Social Design for Modern Leaders

Guest
post from Cheryl Heller:
Successful
leaders are different today than in times past. They do not dictate change,
they see and guide it. They don’t try to control, instead they successfully
navigate in chaos. They don’t try to be the smartest person in the room, they
create conditions in which everyone in their organization can be smart,
creative and relevant.
These
are the fundamental principles of social design, a new discipline with lessons
for leaders in business, government, education and science.
Social
design is the design of relationships; the creation of new social conditions
intended to increase agency, creativity, equity, social justice, resilience,
and connection to nature. The principles of social design are universal and
inviolate. They are the beliefs that guide behavior, the reasoning that informs
decisions, an internalized map for navigating uncertainty and determining
direction through the unknown. Most of them create a tension with the
traditional ways in which we’re used to working. Below are just two of the
principles of social design with relevance to every modern leader.
Ideas Come from the Inside, Not the Top.
This
first principle is foundational to all others, and it requires vigilance. As
obvious as it sounds, it’s easy to forget, and often inconvenient. It’s
comfortable and comforting to talk to people who already agree with us, and
come from the same world we do. It’s easy to think we know best when we come
with an outsider’s “objective” perspective, that allows us to see issues more
clearly than those caught up in them. Or when we have spent a lifetime becoming
expert in our field. We may have seen a hundred similar challenges before, and
think we already know the audience well. Perhaps we simply consider ourselves
particularly observant or creative. In the short term, it can seem more
efficient to make decisions about what people need rather than taking the time
to talk to them about it, particularly if they’re not fluent in the same
language of culture, country or industry. Social design requires remembering
that it’s simply not possible to understand what it’s like to be another
person; to have their challenges, or know how to solve them, unless we ask.
This
principle keeps us, and our work, alive and generative, even after years of
practice. Staying curious about cultural dynamics and realities that are new to
us, learning other ways to see, feel and know avoids the calcification of echo
chambers where people who look and sound a lot like we do reinforce habitual
ways of thinking. It’s an antidote to narrow expert status, an invitation to
wisdom different from our own. And it’s exciting, because people who are not
like us have ideas we’ve never imagined.
Questions are more important than answers.
There’s
an art to framing the kinds of questions that lead to creative breakthroughs.
The best are vague enough to leave spacious opportunity for ways to approach
them, yet specific enough to provide traction for deep thinking. A common trap
is framing a question with a predetermined answer hidden in it. For example, in
“How can we create a platform that will tell our story?” the highest order need
isn’t known. Why create a platform? To do what, to what end? What’s the point
of the story? Questions with built-in answers limit options and shut down
creative thinking instead of fostering it. If the highest order need is to
connect people to each other or to information that will benefit them in a
specific way, knowing that opens the door to think about a hundred ways people
might be inspired to seek information, one of which may or may not be building
a platform and telling a particular story.
Powerful
questions demand thinking beyond the obvious and habitual. They prevent the
repetition of what everyone trying to answer them already knows. They are
irresistible and intriguing when they’re relevant, focusing a group’s attention
on the unknown. They unite people in the process of looking for answers instead
of competing to be heard, arguing for their own solution as the only right one.
Great questions uncover untapped possibilities and discourage prescription.
They are the unassailable evidence of our agency; literally, of the ability and
freedom each of us has to question the status quo.
It’s
uncomfortable to live with questions. and especially difficult to guide a
diverse group of people to the quiet trust required to tolerate not having an
answer long enough to find the right one. It causes anxiety. Individuals
conditioned to either like or take control often can’t bear not knowing the
next ten steps in advance. Western culture values fast solutions, quick fixes,
instant expert opinions: the silver bullet.
The
best negotiators are those who can endure the discomfort of not knowing which
way a deal will go the longest. They have the “stomach” to walk away from
opportunities that aren’t good enough, outlasting more delicate participants
who “cave” in order to end the uncertainty. Living with questions works the
same way: those who can attain a comfort level with, and even relish, the state
of not knowing the answer instead of rushing to find one, come up with more
creative and unexpected ideas.
Cheryl
Heller
 is the founding chair of the
first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts
in Manhattan and is president of the design lab CommonWise. She is the
recipient of the AIGA Medal for her contributions to the field of design and is
a Rockefeller Bellagio Fellow. She is the author of 
The
Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing the Creative Potential of Social Design
.