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Book Review: Redesigning Leadership

October 21, 2019

Cover: Redesigning LeadershipJohn Maeda has been an influential figure in the creative, technology world for decades. He began his career as a computer-science student, then pivoted to art and design. He was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he led the Media Lab; became president of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), was Design Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), and now serves as a Strategic Advisor there. He currently leads design at Automattic, a Web-development company that is known primarily for WordPress.com.

The term leadership frequently causes some discomfort among creative types. Perhaps it conjures images of an authoritarian figure maintaining centralized command and control of disparate activities. Of course, such control is anathema to creating the diversity that is necessary to realize unique, creative outcomes.

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.

Book Specifications

Title: Redesigning Leadership: Design, Technology, Business, Life

Author: John Maeda

Formats: Hardcover

Publisher: The MIT Press

Published: April 25, 2011, First edition

Pages: 96

ISBN-10: 0262015889

ISBN-13: 978-0262015882

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.

Technologist as Leader

Transparency is a recurring theme we hear from our politicians and corporate leaders. However, Maeda advises that, while transparency is nice, clarity is better. Those leaders might define transparency as providing information to interested stakeholders. Because the information is available, stakeholders just have to look at it. But clarity facilitates understanding.

For example, nutrition labels provide visibility to factual, accurate information about the foods we eat, but they don’t necessarily make us better informed consumers. Even if manufacturers provided a full list of ingredients, including chemical names and quantities, we would still likely struggle to understand the meaning of such a label.

It wasn’t until the Nutrition Facts label was introduced in 1994—which Massimo Vignelli heralded as “a masterpiece”—that American consumers could get a clear picture of what they were eating. Figure 1 shows an example of a Nutrition Facts label.

Figure 1—Nutrition facts label
Nutrition facts label

Perceiving the difference between transparency and clarity exposes a cop-out that we frequently see in a variety of scenarios—from privacy policies, to software End User License Agreements (EULAs), to banking disclosures. While such documents might be transparent—simply making information available provides transparency—this does not contribute to the clarity of information.

Professor as Leader

It is curious that Maeda’s experiences as a leader have typically occurred in scenarios where people have a greater than typical distrust of leadership. Similarly to creatives, academics seem to have an outsized disregard—bordering on contempt—for leaders.

Academia is a funny industry. Despite its attracting some of the most intelligent minds in any given field, academia is notoriously dysfunctional. Maeda provides this insightful anecdote: In 2004, the United States men’s Olympic basketball team comprised exceptional individuals, but their inability to function as a team ultimately led to their poor performance. It is particularly difficult to lead a team of professionals who are functioning at their peak performance—especially if there is no clear leader.

Maeda’s experience in academia mirrors my own: In higher education, educators essentially run their own small companies, which deliver courses and research. Interference from administrators is not welcome. It is difficult to find examples of strong leadership in academia, not least because these educators have little interest in being led by other academics.

Maeda describes the importance of noncomformity in an organization. He relates his experience working at a company in Tokyo, where there was one person who had a drastically different background from that of his coworkers and was disliked by many people in the office. When Maeda questioned the necessity of keeping this person on the team, the owner of the company replied that this employee was so different that he was able to expose flaws in the conventional thinking of the other employees. Maeda notes that, even in Japanese society, which generally values conformity highly, the unique perspective of this individual contributed to the strength of the organization.

Human as Leader

Almost everyone would agree that the culture of an organization starts from the top. In his book, Maeda describes his experiences working with leaders who exploited the perqs of their office and how their sense of entitlement cascaded through the rest of the organization.

Maeda also shares his sense of what leadership should be. A leader should be an example of ethics and restraint. When a leader eschews the trinkets and tinsel of his or her status, focusing instead on honest communication and getting results, this sense of responsibility cascades throughout the entire organization.

Conclusion

Redesigning Leadership is an easy-to-read book—one that you can read in an evening. Many of the book’s anecdotes might sound familiar; there isn’t much in the book that is new or groundbreaking. But the book offers insights from a leader in the design industry and, thus, provides a good reference point for anyone in a design-leadership position. 

Vice President, User Experience at Metisentry

Owner of TheoremCX

Kent, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen began his career in 1999, when businesses were just beginning to recognize the World Wide Web as a valuable tool. Prior to his appointment at Kent State, he held positions as a UX designer and UX manager. He has worked with global teams and a variety of consulting firms to deliver research and design that improved digital experiences for customers. He has also developed his organizations’ analytics discipline to track the performance of digital properties and identify opportunities for improvement. Ben’s company TheoremCX is an innovation firm that provides customer-focused solutions. He has developed solutions and corporate workshops for a variety of organizations around the world, including Eaton, General Electric, Knoch Corporation, and Orange S.A. Ben is the chairperson of UX Akron, a nonprofit professional network serving Summit and Portage Counties, as well as all of Northeast Ohio.  Read More

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