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Joyce Hunter

Joyce Hunter: A Design Systems Thinking Leader

Let’s explore what design systems thinking as a leadership skill means and how to equip leaders with top skills.

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” – Tim Brown, Executive Chair of Ideo.

According to Gartner, design thinking is the number one emerging soft skill (cognitive and social skills) for C-Suite executives. As organizations become increasingly flat and agile, leaders need to understand how to cultivate a psychologically safe environment, lead with empathy, and think in a user-centered way. Design thinking allows us to view leadership in new ways. It offers a good range of practical tools as well as an ideology that links up well with other leadership development approaches.

Systems thinking is a disciplined approach to examining problems more completely and accurately before acting. It allows us to ask better questions before jumping to conclusions.

According to the World Economic Forum, ‘Systems thinking’ does not have one set toolkit but can vary across different disciplines; for example, in service design, some may consider a ‘blueprint’ a high-level way to investigate one’s ‘systems of interest.’ Crucially, this school of thought is even more powerful when combined with more common approaches, such as human-centered design (HCD)

I believe that Systems Thinking and Design Thinking complement one another. Systems Thinking aims at being holistic by following a method whereby the understanding of a system starts from the apparent issue and widens the system’s boundary by expanding the circle to include those other factors that may not be so apparent but have an influence on and are connected to it emphasizing the connections and synergy. Design Thinking, on the other hand, is more empathetic and human-centered and requires the modeler to be inside the problem and design the solution after having walked in the shoes of the affected. This empathetic angle in Design Thinking will improve on the thought that Systems Thinking emphasizes and seeks. It will give stakeholders a chance to walk in the shoes of others and increases their understanding of the problem from various angles, and potentially increases the ‘innovativeness’ of the solutions reached.

Combining Systems Thinking and Design Thinking has the potential to improve on the holistic understanding of the current system, as stakeholders can view the system from different angles. This has the potential to generate more informed ideas to transform the system with a more holistic view. The abductive reasoning-based Design Thinking emphasizes the need to be empathetic and creative to produce an outcome that meets the need (solution-based approach). An approach that combines the two should therefore be more holistic, empathetic, and innovative.

The foregoing account of how leadership has developed and some of the desirable qualities of successful leaders show that the field stands to benefit from the developments taking place elsewhere. It has been suggested that the requirements of the industrial revolution era called for and were best served by a transactional type of management as it required efficiency in the mass production of industrialization. The interconnected nature of the Systems Thinking age and beyond, however, renders this linear approach too simplistic for the new environment. Having a transactional-oriented type of leader leading in the new environment will fulfill Bennis’ (2003) quote that ‘Failing organizations are usually over-managed and ‘underled.’

It should be noted, however, that while both transactional and transformational leadership roles have their place in an organization, the danger is when the transactional-orientated people are placed in the wrong positions at the wrong time. Within one organization, different styles may be most suited for different stages of innovation. At the exploratory stage, when new ideas and or products are being sought and experimented upon, the risk-taking requires a transformational type of leadership. However, after new innovations are implemented and value addition to the existing innovations is required, transactional leadership may be more suitable.

A design attitude and creative confidence have become imperative for today’s organization, especially in the ever-changing world of cybersecurity, national security, and critical infrastructure. This is not limited to product design but even the design of management and operational systems to enable the organization to be relevant and viable. Hence, in addition to a systemic understanding of the organization with clarity on interconnections within the organization and its connection to its environment and the emergence that arises, there is a need for a design attitude and creative confidence to enable organizations to come up with innovative products, working systems, and services that are holistic but also empathetic to and meet the needs of the stakeholders in the systems of which their organization is part.

A leadership that combines systemic and design qualities would be well equipped to operate in today’s environments that require the adoption of a holistic stance and takes all stakeholders and their interests into account, avoiding unintended consequences as well as the creative confidence to enable them to continuously conceive creative ideas and act upon those ideas.

A continuous ability to innovate and come up with new ideas and ways of working has become imperative to remain competitive and viable. This goes beyond mere adaptation to change to shape that change while meeting and exceeding the needs and expectations of stakeholders and taking advantage of the lessons learned from the previous paradigms. It is in this context that the notion of managerial leadership comes to the fore. There is increasing evidence that transactional leadership traits are becoming less appropriate for 21st-century organizations.

There is room to further develop and better equip leaders of today by taking advantage of developments taking place in all the disciplines; Systems Thinking, Design Thinking, and Leadership. A leadership that makes use of all three will be better equipped to develop organizations that are robust, more able to cope with continuous change, and, above all are easily adaptable to changing socio-political and rapid technological changes.

About the Author:

Joyce Hunter is the Executive Director at the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT), a nonprofit think tank providing education, outreach, and research at the nexus of cybersecurity, national security, and critical infrastructure. Prior to her engagement with ICIT, she was the Deputy CIO for Policy and Planning and the Acting CIO at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Joyce is also the creator and President of Data Science Camp Inc. (DSCI) and Science Technology Engineering Agriculture and Math (STEAM), an intensive, design thinking, project-based effort teaching underserved and underrepresented youth 14 to 18 years old how to use data to address important issues of public policy related to agriculture.