As the Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford, and author of the bestseller Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett has a lot of experience helping students become leaders and take charge of their careers. We chat about leadership, bringing people into the design process, and more.
Eli Woolery: Hi Bill, and welcome to Conversations on DesignBetter.Co! Today, I wanted to start with emerging leadership in design students and how we foster that. You and I taught Implementation in Stanford’s undergraduate design program for a number of years. We have students that come out of that program, and end up at startups or bigger companies. It feels like some of the time you can identify natural leaders amongst a group of students, but I’m also curious about how we foster leadership in the students that may want that type of role eventually but are currently stymied from doing so in some way.
Bill Burnett: I think it’s an important topic, because if you want people to go out and be change agents in their company culture, if you want them to introduce design thinking as the innovation method, and that’s not the way the company works. They’re essentially gonna have to lead those changes or certainly lead design teams to be the process leaders so that they get good outcomes.
We approach this differently for the graduate students and the undergrads. Let me talk about the graduate students first. The graduates are coming in with at least a year or two or sometimes three years or more professional work experience. So, they’ve already been on teams most of them. In our interviews, we’re looking for people who’ve been on teams, taken a leadership role, either a project management role or program management role, or just the design lead on a project. So, we look for that experience. In the interview process, we make them tell us stories about how did they do that, and that give you a good sense of what their leadership style might be.
Then we run them through a class. In fact, they’re all taking a class right now with David Kelly and a couple of senior designers from IDEO on leading design teams. Yeah, some people have natural sort of leadership style. They tend to be the person who integrates the opinion on the team. They tend to be the person who likes to go to the whiteboard and make sure that the meetings have some structure, and that the project is moving along. But you can teach a lot of the leadership skills that you need to be an effective design leader.
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In the Design Leadership Class that David’s teaching this quarter, they’ll run through a series of simulations where they’re put on a team and told “You’re the leader. You’re the follower. You’re the project manager.” And then experience what it’s like to be in each of those three roles, and then have a lot of sort of 360-feedback on how did they do as a project manager, were they organized, how’d they do as a leader, which is different than the manager. Did you set a clear vision, did you motivate people, do they understand where you’re going? And then they all get a chance to play a team member just to see how they responded to the different leadership and management styles.
We’ll run those simulations and then they’ll take on a project where they’re coaching a design team in leadership, and I think by the end of the quarter they’re much more comfortable getting up in front of a group talking about what the objectives or project or a program are, and providing the kind of basic structure so that programs from projects can be done successfully.
Google has what they call a People Ops Team, and they’ve studied what makes effective projects. There are some projects that do really, really well. They meet their schedules, they exceed their deliverables, they’re on time, on budget, better than we expected, and other projects that kinda fail, that don’t actually get anything done. Being Google, they like data and so they were sure it had something to do with IQ, or where you went to school, or how many projects you’ve been on, and on and on and on. They’ve actually published their data. None of those things correlated to project success.
The two top things were: 1. That team knew each other well socially, and that made them high performance, and 2. They had clear objectives from the start, and management didn’t change the objectives.
Let’s take the 1st thing as an example. I know that you have a young son, and you know that I have an aging mom, and you know about my kids’ little league tournament, and I know about your wife’s new business baking cakes. When people knew about each other’s lives socially outside of Google, they tended to have each other’s back, and they tended to work better as a team and so there’s less friction. And there was more open communication. The number one thing, and we’ll talk about it when we talk about our undergrads, is people don’t know how to communicate. So, they don’t know how to resolve problems when they come up or disagreements or misunderstandings.
It really is about communications in both directions. If you want to lead a team, you have to tell people unambiguously what’s the “why” for this project. Why are we doing it? Where are we going? And when do we need to get there? You need to provide clarity so that when people have to make decisions on the fly, they’re aligned with the mission of the project or the mission of the company.
This is directly related: if you’re a startup, you only have one project and so if you don’t have clarity and you don’t have a clear mission, it’s almost impossible to be successful.
But the other part that I thought was interesting, which correlates to a whole bunch of other studies about human behavior, when people care about each, they do a better job for each other. When people are communicating, not just about what do we need to do by Friday or who’s gonna do these tasks, but when they’re communicating as full, live human beings, they experience their work is more meaningful, and they do better work.
