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  • GK VanPatter

Ready for Which Context?


Hello again NextD Journal readers. This week we have chosen a difficult spring subject that seems to be forever repercolating in the marketplace; Design as Leadership. The good news is that we have already posted on this subject many times so happy to share an abbreviated post from the Humantific blog published in April of 2021.

The tricky, not so hypothetical question(s): Is the current state of Design / Design Thinking ready for prime time leadership in organizational change and societal change contexts? Is it ready to go today or does it need some tweaks, additions, subtractions, alterations? What is its nature, in its present form? Is it all there or is something missing?

Lots of design community talk about design leadership but which context is being referred to, which operational Arena? Without a organizing ecology, meaningful in 2020-2025 for the word "design" being present such discussions regarding leadership tend to around in circles.

Many of our readers will know that when we launched NextDesign Leadership initiative in 2002 we began conducting design community research around these questions. Since then we have published most of our findings, observations and suggestions including our recent book Rethinking Design Thinking, Making Sense of the Future that has Already Arrived.

Often what we are doing in Humantific practice with organizational clients is confidential however in this post we are sharing a Design Leadership Transition Framework that we use in conversations working with internal designerly groups seeking to make the transition from product/service/experience creation leadership towards what we refer in our most recent book and here in this post as OpenFrame Design Leadership. As a starting point we recognize that one is not the other.


Twelve Shifts that Can help You Make the Journey from Arenas 1&2 to Arenas 3&4:

Shift #1: Recognize that for most global organizations, the phenomenon of VUCA (now inclusive of Covid storms) represents an ever-evolving constellation of challenges that extend far beyond product, service, experience creation. OpenFrame Design Leaders operate on the flip side of this realization, acknowledging challenge diversity and an increase in challenge complexity.

Shift #2: Recognize that evolving from product, service, experience creation leadership to organizational change leadership and culture building leadership requires a different mindset, skillset and toolset from that of traditional design and or conventional design thinking.

Shift #3: “Houston we have a [methods] problem.” Recognize the rising complexity of organizational and societal challenges probably necessitates a rethinking of your traditional design methods, not design philosophy, but methodology for this particular context. Your current method and methods mastery might or might not map to this more fuzzy, more complex context. OpenFrame Design Leaders work to close the now existing gap between methods and complex challenge types. Undertaking redesign of methods for this purpose is not the typical everyday terrain of traditional design or conventional design thinking.

Shift #4: Do the work to see and acknowledge that working in the terrain where organizational and societal challenges are unknown at the outset is significantly different from assuming all challenges are product, service or experience related. How does a multidisciplinary team wade into unknown, unframed fuzzy problematic situations? OpenFrame Design Leaders need to know. This jump into the unknown requires skills and tools, not found in traditional avenues of design or conventional design thinking.

Shift #5: Do the work to understand that leadership in the context of high organizational and or societal complexities is less and less about the tell-tell model and more about Complex CoCreation Facilitation across multitudes of disciplines. Work in this terrain has become more about the guide on the side and less about the hero sage on the stage. As challenges scale in complexity more cocreation is needed. No longer depending on the tell-tell model necessitates a significant mind-shift and skill-shift. It is also a shift that better equips you as OpenFrame Leader to aid others across disciplines, groups, departments, divisions, and industries. This shift requires skills and tools, not found in traditional avenues of design or conventional design thinking.

Shift #6: Recognize that we are in the post-discipline open framing era. In the context of organizational and societal changemaking, challenge framing is not done based on the discipline of the framer. ie: I’m a service designer so you have a service problem. It has been known for some time that approach does not work well in complex organizational and societal contexts. How challenges are framed in co-creation requires stepping away from discipline-based framing, (still being taught in most graduate design schools), and towards Open Framing. Mastering Open Framing is a difficult, advanced level skill-building challenge and not for the faint of heart. Buckle up as it is not going to be mastered in a one-day workshop. OpenFrame Design Leaders are masters of Open Challenge Framing in real time. This shift requires skills and tools, not found in traditional avenues of design or conventional design thinking.

Shift #7: Move away from the UX oriented notion of “users” and begin to embrace full spectrum empathy, understanding what it means to consider multiple streams of input including from constituents, stakeholders, and others in a human or life centered approach. OpenFrame Design Leaders understand the landscape of empathetic considerations for complex situations extends far beyond “users”. 

Shift #8Recognize that changemaking leadership in this era is not just about adding, enhancing or building more convergent thinking (decision-making) capacity. Most business organizations are already vastly over-weighted in this direction (old-power dynamics) negatively impacting innovation. That traditional approach no longer fits with the challenges at hand. It has been known for decades that creating more deciding exercises and deciding tools is not, in itself, going to enable adaptive capacity. OpenFrame Design Leaders understand that divergent thinking/behaviors and convergent thinking/behaviors play equally important roles in innovation and must be equally valued (new power dynamics). One is not privileged over the other. Both must be present, fully activated and fully represented at the table. This we call Think Balance leadership and it's enabling and advocating is a central responsibility of OpenFrame Design Leaders.

