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How can Design Thinking Help Solve Women’s Leadership Challenges?

by , originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse.

We all have an inner alchemist. That latent resource within us which holds the potential to radically transform us.

No one knows this better than Elise Roy. She turned her lifelong disability into her biggest gift. Her inner alchemist transformed her biggest limitation – being deaf – into something profoundly liberating by using her unique experiential perspective to reframe the world around her. In her TED Talk, she talks about that moment of epiphany “what if we changed our mindset? What if we began by designing for disability first and not the norm?” That potent question changed the course of her life.

What’s the magic that made it all happen?

“I stumbled upon a solution that I believe may be an even more powerful tool to solve some of the world’s greatest problems, disability or not. And that tool is called design thinking.” Roy says.

Design Thinking is a versatile and proven protocol for innovation, for problem solving and discovering new opportunities in any area. The overarching premise underlying this approach is “human-centered” or people-oriented. It is rooted in the belief that people who face those problems are the ones who hold the key to the most effective answers. Innovative solutions emerge from a deep emotional understanding of people’s actual needs.

Design is a visceral act as much as an intellectual one.” Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer for IDEO, a global design & innovation firm.

In his recent article for the National Geographic, Paul talks about challenges faced by designers when rebuilding a violence prone community like Eastern Congo where the future remains fragile and only the brave and hardy thrive. And yet beyond the obvious needs, the community craves permanence and hope over beauty. The role of design is to identify and provide for that deep, often unarticulated need.

Understanding why women struggle in leadership roles or what holds them back from stepping into such roles requires contemplation beyond the obvious.

According to Gloria Feldt, co-Founder and President of Take The Lead and author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, the core of women’s leadership struggles is their own unsteady relationship with power. Effective leadership and acts that create fundamental social change are rooted in the language of power… until we [women] understand and redefine our relationship with power, we will stay stuck in our half-finished revolution.”

Design for social change is fraught with challenges. When design solutions focus on systemic change or have to alter the social and cultural tapestry of communities, pausing long enough to ask the right questions is the most critical step. In most cases, the problem exists in a few layers below the surface and reaching that requires framing the questions with thought and intent. “Solving for solutions” according to the Interaction Institute for Social Change essentially promotes the same ineffective outdated approaches. This is can be especially problematic when we can’t fall back reliably on what we already know or when we want to change the status quo.

Another important factor to consider is social velocity – the speed with which changetravels through living systems. It cannot be controlled. Speeding up the conversation and critical reflection in order to “get into action” can lead to unsuccessful results.

So how can design thinking help?

“Design thinking teaches us to look sideways, to reframe, to refine, to experiment and, probably most importantly, ask those stupid questions,” writes Warren Berger in the Harvard Business Review article on design thinking.

Design Thinking can be broken into three broad phases:

Asking Questions. This includes asking “stupid questions, or the ones that challenge existing realities and assumptions. This might just be the secret sauce for innovation. At the core of design thinking is the premise that a creative mindset can be a powerful force for looking beyond the status quo. This becomes much more pertinent when the status quo proves to be a limitation as in the case of Elise Roy. People with a creative mindset believe that they have the ability to improve an existing idea and positively impact the world around them, whether at work or in their personal lives.

Building Empathy. It may sound counter intuitive to look for answers in places where questions arise, but design thinking believes that the wisdom for the most effective solution lies within the community of users despite its perceived scarcity. Tapping into it requires deep, self-reflective listening with a serious intent. It requires designers to truly immerse themselves in the community and disregard any preconceived ideas. Begin with a clean slate.

Iterating solutions.  Design is a process especially suited for divergent thinking—the exploration of new choices and alternative solutions. Coming up with diverse solutions is key during ideation. That’s the reason human centered design works best with cross-disciplinary teams. A mix of thinkers, makers and doers is the right combination to tackle any design challenge – wider the perspective, more robust the solution. Embracing failure is an underlying mindset. Fear of failure holds us back from trying, learning, taking risks, and tackling new challenges. Creative confidence asks that we overcome that fear. Mistakes will appear in the shape of failed prototypes, time spent on a dead-end direction or ambitious ideas that couldn’t take flight but each is movement forward and that’s critical.

Design thinking is a tool that can awaken theinner alchemist in us by reframing dysfunctional beliefs that get in the way of success.

Dedicated to helping their students succeed in life not just in school, Stanford University offers a course for its students called ‘Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life’ based on design thinking for personal transformation. It offers tools and frameworks to tackle and navigate life’s “wicked problems” like how to have a fulfilling career or how to “wayfind” in a chaotic world.

I’ve been a design practitioner for over 12 years. During this time I’ve designed a wide variety of things – from avant-garde fashion to interactive digital experiences and others in between. Now as a Leadership Ambassador for Take The Lead, as my creative career aligns with my passion for women’s issues, I strongly believe that design thinking can be a powerful tool to solve this hairy problem. I’m designing a toolkit that will help women identify and solve their own specific leadership challenges.

The stakes are high for me – as a woman, as a designer, as a social innovator and as a change agent. Here’s my manifesto to guide my process.

Build a questioning mindset

Creativity is not a privilege limited for designers. It is innate to everyone. Tapping into it requires a questioning mindset that is also not judgmental. Women are subject to cultural discourses that clearly hinder their professional growth. Breaking free from it requires being able to identify and eliminate these dysfunctional beliefs while not being judgmental towards yourself or others. We’re all in this together. The big fear holding most people back from creative confidence is the fear of being judged.

Tap into collective gender intelligence

Struggle for women at work is not a new phenomenon. Shades and varieties of this struggle have existed as long as women have been in the workforce. Along the way we as a gender have accumulated valuable knowledge and strategies to maneuver around obstacles. Tapping and leaning into this pool of knowledge helps everyone. Collaboration within the community is beneficial for all involved. The struggle for a female engineer in Silicon Valley differs from that of a financial executive on Wall Street. But they are all rooted in stale and redundant cultural discourses that limit female leadership.

A new study co-authored by MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and Union College researchers documents the existence of collective intelligence among groups of people who cooperate well, showing that such intelligence extends beyond the cognitive abilities of the groups’ individual members and the number of women in the group is linked to effectiveness in solving difficult problems.

Build emotional agility through rapid prototyping

A prototype is an early model or experiment to create solutions to challenges. Many prototypes utterly fail often sending a team “back to the drawing board.” Rapid prototyping means translating your ideas into things very quickly. People who spend a long time “building” something often become emotionally attached to the product and that complicates the process.

Struggles for women lie on a broad spectrum. What works for one woman may not work for another. But it is imperative to try as many different ways of tackling the problem as possible without getting attached to one promising solution. Failed prototypes are an inevitable reality. With any slow moving systemic change, frustration and dismay can easily set in for the stakeholders. But the path to personal and professional fulfillment is rarely straight. Resilience and emotional agility are muscles that build with use.

In her book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, psychologist Susan David says that emotionally agile people know how to adapt, align their actions with their values and make small but powerful changes that lead to a lifetime of growth. These small successes are intrinsically rewarding, and help people to go on to the next level. We as women need to adopt this approach.

“Design is not simple problem solving. Design is a way to give problems new form, so people can solve them by themselves. They [designers] walk along very human paths, trying to make things easier for other human beings.” Paola Antonelli, author, editor and curator of Museum of Modern Art, New York in her book Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design.

Shalini Sardana is a certified Leadership Ambassador for Take The Lead – a social enterprise that prepares, develops, inspires and propels women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions through workshops. She pairs her leadership training with design thinking. If you are interested in participating or hosting a workshop, please contact her via a personalized message.

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