The craft of design leadership

My post yesterday on design leadership attracted considerable positive interest, which was encouraging. However, I was aware that my developing ideas on design leadership required a more robust theoretical foundation. My friend and colleague Karen Yair suggested Richard Sennett. Great idea; I had not made the connection. Rather than rewrite the previous post, I now present this as a coda.

Antonio Stradivari was the Steve Jobs of his age: a hectoring obsessive, who ruled his Cremona violin workshop with a ruthless vision of perfectionism. The craftsmen he employed were chained to their work benches. No, they really were. When not crafting the finest violins and cellos the world has ever seen, the apprentices would sleep on bags of straw under their bench. It is a model of design leadership that many have emulated since.

But you do wonder why they bother. When the 93 year old Stradivari died in 1737, the quality of his workshop’s musical instruments died with him. Despite the best efforts of his sons and master craftsmen to maintain the preeminent quality and reputation of the Stradivari name, the instruments they turned out were not a patch on those that had preceded them. Great efforts were made to analyse the pattern of the original instruments, the materials, even the precise formulation of the varnish, in a vain attempt to create a design template that could replicate his original genius. But these efforts fell flat, in every sense of the word.

According to Richard Sennett – Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics – in his book The Craftsman, the dramatic collapse in quality can be attributed to Stradivari’s very style of leadership. Antonio Stradivari, Sennett argues, was an antisocial expert. Antisocial expertise is driven by a competitive zeal which occludes the notion of co-operation, holding up world class excellence as the one goal, and based on a strict sense of hierarchy. The antisocial expert lacks essential skills required to ensure that the good work they do can live on after them; their unique expertise is held within the firewall of their own tacit knowledge. As Sennett explains:

“There is an inherent inequality of knowledge and skill between expert and nonexpert. Antisocial expertise emphasizes the sheer fact of invidious comparison. One obvious consequence of emphasizing inequality is the humiliation and resentment this expert can arouse in others; a more subtle consequence is to make the expert himself or herself feel embattled” (p. 249). It is of course precisely this form of expertise that the UK’s Research Excellence Framework is seeking to encourage.

Sennett contrasts this with sociable expertise, making the case that “A well-crafted institution will favor the sociable expert; the isolated expert sends a warning signal that the organization is in trouble” (p. 246). Sociable expertise is the very essence of craftsmanship – a concept elaborated and explored so expertly by Sennett. The social expert relies on good work and transparent practices for the basis of their authority. Driven by a desire to improve one’s own work, “the sociable experts tend to be good at explaining and giving advice to their customers. The sociable expert, that is, is comfortable with mentoring, the modern echo of medieval in loco parentis” (p. 248). According to Stephan Lorenz “The craftsmanship view means giving greater appreciation to the good work of the many compared to the promise of excellence by but a few, which, in a democratic sense, is ultimately also more conducive to the public interest.”

Sennett’s sociable craftsman “conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking” and is in many senses crafting knowledge transfer. Karen Yair in Crafting Capital has described this ‘craft thinking’ which “enables innovation by working with – rather than against – the restrictions of a given situation. In this analysis, craft thinking applies both to engineering and to team working: Sennett describes the craftsperson as a ‘sociable expert’, able to facilitate innovation by stretching the competencies of others within reasonable parameters.”

This is precisely the model of design leadership relevant for our age – an age of open design, ever-evolving collaborative partnerships between creative microbusinesses, social design, user-centredness, knowledge transfer, empowerment and inclusivity. Let me pull out three key arguments in favour of this as a far more useful and usable model of design leadership than the others on offer.

Co-designing with consumers

First, the rise of open design and innovation, linked to technologies that provide ‘consumers’ with potential to become creative ‘prosumers’ requires that designers need to shift to encouraging more creative and designerly self-reliance in others. I have written about this in my chapter for the Handbook of Design Management and say “the design manager is therefore critically the manager of the interfaces with the wider community of co-designers”.  Charles Leadbeater, in Production by the Masses, argues that professionals (designers, for example) “should educate us towards self-help and self-reliance as much as possible. Modern society trains us to be workers and consumers. Postindustrial institutions should train us for self-management and self-assessment” (p. 186). The design leader thus uses her or his social expertise to empower us as self-reliant prosumers.