Shift #9Recognize that thinking in systems and adhering to so-called “soft systems methods” are two different things. Both useful and the former necessary but neither is the holy grail. The latter does not serve the need for a clear, adaptive complexity navigation compass. It’s great to talk about interest in diverse tools but without a complexity navigation compass it is likely that you end up with a junk drawer of tool and exercise discombobulations, eroding coherence. Deep complexity navigation compass mastery is a primary skill of OpenFrame Design Leadership. While others get lost in the maze of complex situations OpenFrame Design Leaders can always orient using their navigation compass skills. Providing orientation in complexity is a central aspect of the OpenFrame Design Leaders role. 

Shift #10Recognize and skill up around the realization that sensemaking increases as challenges scale in complexity as part of VUCA. With the ever-expanding “information tsunami” crashing on every organizations shores this is not a nice to have capability. SenseMaking (not data) provides the fuel for effective changemaking. OpenFrame Design Leaders help others make sense of complexity. This shift requires, not just desire and interest but skills and tools, not found in traditional avenues of design or conventional design thinking.

Shift #11: Recognize that however you want to describe it, a central aspect of collaborative innovation or changemaking leadership is ensuring deliberate construction of psychological safety. That is not going to be accomplished by telling everyone to embrace models, tools or methods that are cognitively biased. Suggesting that everyone enjoys “Agile” is a non-starter, nonsense approach to psychological safety. Learn the considerations of cognitive bias. These are not abstractions but rather your team’s cognitive styles. We have no intention of leaving half of your team behind. You need that brainpower. As OpenFrame Design Leader you will be asked to review and accept many tools, some of which may have forceful advocates but contain strong, old power cognitive bias. Without psychological safety, inclusive culture building cannot be realized. Lack of inclusive culture makes it impossible to maximize collective brainpower. This dimension of OpenFrame Design Leadership; nurturing, advocating, protecting, culture building requires skills and tools, not found in traditional avenues of design or conventional design thinking.

Shift #12Recognize that as changemaking leaders our objective is coherence not structure. Rather than creating a highly structured system, our objective is innovation coherence in the face of the not often coherent VUCA storms. The turbulence of VUCA swirling outside your organization does not have to mean you are in a state of constant changemaking incoherence and discombobulation inside. In the face of VUCA we do not lose our way. The purpose of the loose-knit but coherent adaptive capacity we are building, utilizing and communicating is to be better able, not just to engage with other adaptive systems, but with VUCAitself. Fully versed OpenFrame Design Leaders are interested in not just mastering the component parts but how all the pieces connect together; -how VUCAconnects to Open Framing -connects to Complexity Navigation Compass, -connects to Think Balance, -connects to Psychological Safety -connects to Cognitive Inclusion, -connects to Behaviors, -connects to Inclusive Culture Building, -connects to Maximizing Brainpower, -connects to Adaptive Capacity, -connects to Continuous Organizational Adaptability. This is innovation coherence leadership and fully versed OpenFrame Design Leaders can activate and explain those building blocks, their purpose and value add.


In our Humantific practice we don't spend a lot of time debating whether these alterations and additions are needed in order to make “Design Leadership” more effective in complex organizational and societal changemaking contexts.

We do recognize that not everyone is going to be up for making the journey from product, service, experience creation leadership to OpenFrame Design Leadership or whatever you choose to call it in your organization. Many marketplace institutions, including numerous graduate design academies tend to be highly defensive of their (tenure-track) status quo, but don't let that stop your proactive, adaptive forward motion.

Often the folks most interested in making the journey have moved themselves to the other side of the various hyper-bolic marketing campaigns that now surround the current state of design thinking. In problem/opportunity finding mode, they are ready to embrace the notion that change and upskilling is needed for this particular complex context. It is often a bumpy personal experience on the front lines of organizational changemaking that brings them to that aha moment.

Clearly there is never one way to do things. Happy to share our perspective and what we have been and are already doing in this direction. In personal face to face settings its easier to share our many learnings with our clients.

We believe diversity of perspectives and choice is inevitable and useful in a complex marketplace. Good luck to all on this journey.



1.    Is this product, service, experience creation leadership or organizational change leadership?

2.    Is this design leadership program based on, built on product, service, experience design methods? 

3.    Are the broad philosophical statements in the marketing materials aligned with the actual methods being taught?

4.    Is Complex CoCreation Facilitation part of the program?

5.    Is Open Challenge Framing part of the program?

6.    Is Navigation Compass mastery part of the program?

7.    Is Visual SenseMaking part of the program?

8.    Is Think Balance leadership part of the program?

9.    Is Cognitive Inclusion-Making part of the program?

10. Is Innovation Coherence leadership part of the program?

Images Credit: HUMANTIFIC: NextD Geographies Framework & Philosophy/Methodology Shift & Mapping Method Types from Rethinking Design Thinking: Making Sense of the Future that has Already Arrived, 2020.

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