Leading By Design

One of the more interesting things I’ve done over the past few years was to attend the California College of Arts Leading By Design Fellows program. This was a six-month residency program in San Francisco. Essentially, it was a streamlined version of the Design MBA program at the CCA. I place it on a continuum as something more than the 3-day Stanford d.school Boot Camp and a two-year design MBA. For me, running and redesigning my own company, it was just right. That last part was the most important: I was looking at ways of redesigning my company Digalicious to have a more human-centered design approach as way of helping clients with bigger, more important challenges. While I certainly used a design-thinking process in much of my work, I also realized that I needed something more to make me feel comfortable in going out and pitching that to new clients.

The Design Program

There were three parts of the program that really jumped out as extremely valuable:

  1. Time To Practice – As they say practice makes perfect. Carving out time to work on a new process is hard to do when balancing other client work (and personal life as well). I would venture to say that trying to do this as a skunk works or hobby, while doable, was not a good solution for me. I knew that it would be too easy to neglect it. Enrolling and paying for the CCA Leading By Design fellowship forced me to make space to do this. That space was invaluable. It gave me time to hone and re-hone my design practice. It wasn’t just make-work either; we were all working on real design projects during our time there.
  2. Experts – The curriculum is set up so that the lion’s share of the instruction is through a series of guest lectures and instructors. Those people were at the top of their games in the design process world. A few who jumped out included Elizabeth Glenwinkel from Gravity Tank who led us in a series of workshops on research and ethnography; Bob Dunham of the Institute of Generative Leadership whose time with us left meaningful, lasting marks on who we are and what we should be spending our time doing; and Anthony Weeks, whose visual storytelling session just won’t release me from its grip. Those were just a few of the excellent roster of instructors.
  3. Cohort Group – My classmates were professionals at various stages of their careers, all of whom were looking to embrace and lead change. We had representatives from organizations such as Cisco, Intel, Steelcase and Habitat for Humanity, to name a few. Needless to say, there were a lot of talented and smart people participating, each of whom had something a little different from everyone else. It was not a bunch of suits on a weekend business boondoggle. We pushed, challenged and helped each other. We’re still doing that even though we’re no longer in the program together.

Expectations & Reality

I’m also the first to admit that my expectations of this executive education were extremely high, maybe too much so. For sure, there were dips and stumbles in the program, just like there are in real life. What I did find though was that in the areas that I felt were lacking, the Cohort group was quick to find and fill in information that complemented the classes. Did the Fellows program make me ready to design, because I received my certificate? Obviously not. I had been practicing design thinking for many years, through various projects. What it did do was fill up my toolbox, and make me aware of even more tools, that I use in my day-to-day work. My “rabbinical seal” isn’t what makes me kosher in the design sense; it’s that the program helped me reframe the challenge ahead and encouraged me to fully embrace a mindset that helps find new and innovative solutions by focusing in on what matters. It reinforced belief in the process. And highlighted the necessity of not skipping parts or taking shortcuts, something we do in marketing all the time. It opened me up to a new set of thought leaders and has engaged me in a completely new set of discussions and contacts. It helped that I was already doing this in various ways, through my work and through my work at the Partnership for Change where I was spearheading the drive to introduce design thinking into two area high schools.

Designing Change

Change is hard. Changing your career or your business is hard and scary. The program showed us how to do this; the instructors were living proof of it; the cohort group was in similar phases that we could relate to. The two Cisco employees used their time in the program to design a program to integrate design thinking into the Cisco corporate work place. Talk about hard! It was a good experience, certainly worth the time and effort. The funny thing about investments like this: they’re much harder to leave behind than, say, a two or three day conference your boss is paying for. Keeping experiences alive and expanding on them is where real change begins and thrives.

This is a promotional video made by the California College of Arts. Nathan Shedroff has some good bits in it.

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