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In Conversation: Jeanne Liedtka

Professor of Business Administration at the Darden School at the University of Virginia, Jeanne Liedtka was formerly the chief learning officer at United Technologies Corporation.  She is the co-author of Designing for Growth: A design toolkit for managers and Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works.  Her latest book is Designing for the Greater Good.

How do you describe what you do?

I think of myself as living at the interface between strategy and innovation. So a lot of my work over the past five years or so has been taking my background as a strategist and thinking about how we can use this new set of tools called design thinking to improve the quality of our strategic conversation, and allow us to come up with more creative, more inclusive ways of talking to teach other.

What is your big idea?

I guess my big idea is really thinking of this new toolkit called design thinking as a kind of a social technology.  So, if you think about it, think of how computing technology has changed over the past few decades, like someone was telling me that iPhone X would take a building that was ten storeys high and three square blocks to fit the computing capacity.

But then, think of how our tools for talking to each other the way we’re doing now have changed.  Well, I think a lot of people would argue that the ways that they have changed, email and Twitter and all this, have actually made them worse and diminished our ability to have meaningful conversations, not improve them.

So, for me, design thinking is a way to address that, to introduce the rules of the conversation that are different and not just to produce better products and services but to produce better organizations, produce better strategies, essentially allow us to create better futures by giving us some ways that we can keep our differences from polarising us and instead use them to come up with higher order solutions.

What does that look like in practical terms?

So, in practical terms what design thinking asks us to do is to immerse ourselves first in the lives of the people whose behavior we’re interested in impacting.  So, I want to actually not rely on second-hand data or quantitative information.  Most of the design thinking rules are ethno-graphic, so one of them is journey mapping which we used when we wanted to improve the quality of the experience that students have as MBA students as Darden.

In the old days, the way we would have had that conversation is a Faculty Committee would have gone into a room and argued with each other about how to change the curriculum.  Because it’s faculty, of course our world view is that the experience of the student is really about the curriculum.

Instead of doing that, design thinking asks us, and we did, to actually understand the student’s journey through the time they’re with us and to really immerse ourselves in their emotions as well as their cognitions over that journey and to try and understand what we could do to make their journey through their eyes more meaningful.

Well, the first thing that did was it taught us we needed to have people other than faculty in the conversation, in particular people like Career Services, because it turns out, not surprisingly I guess to anyone other than a business school professor, that actually getting a job is just as important as what happens in the classroom.  And we were protecting the classroom from the evils of job hunting and, in the process, complicating the lives of students and making them worse instead of better.

Now, once we had that information, the faculty members, most of whom really care about the students and their experiences, were ready to make the kind of changes that we would never have been willing to make otherwise, and I think that’s the power of shifting the conversation.

Instead of coming into the conversation from our own parochial views of seeing the world, we instead try and ground any discussion of the future and a deeper understanding of the present of the people we’re trying to serve, and then we use what we learn to ask this question if anything were possible, and be driven by possibilities that make sense to them and to help them get done the job that they’re trying to do.

And then instead of debating which solution works, we go out and try it, and conduct our small experiments, place some small bets, listen to the feedback from the people that are really the stakeholders we’re trying to serve, and iterate our way to the solution that works for them.

What are you currently working on?

So, right now I’ve just finished a new book called Designing for the Greater Good, which is really about using these design thinking tools in the social sector.  So, I grew up as a business person, right, and a lot of my work has been large corporate bureaucracies, which I think are really important places to work in.

But while we were doing this work, we noticed that some of the most powerful stories about the use of these methods were coming from outside the strict world of for-profit business.  They were coming from healthcare organizations, they were coming from educational institutions, even surprisingly they were coming from governments, sometimes even the US Government.

We started to try and unpack what the method looked like as it was being used by people in all these kinds of organizations, and naturally this is the focus of the new book then.  So, I’ve been working on that.

