoting good design, you’d say that good design is beautiful, it’s novel, useful, functional or user friendly. You’ll read that it’s cool, interesting, solves a problem and fills a gap in the market.
But, if you pay attention to the great wisdom traditions about what is good in our lived experience, you’d arrive at a very different set of adjectives. There is goodness in love we are told, and in justice, peace, healing and yes, also beauty. There is good in making sure everyone has enough, and that we do no harm. There is goodness in sharing, in reciprocity and in giving as much as you take, and as much as you can.
Don’t get me wrong – all of this can be part of what makes the things we design good. There is a place in the world for novelty that adds to our lived experience, new functionality that addresses utilitarian needs, allows us to do what we have only every been able to dream of, like flying, getting endless amounts of entertainment and communicating with loved ones too far away to see. Cures for diseases and camping gear that allows us to enjoy the outdoors as we never have before.
What I’m suggesting, though, is that we learn to include the adjectives of the wisdom traditions too, in our assessment of what meets our standards for “good” – in our efforts to design and make the world a better place. Is it loving and just? Is it healthy and healing?
Wide adoption of human centered design has been a singular breakthrough in the design professions of the past few decades. It puts the question of whether something is going to be good for people front and center. Values of equity and justice however, require us to add another critical question that is hard to ask because we often don’t like the answer – “who is it meant to be good for?” And “who might it harm?”
If it is good for one person or one group of people, but has a terrible impact on others, then we have to reconsider whether it is good at all.
If it good for us as consumers, but not good for us as citizens and community members, then it may in fact be bad design.
Perhaps even the human centered perspective isn’t enough in a world facing a catastophic collapse of our natural eco-systems, an unprecedented die-off of species and a changing climate that threatens our standing on earth.
What about centering all the other creatures of nature with whom we share the planet in our determinations of good and bad design? What about the well-being of the planet itself? If the artifacts we create are bad for them, then we must certainly conclude, that it is a bad design.
Good design is design that places a light footprint on the planet that is our only home; where we can co-exist in reciprocity with fellow creatures to allow a life that is good for them, recognizing that that is the only way to realize a life that is good for ourselves.
Good design is when we create a world that is sustainable.
Good design is just.
What about bad design – won’t better design methods and mindsets eventually do away with all of that?
I have pointed to the emergence of design thinking that is human centered, as a source of hope. It’s wide adoption has been quite a phenomenon that I find incredibly encouraging.
And yet, there’s still plenty of bad design being done, even with best design practices.
Design thinking is at play in the efforts of the tech industry to gobble up ever expanding parts of our lives with little regard for the consequences. The Center for Humane Technology in Silicon Valley has documented the ways in which new online experiences and new digital devices are expressly being designed to create a culture of addiction to the next buzz, or ring, or ding or vibration that triggers our need to be loved, to be wanted, to be part of something bigger than ourselves – but instead just gives us the empty calories of fleeting attention.
This is most definitely being done by design.
Design thinking has featured prominently in the success of the e-cigarette industry to capture a new generation of users in its harmful net.
And its not just the products and services that make up the commerce of life.
If everything that is an artifact of the human imagination is an object of design, then misogeny, racism, class inequities, poverty, even our planetary climate in a planetary greenhouse of our own making – every one of them is an artifact and I think we’d all agree that they have been terribly designed.
What can we do about creative challenges that are so much larger than life, so overwhelming, so systemic in their nature.
It is great, essential really, that we have the design methods and techniques, skills and capacities to design things on a scale of complexity and sophistication that we have never had before in human history.
Equally important, equally essential, is the common awareness about what it is that we’re setting out to create, of what will be good for us individually, but also as a community of life with a common purpose.
So, let me talk for a minute about design consciousness.
Becoming aware that we are a creator species, that everything that is an artifact of the human imagination is an object of design, might not seem as if it could make much of a difference – until you think it through a little.
The most important aspect of the designer’s mindset that I have pointed to is the belief that we, the designer, are capable of meeting any creative challenge we are faced with. We call it “creative confidence” . When I look at it from the vantage point of culture and society, the term “creative agency” comes to mind. The sense, and belief, that we can make a difference through creative action.
