Can designers be the next leaders of innovation in large organizations?

Design can be understood as a methodological and rigorous decision-making process aimed at intervening in the present towards a more desirable future (Simon 1996). Innovation, on the other hand, is driven by forwarding something new, usually a product, service, process or technical operations. Much of the design practice leads to innovation, but that is not always the case. The opposite is less common, especially in the context of large organizations (Furr & Dyer 2014). While both are sparked by the desire for change, Design itself does not have a clearly defined endpoint. Innovation does. This is the space where the conflict between the two arises. Innovation leaders in large organizations have to work for convergence, usually limited by the organization’s interest (Han, Kim, & Srivastava 1998). Design leaders, on the other hand, are risk takers trained to disrupt and realign status quo.

Even though innovation expanded the presence of design globally, designers themselves have often been perceived as change-makers, rather than change-enablers. Unlike change-makers that operate within a problem framing given by others in position of authority, change-enablers have a more holistic view of the challenge at hand, and lead processes to identify interventions for reducing barriers for others to succeed in their own way.

As change-makers, designers have contributed to the acceleration of existing traditional innovation processes, rather than leading innovation itself, and therefore, being able to contribute to new ways of innovating. While large organizations were able to innovate during the twentieth century without design capabilities, contemporary market, social, and environmental dynamics require design as the mechanism through which innovation might be achieved.

Contemporary large organizations sustained by risk-averse cultures are increasingly exposed to decentralized networks of both digital and physical infrastructures. Disrupting markets are challenging traditional productive innovation practices that once served as the goal for revenue generation and development of new offerings (Christensen, Raynor & McDonald 2015). For example, public awareness about environmental degradation is pressuring large organizations to promote, position and engage in more sustainability-oriented innovation practices.  Whitney (2015) explains this context by introducing the concept of “innovation gap”, in which companies know how to make anything without the capability of creating meaningful offerings. That is because they not only lack the ability to recognize that each challenge might require a different type of leadership, but also that leaders need to be capable of guiding processes through critical reflections around creating value while overcoming sustainability challenges of contemporary practices. Without such agents, organizations will continue to fall short in maintaining their operations over time.

As design becomes the mechanism through which innovation happens, designers are being called to assume leadership positions in large organizations. Designers can add great value as innovation leaders in large organizations, especially by bringing existing tools and methods for understanding users. However, there are greater opportunities yet to be explored. For example, as change-enablers, designers have the chance to reimagine mechanisms of values extraction, creation, and delivery and reshape entire industries and societies.

But, are designers ready? 

As a field driven by the possibility of creating better futures through situational interventions, Design seems yet ill-prepared to lead large organizations in creating meaningful offerings. That is because designers have been slow to recognize how the speed and scale of contemporary challenges (e.g. emerging pandemics, climate change, global crisis of representative democracy, the rise of environmental concerns, immigration and refugee rights, web combinations of smart artifacts, etc.) should be incorporated into their practices and ideologies in productive and more sustainable ways (Niedderer et al 2016).

If leadership roles are to introduce new context and challenges to designers, then new skills and capabilities aligned with such responsibility will have to be incorporated in design practices, especially in regards to creating meaningful offerings (Martin & Scott 2000). Several fields have advanced in new models for leading and managing large-scale innovation, including adaptive leadership (Yukl & Mahsud 2010), and can inform new design practices. For example, innovation leaders should be able to (1) engage with multiple agents with the right mix of attributes and cultural alignment, (2) recognize and be able to connect with each agent’s competence, (3) activate strategic interactions as needed, and (4) develop emotional intelligence and learn how to lead through justice and integrity, especially in open platforms, where conflicts of interest and frictions in defining innovation processes often pose major barriers to creating meaningful offerings. So, rather than working in isolation, designers as innovation leaders will have to learn how to lead both people and processes in organizations that are increasingly working in large-scale networks of collaboration (Kofman 2008).

In addition to new leadership skills, designers will also have to free themselves from unsustainable normative practices of the field (e.g., not recognizing gender issues, reinforcing power structures, contributing to wasteful cultures), and give proper attention to contemporary complex systemic issues, especially those accelerated by the impact of large-scale organizations (e.g. social injustice, wealth concentration, irreversible environmental damages). Several scholars and practitioners in the Design field are engaging with other domains (e.g. socio-technical systems) to explore proper alignment and integration of strategies, resources, and capabilities that might reduce some of the social tensions sustaining design practices  (Forlano 2017). While they present promising paths for advancing the field in thought leadership (e.g. open4citizens), the integration of environmental concerns seems to be yet a major barrier. Without acknowledging the environment, designers will continue to be ill-prepared to deal with complex challenges faced by large organizations, as well as those posed by them. These will require not only the development of new tools and methods to guide collective processes of innovation and conflict management but also the ability to create the right environment to inspire and motivate a diverse group of agents towards common (and more sustainable) goals.

Thus, if designers are to assume innovation leadership in large organizations, and improve the living conditions by creating meaningful offerings, they will have to develop (1) new leadership skills to lead people and process, and (2) new tools and methods capable of incorporating complex systemic issues in their leadership practices, especially those related to socio-technical and environmental concerns of large organization’s impacts. By doing so, they might become innovation leaders capable of creating new mechanisms that not only accelerate sustainability-oriented innovations but also the necessary critical reflections that can support the design of new meaningful offerings.

References cited:

Christensen, C. M., Raynor, M. E., & McDonald, R. (2015). What is disruptive innovation. Harvard Business Review, 93(12), 44-53.

Forlano, L. (2017). Posthumanism and Design. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 3(1), 16-29.

Furr, N., & Dyer, J. H. (2014). Leading your team into the unknown. Harvard business review, 92(12), 18.

Han, J. K., Kim, N., & Srivastava, R. K. (1998). Market orientation and organizational performance: is innovation a missing link?. The Journal of marketing, 30-45.

Kofman, F. (2008). Conscious business: How to build value through values (Vol. 1). ReadHowYouWant. com.

Martin, S., & Scott, J. T. (2000). The nature of innovation market failure and the design of public support for private innovation. Research policy, 29(4-5), 437-447.

Niedderer, K., Ludden, G., Clune, S., Lockton, D., Mackrill, J., Morris, A., … & Hekkert, P. (2016). Design for behaviour change as a driver for sustainable innovation: Challenges and opportunities for implementation in the private and public sectors. International Journal of Design, 10(2), 67-85.

Simon, H. A. (1996). The sciences of the artificial. MIT press.

Yukl, G., & Mahsud, R. (2010). Why flexible and adaptive leadership is essential. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 81.

Whitney, P. (2015). Design and the Economy of Choice. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 1(1), 58-80.

Leave a Reply