Now, with our undergrads, it’s a little different story, because they’re just in school and some of them have had a little bit of internship experience and stuff so they don’t really have very models for leadership. A lot of our projects are team-based, and all of our classes are project-based learning. So, you want to learn how to use a piece of software, we give you a project. You want to learn how to manufacture something, we make it a project. Even in some of the classes like you would think would be more problem-based like statics or dynamics or strength and materials or machine design. We do almost all of our teaching through projects because the research says that’s more effective.
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Out of two or three of the undergraduates on a team, perhaps a natural organizer will emerge. I don’t know if I’d call it a leader, but you really do have to coach them, because they don’t have a model for what a good team is, and there’s really no one on the team who has authority, and a lot of people confuse leadership with authority. I don’t actually think having authority naturally makes you a leader. It makes you an autocrat maybe, but not a leader.
We’ve seen with student teams the typical breakdown mechanisms are nobody wanted to put up a project plan, because they didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feels or they didn’t want a get into a conflict over when things were due, or somebody said they were gonna show up for a meeting, and we had a critical deadline to meet, and then they don’t show up, or somebody’s just hard to work with, because they talk too much in meetings and they don’t listen to the other members of the team.
The opportunity for leadership, in this case, is just to be the person who’s willing to start the conversation, right? We try to teach the undergrads, and also with grad students, and I do this in all of my project and other work as an Executive Director, the first thing we do when we have any kind of a get-together meeting, whatever, is we check in. “How’s it going today? Hey, Eli, how’s it going? Hey, Bill, how’s it going?” and we try to make that personal connection first.
The second thing we try to get the undergrads to do is okay, are there any pending issues that we need to talk about? “Yeah, I’d like to talk about the fact that you’re always late for meetings and I have other classes and I need to get my work done and you’re being late really impacts me.” We try to teach them to speak exactly that way, “I” statements. It’s not “You’re a jerk for not showing up, but what you do impacts me. Here’s how I feel about it.”
It’s hard because it feels like it’s a conflict and they don’t really want to have that conversation. Heck, I’ve met 40-year-old managers who don’t want to have that conversation with their staff. But if they can start off by having a good check-in, get to know each personally, and then air out any problems or differences immediately, immediately upon having them, then they will end up with a functional team and probably a good project, and to the extent that that’s as much as we do with the undergraduates to teach them “leadership”. I think that’s plenty.
When they go out in the world, they’ll probably just be the engineer or designer on a team to start, but if they’re the one who communicates clearly, if they’re the one who clears up misunderstandings quickly, and if they’re the one who’s willing to check in with everybody and see how they’re doing, our experience is they very rapidly become project leaders and managers in their organizations. Because those are really important life skills.
Eli: That’s wonderful. One other thing that I’m curious about is that I’m naturally an introvert, and I think you’ve mentioned that you’re an introvert too. When I first started teaching, you really helped me. I was up in front of a class and I wasn’t really projecting, probably largely due to my introversion, and you just hooked me up with a microphone. Being able to hear myself speak gave me a lot more confidence, and I feel like my skills there improved. Are there any other tactical things that you have in your arsenal for people who are a bit more introverted, but do want to assume more of a leadership role?
Bill: Well, you know, first of all, there’s an old joke. The world is divided into two kinds of people. The kids of people that think Myers-Briggs and those sort of tests actually nail it and that’s what you are, and the kinds of people who know those tests are bullshit, or who know those tests are not accurate. So, one, you gotta be careful about labeling yourself or labeling others.
But yes, some people have a tendency to be a little quieter, they have a tendency to maybe take a back seat in a conversation, they don’t want to be the loudest voice in the room. This is also very cultural. We see this with students from different cultures or students who are first-generation to college, who in some cases don’t have the same confidence, and in other cases it’s just in their culture: you’re not supposed to speak first, it’s not appropriate.
Leaders aren’t necessarily extroverts. Leaders aren’t necessarily the people standing at the front of the room going “Hey, everybody, look at me. Let’s go.” That’s one form of leadership, but the form that we like to push and teach is what people call service leadership.
The job of the leader is to clear the deck so that the team can get their work done, to get rid of roadblocks, to get the PO signed, to get the resources aligned, to get the other teams that have to contribute to make it a priority. So, you’re mostly not leading by telling people what to do. You’re leading by understanding what the challenges the team has are and then clearing them.