When we lift our perspective from personal consideration to the cultural, or the social or even consideration of global dimensions, it is very easy to become overwhelmed, to feel our lack of agency in being able to make things better.
This is where I tap into my experience as a five year old, watching the world being made – one part at a time…my father’s wisdom that “the architecture of small things” is just as creatively important as the architecture of buildings.
Markets are an artifact. Money is an artifact. The economy is an artifact. The police system, health care system, education system, are all artifacts, made up of many component parts. Once we have a clear vision of the whole and the wise leadership to hold that vision – then we will see a way to make it, to architect it, one small part at a time.
Now this can be overwhelming. I suggest that you let it settle. It can also be very exciting and energizing. I know that for me, it is all of these things.
But for now, just sit with those feeling, and whatever else comes up as you bring your creative challenge to mind – in your job, your organization, your mission – with a calm, gentle attention.
What system are you setting out to to redesign?
Do you hold a vision of the whole?
What part of it are you setting out to create?
What part are you leaving to others? What allies do you have? What support do you have from your team in taking on this audacious project?
Now feel into your sense of creative agency, your willingness to move into action, the flow of ideas that you have. What prototypes might you build?
Write down whatever comes to you – without filter, no need for an editor now,
What part of you needs lifting up, strengthening and reinforcement?
What part of you feels the joy of the creative challenge you face?
Module 5: Social Innovation
Design leadership is built on the recognition that with every creative act we create the world – and with mindful attention we have a better chance of creating the world we want, the society we want, the community we want, the home we want.
Design, as I’ve suggested is not just making things, but setting our intention on what it is that we want to make.
Let’s talk about what the wisdom traditions have to teach us about the kind of world that we’re trying to create, and the qualities of leadership that will be needed in its creation.
I’ll draw on teachings from the Mussar and some others to polish and clarify the design lens that we’ve begun to look through – to see what it might take for you to rise to the leadership challenge we face in a world of accellerating change, of mounting instability, and of rare opportunity to create the world that we’ve been yearning for for a very long time.
Every trait has something to teach us. In the short amount of time we have, I’ll explore four from my own curriculum.
Humility, which I’ve already touched on…
These are traits I connect personally with, but they also brings an important perspective to the the creative endeavour.
Let’s begin with humility, which I already discussed a bit in module 4.
Every wisdom tradition warns us against creative over-reach – against hubris.
Consider the tower of Babel which brought down the punishment of confusion and difficulty in communication between peoples for the sin of – to quote Genesis 11, verse 4 “build(ing)…a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens”.
Or from anceint Greek wisdom, Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the gods to give it to the artisans of ancient Greece to make valued objects of bronze and iron. His punishment? to be shackled to a rock to have his liver eaten out again and again by an eagle, for eternity.
We don’t have to look far in the modern world to find a need for caution against wanton creativity.
Thankfully we have humility to keep our hubris in check. But the temptations are great, and humility must be practiced.
Mussar, as I pointed out earlier, instructs us to show up fully, with a clear-eyed assessment of our gifts and a willingness to share of them freely, that we not be timid when the stakes are high, to be bold with our creativity to meet the challenge of the moment.
I have a hard time with patience. Most people do in a culture that is in a rush.
I don’t want to “just do it”. I want to “get it done”.
It takes time to make the world. Life has been at it for more than four billion years.
And yet in the heat of creation we feel the urgency to just get it out. We’re excited to see what has been rattling around in our heads become another small part of the world for us to gain benefit from, with little regard for its negative impacts or the undesirable consequences it may have.
“God is in the detail” the great minimalist architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said. Attending to every little thing that it takes to make a world of quality, with care and precision, takes precious time and constant attention.
Just how much patience is required? That is hard to guage, which is why we must approach design as a mindfulness practice, using the 5 step method to pace ourselves with. With each turn on the dance-floor of creation, each design iteration, we ask the question “have we done enough to reach for perfection, to do no harm, to make the world exactly as we mean it to be?
