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.

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