Innovation-Focused Design Leadership

My thoughts on the role of design leadership in driving innovation.

Companies hire design leaders to achieve many different goals, such as building and maturing a design team, refining the UI of an existing product, or bringing an accessibility compliance focus to the design team. While I’ve successfully worn all these hats and more, the central focus of my career has been leading teams in the pursuit of greenfield product innovation.

After doing this repeatedly and successfully for many years, I have a battle-tested playbook for innovation that centers on the following key tenants.

#1: Rigorous implementation of the Design Thinking Methodology

The internet is awash in detailed descriptions of how to implement Design Thinking so I’ll keep this section fairly high-level.

First developed by IDEO, the desirability, viability, feasibility (DVF) framework is a powerful means for quickly analyzing the three most important aspects of a potential project or idea, then bringing them together to uncover where the best, most innovative ideas lie.

An important aspect of this in my implementations has been reaching a shared understanding of the problem space among all stakeholders. This co-ownership of knowledge drives superb alignment and allows teams to move faster, with less internal friction, and make fewer errors as they go. This is achieved by rigorously ensuring that all the stakeholders have a seat at the table from the very start.

desirability, viability, feasibility diagram

#2: Put Vision Before Ideas

Ideas would seem to be the stock and trade of many UX designers, but in reality, they’re the tactical means for getting from Point A to Point B. Things get really murky, though, when you don’t know what that “Point B” is. When a team wishes to create a durable and sustained competitive advantage they need more than just ideas. They need a Vision.

Before we go on, here are some key differences, as I see them, between the concept of an Idea and the concept of a Vision.

Having an Idea:
  • Concreteness: An idea is typically a more concrete and specific concept. It often represents a well-defined solution or concept for a particular problem or opportunity.
  • Short-Term Focus: Ideas tend to be short-term in nature, often addressing immediate or specific issues. They may not necessarily encompass long-range goals or broader organizational strategies.
  • Tactical: Ideas are often tactical in nature. They are practical suggestions or proposals for addressing a particular situation or need.
  • Incremental: Ideas can be incremental improvements or modifications to existing products, services, or processes. They may not necessarily involve a radical shift in thinking or direction.
  • Less Comprehensive: Ideas usually do not provide a comprehensive view of the future. They may not take into account the larger context, long-term trends, or the overall mission and values of an organization.
Having a Vision:
  • Abstraction: A vision is abstract and aspirational. It represents a broader, overarching concept or goal that goes beyond specific solutions or actions.
  • Long-Term Focus: Visions are future-oriented and often extend over an longer period, ranging from several years to decades. They provide a sense of direction for the long-term future.
  • Strategic: Visions are strategic in nature. They define the desired state or purpose of an organization, project, or individual and guide decision-making and actions towards that desired future.
  • Transformational: Visions are often transformational, aiming to bring about significant change or impact. They may involve redefining the status quo or pursuing ambitious, game-changing goals.
  • Comprehensive: Visions encompass a comprehensive view of the future. They consider the larger context, values, and principles that guide an organization or individual. Visions provide a sense of purpose and identity.
So in summary:

Ideas are awesome and we need lots of good ones.

The best Ideas are informed by, and flow out of, a Vision.

So how do you create a Vision?

There’s lots of different approaches to this, but I’ve had great success with the following key exercises and inputs.

  • Subject matter expertise. The starting place for creating a vision is always the same: you need to gain a deep understanding of your customers and stakeholders and the problem space in which they operate (happily, this is one of the outputs of Design Thinking).
  • Identify one or more north-star goals. What does the organization wish to achieve and in what time frame?
  • Think about impact. What measurable change do you want to make in the world?
  • Identify strengths and weaknesses of the team. What are we particularly good at? What should we avoid?
  • Inspire and dream big. Don’t limit yourself during this brainstorming phase, the goal is to get as many thoughts on the whiteboard as possible. You’ll have plenty of time to narrow them down later, this is your chance to imagine a different world from the one you currently live in.
  • Prioritize and refine. Review your list of ideas and start to prioritize them. Consider which ones align most closely with your values, goals, and strengths. Refine and expand upon the most promising concepts.
  • Create your Vision Statement:
    Craft a clear and concise vision statement that encapsulates your vision for the future. Your vision statement should be inspiring and aspirational, yet realistic and achievable.

That’s the meat of the exercise. From here you’ll want to communicate outward, gather feedback, align on changes, set goals and milestones, and finally monitor and adapt your vision.

A well-crafted vision can serve as your team’s north star; you’ll never get lost if you have a solid one.

#3: Design In the Open

You’ve probably encountered designers who guard their work carefully right up to the point of some big reveal. Something about not wanting any disruptions or impurities brought into a delicate design process. In some types of design it’s practically a foregone conclusion that you don’t get to see the work designers are doing until it’s complete.

For whatever reason this pattern has come to exist, one thing is for certain: designing anything without regular input and feedback from stakeholders leads to myopic design solutions and costly, avoidable errors.

Ok, so we’ve established that we need to include others, what’s the best way to do that?

In my experience, the very best products are the ones that are built by a team of people who are ALL co-owners of the problem they’re trying to solve. Product Managers, Engineers, QA, and Product Design all belong in front row seats for customer research and interviews.

Further, when all these roles run affinity and synthesis exercises together, they reach strong, actionable conclusions about how to solve the problems they’ve encountered, and moreover, there’s very little whisper-down-the-hall effect in the development pipeline, because there ends up being very little need for explaining things to anyone: they were there; they saw and heard all the same things you did.

Sound expensive? It’s invariably the best money we spend when developing complex new features. It greatly reduces development time and errors and further increases product market fit.

Once the broad solution is agreed upon, designers will, of course, get plenty of heads down down (just as the engineers will). But heads down doesn’t need to mean anti-collaborative. I work hard to build a culture within my teams of frequent sharing across not only the design team but also sharing out to other stakeholders for regular feedback.



Used together these three broad methodologies can deliver immense value within your product design team when it comes to driving genuine innovation.