In modern hands, the creative impulse has been accellerated to blistering speeds, and our rush to invent has had dire consequences that we have shrugged our shoulders and accepted with “it’s just the way it is”.
But is it? In the land of innovation, it is a mantra that we can create anything we set ourselves to, and it is heretical to suggest that we slow the process down a bit. Mindfulness practice helps to consider what is essential, and what is incomplete, before we launch ourselves into creative action with the clarity of knowing what needs to be done, what is to be created next.
Simplicity is my favorite trait as a designer. It is also the most elusive.
Mussar commentary around simplicity mostly revolves around the need to live a simple life – a balance between the excesses of desire, and the deprivation of austerity.
What might we make of this thorugh the design lens?
Modern design ethic walks a fine line between ornamental excess and minimalist austerity in form. This is not a stylistic choice, a formula to make things cool, but a principal to be applied just as well to the design of a social enterprise, a food distribution system, or a public education uplift program – as it can to the design of a sofa pillow, or an e-commerce website.
Whatever we are making need be no more nor less than it is. Our job – as designers, and as wise leaders wearing our design lens – is to discern precisely where that balance lies.
Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, a poet and philosopher in 11th century Spain was not a design thinker, though design-thinker would do well to heed his advice. He says: “Seek what you need and give up what you do not need. For in giving up what you do not need, you will learn what you really do need.”
Confucius, the anceint and wise Chinese philosopher said it differently: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
I’ll end this review of the Mussar of Design on a high note – with the soul-trait of Awe.
There is much to be in awe of in a world that is in dire need of change.
In creating a better world we cannot wipe away the one we have to start again from scratch. We must hold what we find, what has come before, in awe.
“In reverence is wisdom”, Mussar says.
What does that wisdom discern? Fear weighs down on one side. Blind worship on the other. Blind worship is the impulse that whispers in our ears “well, that’s just the way it is” when face by something we can’t let go of, with obvious flaws. But fear of upsetting the apple cart, of doing something “wrong” can be just as paralyzing and the path of wisdom, as in all refinement of the creative soul, is right down the middle.
I am in awe whenever I am confronted by a full expression of the creative spirit in all of us – in amazing art, soaring cathedrals, a movie or a poem that takes my breath away.
But Alan Morinis says “The ordinary can bring on awe as well—though only if we don’t see it as ordinary.”
Not everything we create must be the Taj Mahal.
So I’ll leave the last word on the subject to William Blake whose poetry and painting have often taken my breath away:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
Now its over to you. What are the soul-traits that make up your design-leadership curriculum?
Before you dive into the final module, take some time to reflect and write about the parts of your personality, your character make-up, that hold you back from saying what needs to be said, from making what needs to be made.
What is stopping you from advancing towards the world that you know deep in your soul that we are yearning for?
And what parts are driving you forward?
Module 6: Additional Resources
Let’s talk about practice – about putting on the mantle of leadership while holding the design lens up to your eyes. Learning to receive every moment as the creative challenge, and creative opportunity that it is.
I’ll bring all the references I’ve made together as a resource for you to continue along the pather to wise design-leadership with, and I’ll add in some more. No need to write these down as I talk – they’ll be listed at the site where you registered for this Living Workshop, along with additionl information about offerings of the Ignite institute as well as my direct contact information.
Let’s begin with another look at design consciousness in summary?
First it recognizing that everyhting that isn’t of wild nature is an artifact of the human imagination.
Next, that with every artifact we make, we’re creating a part of the world of day to day experience. That’s a big deal, so we had better pay attention. Take care.
Every artifact that was created was designed by someone, which is to say, that they set out to make something to fit their purpose. They didn’t nescessarily do it well; with the knowledge, skill, attention and intention that it takes to make a world of lived experience – but most likely, they did the best they could.
The design consciousness we need at this time of change and technological accelleration, is that whatever the state of the world that it is up to us to make it as we intend. If it doesn’t work for us, it is up to us to design it better with all the skill, knowledge, command of technology, empathy and compassion that we can muster. It is our responsibility to ensure that we have what it will take to make things as well, and as good as we possibly can.