Designing public services

Second, the design of new forms of public services demands a wholly new form of design practice, the success of which relies critically on the social expert model. In recent insightful research into the future of the UK design consultancy industry, Rachel Cooper, Martyn Evans and Alex Williams set out a number of likely future business models for design. One they entitle SIG (Special Interest Group) Niche Network and describe it thus: “‘Facebook’ social network approach: essentially a C2B2C model. The structure involves co-design/participation between design communities and special interest groups regional hubs. Designer’s role is as facilitator and mediator. Fees would be based on scale of contribution and would be reliant on ‘long tail’ economics, outsourcing production and distribution. High public sector engagement such as the re-design of services. Other clients would include subgroups, empowered communities, and local authorities.”

This would appear to describe much of the work undertaken by Taylor Haig, Snook, The Young Foundation and others. I am not wholly convinced that SIG (Special Interest Group) Niche Network trips off the tongue quite as well as my preferred Designers for Social Innovation, or even Social Designers but I will let history be the judge here. The design leader as social expert is clearly essential for such work.

Construction of social problems

Third, and intimately linked to the above argument, design provides the potential for people not just to co-design services, but to construct social problems. As such it offers potential to enable new forms of participatory democracy (an idea I will explore in a future post). I posted on this previously, but it seems appropriate to reiterate it here: The danger of service design for public services is that it becomes incorporated within the institutional paradigm that it has the potential to challenge, and thus becomes just another technocratic tool of the public sector. Simon Blyth and Lucy Kimbell have provided a vital analysis that comes out of service design practice, but which suggests a significant shift of emphasis:

“Rather than claiming to solve social problems, we want to argue for the relevance and value of Design in actively, critically and reflexively contributing to their construction… We want to invite designers to make this more clearly part of their practice. We think there are things about Design that make it particularly good at doing this, although the positioning of design-as- problem-solving tends to have ignored them.” Blyth and Kimbell argue that there are five things that make Design particularly good at helping construct social problems:

  1. The first thing Design does well is rendering issues as something that other people can experience.
  2. The second thing Design expertise does well is creating artefacts around which people can gather to interpret and discuss the characteristics of a social issue.
  3. A third thing that is central to design expertise is staging an open-ended enquiry that actively avoids being closed down quickly in the form of a particular solution.
  4. A fourth aspect of Design is its role in making trouble and being open to the potentially disruptive side of creativity.
  5. A final part of contemporary Design expertise is opening up the conventions about who and what can be included in a design project.

Again, this help us in defining the challenges and practices of a design leader as social expert working in this field.

Resourceful social expertise

These three zones of new design practice – co-creative prosumption, design for public services, and the construction of social problems – will be critical for our future and design wholly new models of design leadership. He may have crafted damned fine fiddles, but I have my severe doubts that Antonio Stradivari would have been particularly good at facilitating workshops for co-designing new long-term care services for those with dementia. I may be wrong; he may have had more than one string to his bow.

But these zones in some cases lay far beyond the familiar and comfortable territories of design. That some designers have succeeded, in some cases spectacularly well, in rising to the challenges, suggests that we need to identify the essential characteristics of leadership that can ensure success. My ‘feeling’ for this (in the absence of any actual data) is that in addition to some of those qualities identified in the previous post on design leadership, a critical requirement is resourcefulness. Emily Campbell makes the following points with regard to resourcefulness and design: “Resourcefulness is ingenuity: the ability to think on your feet; the ability to adapt one solution to another problem; the ability to make something out of little or nothing. But resourcefulness is also the confidence that comes with knowledge: having a skill or a range of skills at your disposal; knowing enough to make a wise choice; having analogous experience; having connections to draw on and knowing how to collaborate.This knowledge feeds the ingenuity, and vice versa.”

Tomorrow’s design leader is a resourceful social expert, who crafts change co-operatively.


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