By Greg Roth

The rise of the executive “design professional”

We often think of CEOs as a certain ilk, mostly steeped in “non-creative” pursuits like finance, operations, administration, or marketing. But a recent story on CNBC namechecks some bosses with design backgrounds, including Jim Hackett, the new head of Ford and first designer to lead “big auto”. That’s fairly remarkable, when you think about it. Design backgrounds learn the art of subjectivity and exploration in their thinking — a stark contrast to the spreadsheets and quarterly reports of many C-Suiters.

It’s not entirely new phenomenon: Nike’s CEO has a design background and moved into the top seat in 2006. Many notable Fortune 500 companies use some form of design-influenced leadership these days. The difference is, it causes a shift to how teams, especially the product development teams, are expected to solve problems:

designers are problem-solvers, and they are constantly taking in their surroundings. “There’s a lot of observation, listening and research as you are developing products and solutions. … They are more likely to be supportive of innovative efforts, no matter where they come from or who they come from,” she said.

It’s a serious “soft skill” to want to find the “truth” without caring about its’ origin or ownership. Moving in that direction is difficult, as a VP at Whirlpool found out on his first project after joining the company:

When his design team had decided to try a charcoal black interior in their Jenn-Air refrigerator model, the marketing and engineering departments originally said it would be a waste of money — no one would want black.

“The mistake I made was telling people what we were doing,” he said. “Sometimes design just needs to do something we believe in, build it, then bring in people to see it.

After the design team built a prototype, the engineering and marketing teams approved it and the product sold well.

“That started to help us have a little bit of momentum as a design organization, and people began to believe in us a little bit,” said Schiavone. “The next time we came up with something we wanted to show, it was a little easier. … As things started to sell better, we earned that right to be at the table.”

Not much different than sports teams. Small wins pave the way for more wins.

Intuit, who produces TurboTax (everyone getting psched to do their taxes right about now), is even more aggressive:

Soon after being hired, Walecki put 500 people from the TurboTax team onto buses to go across different segments of San Diego and talk to people. They gave out Starbucks gift cards and asked people what was important to them. The very last question was about how people were paying their taxes. Intuit discovered it had “fallen in love with [its] own solution” more than consumers, who expressed a preference for software different from the one the company had been making.

Long before design thinking became a buzzword, Intuit co-founder Scott Cook would wait for people to purchase the software off the shelf in a store. Then he asked customers if he could go home with them as they installed it so he could learn which parts of the process were too complicated and needed correction.

Not sure what I’d do if a senior exec at a major corporation would ask to drop by my place for a software party, but it would probably not being able to use said software in the first place. Hope he or she like saisons and holiday ales.

Finally, and the reason why this is more than a story about corporate executives, is that, like all processes that gain buzz status, teams and orgs that use design thinking need to understand it’s uses and misuses:

Jen argues that design thinking is too often made to fit into a step-by-step diagram for fields outside of design. There is no specified outcome, and criticism is eliminated from the process. Iconic designers like Charles and Ray Eames defined the needs and constraints of all of their projects before they began designing. Steve Jobs used intuition in his way of design thinking as he focused on people’s desires and needs.

Design thinking isn’t linear, Jen said. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, it shouldn’t be a list of steps, and it does require evidence.

Trash the checklists. You have to learn how to experiment, how to be OK with not knowing the answer (yet), and how to talk through ideas and decisions in the middle stages.

As more companies — big and small — have senior leaders who understand how “designing” works, chances are workplaces will be more receptive to different modes of thinking.