Maeda’s book Redesigning Leadership: Design, Technology, Business, Life is a concise reflection—from a variety of perspectives—on his experiences leading others. Although the book is brief—even pithy—Maeda provides insights from his career serving as a leader in a variety of settings. As Maeda’s roles have changed throughout his career, he has encountered new leadership challenges. As a consequence, he has organized his book on the basis of these different perspectives, and I’ll organize this review in the same way.
Title: Redesigning Leadership: Design, Technology, Business, Life
Author: John Maeda
Publisher: The MIT Press
Published: April 25, 2011, First edition
Creative as Leader
One of the challenges I’ve had throughout my career is the need to provide project plans. While, in general, I tend to be very analytical and comfortable with organizing process, I frequently struggle with the activity of planning a project. I’ve often wondered why that is—assuming that it is perhaps because I am uncertain of what comes next in a project because what activity I would choose in response to the learnings I’d gained earlier in a project is unpredictable.
I recall pitching a design project to a Human Resources (HR) executive in a company for which I worked. While I didn’t know precisely what the solution would be, I knew what the desired outcomes would be—primarily, greater engagement in a diversity initiative. The HR executive asked what the final product would be, to which I answered, “How in the hell would I know? I haven’t even started!” Needless to say, that project never did start. The discomfort many people feel at the beginning of a project—from not knowing the outcome—can be paralyzing, but to people with a creative mindset, this just looks like a wide set of possible opportunities. Maeda encapsulates this struggle nicely in the following paragraph:
“Artists don’t distinguish between the act of making something and thinking about it—thinking and making evolve in an emergent, concurrent fashion. As a result, when approaching a project, an artist often doesn’t seem to plan it out. She just goes ahead and begins, all the while collecting data that inform how she will continue. A large part of what drives her confidence to move forward is her faith in her ability to course correct and improvise as she goes.”
So it’s not some deficiency or inability to organize that makes planning difficult, rather it is the agility of the designer in responding to new scenarios. LeBron James doesn’t plan every steal, dodge, and shot he’ll take during the four quarters of a basketball game. He does know the outcome he wants; he improvises and responds to the actions of others, and his skill makes it look effortless. The same is true for creative people. We might not know precisely where a project is going, how many iterations it would take for us to achieve our goals, or what learnings would demand new responses, but we typically know the desired outcomes and use our insights to achieve those goals.