To set you on the path, here are a few things you can do right now to become the wise, conscious design-leader we need.
First. Learn to dance the design thinking 5 step.
Why limit yourself to just looking through the design lens? Why not do the whole dance?
Learn the design thinking framework of methods and mind-sets. Read more about it by all means, but design is action and the only way to really learn it, is by doing it.
There are countless courses that you will find online – some are even free. They will walk you through exercizes that will allow you to learn and practice new skills and techniques – like delving into the needs that people have with empathy and putting what you learn into a frame that is the problem half solved. Like having ideas on demand, and prototyping them really quickly.
You will also find many options for in-studio workshops – part day, whole day and even week-long – which will give you a more fully embodied experience not only of what to do, but how it feels when you’re doing it well. You will find consultants and trainer who will structure an experience just for your team.
Design is not a solo dance – its a macarena or a hora where each person learns their part and the positive feelings that come from creative collaboration can be transformative.
Keep checking back with Ignite Institute who will soon be offering a leadership program for social transformation using design thinking and other helpful frameworks for creative change.
Second. Develop a mindfulness practice
As a leader, challenges are going to be coming at you fast and furious, in every moment of the day. Mindfulness practice teaches you how to slow things down, to pay attention to the small, still voice inside that is constantly speaking to you, telling you how you feel and telling you what you already know needs to be done. Practice mindfulness on a cushion or anywhere you engage in a creative practice with the spaciousness to reflect on what you’re doing: on the dancefloor, making- music or even cooking. It all prepares you to slow things down in the heat of the moment – so that you can pay attention to what is going on inside as the world swirls by. It prepares you to work with your soul-map to become the design-leader you want to be.
At the end of module 3 you reflected on the mindfulness practices you have available to you. If you already have a start on one, then double down on your practice. If you’ve never been formally trained in mindfulness practice then look around for one that suits you. Just like design thinking, there are wonderful opportunities for learning online, though mindfulness is an embodied practice that is best learned in the presence of a guide.
Sitting for long periods on a cushion isn’t for everyone. I mentioned that I have a moving mediation practice – an improvisational dance with an invitation to bring attention to whatever is moving through you in the moment – that I highly recommend.
The buddhist monk and meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh offers a “telephone meditation” to use every ring, every interuption of our routine as a reminder to pay attention. Every moment is a moment for mindfulness practice – why not the step of the creative dance that you are on, right now.
Third. Also at the end of module 3 you reflected on a soul-map that you might have available to you – from your own tradition or one that you may have picked up along the way.
Christianity, Islam and Buddhism all have a lot to say on the subject. Each one brings their own deep wisdom, which you will have noticed I have drawn on wherever I could.
There are entirely secular maps – of personality, of character, of the self – that you may be more comfortable with. The Enneagram is a model of the human psyche that consists of nine interconnected personality types. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator provides a map of personality types that is widely used as a tool for managing work-teams in corporate settings.
The point is simply to fully step into our leadership roles by following the advice of the ancient Greek philosophers – “know theyself”. Use any wisdom tradition you prefer and a sound practice, to provide you with the guideposts you will need along the way.
Like everything we create, this version of a living workshop is a prototype for whatever comes next – in different forms and to be offered in different contexts. My task is to learn from the experience of having done it, from the experiences all of you have had in taking it, and addressing whatever new challenges arise that I could not have been aware of when I began.
I welcome your feedback, input, ideas or any requests that you may have.
And then, one more turn around the dancefloor for me – to frame needs, redefine intention, come up with imaginative ideas, create prototypes and test all over again.
And then, one more turn around the dancefloor – identify need, redefine intention, come up with ideas, create a prototype and test it all over again.
Print out the resources page on the registration site. Check out what Ignite as to offer, including opportunities to learn design thinking. Contact me at….
Now you have all you need to begin the dance of a wise, creative, design-leader. Commit yourself to practice. Make yourself the wise leader you want to be and the wise leader the world needs.
There’s work to be done designing, and making a better world.