I’ve also been trying to be more explicit about linking this work in design thinking back to this world of strategy.  So, instead of just designing better products and services or experiences or interactions or whatever, how do we really use these tools to create more inclusive strategic conversations?  How do we take a strategic planning process which is almost universally viewed as this terrible, boring thing that people have to do that doesn’t really make any difference, how do we instead use that as a way to pull ourselves out of the day-to-day and to think together across difference in some powerful new ways?

What do you think should be at the top of every CEO’s agenda?

I think there is tremendous opportunity in this idea of democratizing innovation.  In some ways, innovation is the last bastion of executive privilege.  I mean, who gets to be an innovator?  We have this myth that innovation is really about disruption and it’s what great men like Jack Ma and Steve Jobs do, and that the job of the rest of us is sitting around waiting for them to show up and tell us what needs to be done.

From our research, we know that is not true.  Everyone at every level of every organization has the opportunity to create better value for the people we serve, and yet in our focus on disruption and novelty, I think we look away from how we unleash that power that exists in all organizations and really invite everybody into the innovation conversation.

Now, to do that we have to give them tools.  Issuing the invitation isn’t going to get us there and so that’s why, for me, this new design thinking toolkit is really exciting because it’s accessible to everyone, it’s scalable in organizations of every size, so I think it has the potential to do for innovation what TQM did for the quality movement.  If you think back to post World War II, there was a time when we really believed that quality was something that only senior people and quality experts cared about, that it wasn’t anybody else’s job.

Well. I mean now we know that’s ridiculous.  Until the person on the shop floor can stop the line, we can’t really embed quality in the products and services we create.  Well, it’s the same thing with innovation.  Too often we think innovation is something that’s done by executive level leadership, usually with some consultants to help you, and by product development and business development people.

But innovation has to be everybody’s job, particularly in the kind of uncertain complex world that we’re living in today.

So, that’s really the opportunity that I see, that I’m very excited about, and that I hope to be able to make a little bit closer to reality with some of the work I’m doing.

Would you say that the democratisation of innovation is the big issue or is there a bigger issue that your work can address?

Well, one of the things that we know is happening in our world today is accelerating complexity and uncertainty.  So, now we’re really in the world of these complex adaptive systems and issues that used to be the most important thing to worry about like efficiency and optimization, that were in a world that worked in a predictable way.  If we allow those kinds of values to dominate, we’ll never build resilient, adaptable organizations in the future.        So, we’re seeing this big shift, I think, in what organizations have to do to survive in the world of complexity and uncertainty.

What complex adaptive systems tell us they do is they push as much decision making to the frontline as possible, so that we know in complex adaptive systems, the harder we try and control from headquarters or the centre, the more we get chaos.  We used to think organizations were like machines, like our cars.  We stepped on the gas and they go faster.

It was always true, but we now acknowledge that organizations are really these complex systems that are just collections of individual actors.  So, we have to build systems that allow us first to tap into the intelligence of every actor in the system and then give them the autonomy within the boundaries of the part of the organization they’re in charge of, to actually conduct the experiments and to act on their knowledge.

But within a larger system that ensures that we have a coherent strategy as a whole, how do we achieve that corporate, executive level coherence and frontline actual ability to act and take care of that local intelligence?

I think the way we do it is due process, but instead of processes that rely on predictability and control, which most organizations are based on, we need to add to that a new set of processes that encourage innovation, encourage using that local intelligence, to come up with creative ideas, and then learning to experiment, and then share what we’ve learned across the system, so that each of us doesn’t have to learn from our own experience.  We can learn from each other.

That’s the challenge to me for leadership in the future, building organizations that can simultaneously do the coherent, single, high level strategy stuff that needs to be done and, at the same time, invite people at the frontlines of the organization, and at every level in between, into the conversation to bring what they know in service to creating better value because… I mean, isn’t that what organizations are about?

We may pretend it’s about it’s about maximizing our profits or improving our share price, but in the end, all of that other stuff only happens because we bring new value to some set of shareholders we care about.  And that, for me, is the challenge and I think the good news is we have at least one new toolkit to work with, that in my research I’m seeing is actually able to make a difference in that.

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