Now, one of the things that’s true about you and me and other introverts is introverts are actually very socially aware. Introverts are often the kinda people who really sort of know how other people are feeling. My theory on that, and this isn’t backed up by any psychology research, is that I that in my case, it was like I wanted to know what everybody was thinking and feeling so that I could make sure they didn’t want to talk to me, so that I could kind of hide.
So, I think introverts can lean into the fact that they have typically a high social and emotional IQ, they kinda know where people are at, and this gets to that thing of if your team has a social connection as well as a task-based set of connections, they’ll perform better.
I think you can be a quiet leader, you can lead with confidence from the front of the room or from the front of the team. It’s not about being loud or brash, or there is a certain quality of charisma that some people have. People call it charisma or whatever.
Some people have a quality about them that makes people want to be near them. But that’s sort of the Steve Job of leadership. Like “Oh, he’s so cool, or he has this reality distortion field, or he’s so brilliant.” Or like Elon Musk. It’s these guys who are charismatic. That’s fine if that kind of leadership works for them. But you’ll notice in their organizations, other than Steve or Elon, there’s zero depth of leadership anywhere else because although they may be charismatic and people like to hang out with them, other leaders don’t. They don’t like to be hanging out with people who have such big egos. So, you don’t get strong leadership in their corporate teams.
I think if you’re an introvert, lean into the fact that you kinda do understand how people are feeling and thinking sometimes, might be more deeply than others. Use empathy for others to understand what problems are there that you could clear out for them, and be the person who is better organized, more prepared, and ready to structure meetings.
A couple of students I’ve coached have gone on to work who describe themselves as maybe introverts or a little bit more shy, they overcome that by just being better prepared. They’re willing to stay up the night before, make sure they’ve got an agenda, and all of the details and everything aligned up, and they’ve called everybody, and they’ve made sure that they know who’s going to be there and what the mission of the meeting is.
So, they overcome the fact that maybe they don’t look like the loudest person in the room, but just being incredibly well prepared, and people really respect that. Because when you show up for group work, a team work, a meeting, a something, or your team is working on something to try to get something done, the prepared people who show up and get their stuff done are really valuable.
Eli: You touched on design thinking a little earlier, and last year we interviewed a distinguished designer at IBM named Doug Powell, and he said something that struck me as powerful: design thinking doesn’t work if it’s only practiced by designers.
At a lot of the companies we talk to and help run design thinking workshops, the designers all really get design thinking, but they’re still struggling to bring people outside the design teams into the design thinking process. What are some of the things that they might be able to do?
Bill: Well, we’ve just rebooted our whole graduate program. The graduate program was 57 years old, and it was a very strong program in design thinking, but we got some new professors and David Kelly really wanted to just rebuild the whole thing from the ground up and get their DNA in the program. So, Erin McDonalds and Sean Follmer are two new professors. They’re amazing. They’re doing fantastic research in design, design thinking, robotics, all sorts of stuff.
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When we’re rebooting it, we also realized okay, now a zillion years ago when I took the program, design thinking wasn’t what anybody was talking about, and being a multi-disciplinary engineer with some design and some anthropology and some psychology background, it was a pretty hard sell to go out in the world and explain to people what you were. You sort of pretended to be a mechanical engineer for a while ’til you could show people what you could do, but now it’s really changed. Design thinking is in lots of places.
Speaking of IBM, they’ve adopted it as their innovation principle across the board including in recruiting and everything else. I talked to Phil Gilbert who runs their studio down there, and he’s trained over 90,000 IBM’ers in design thinking. So, that’s a wholesale cultural change.
But let’s say you’re one of our Masters’ students and you graduated, and you go to work for a company, and they say “Yeah, we want to be more innovative” and you bring design thinking to the design team. Very quickly you’re gonna run into the marketing team who says “You can’t talk to customers. That’s what we do.” But intrinsic to this process is an open loop with customers and feedback and prototyping and we’re not trying to take over the marketing job, we’re just trying to bring in this qualitative aspect of need finding ethnography and interviewing.
If you can’t get the marketing guys on board, that’s one problem. Then downstream you want to have a multi-disciplinary team with radical collaboration. So, you’re trying to get these folks in from manufacturing and maybe the sales team out with the customers, right?
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I actually had a student of mine who when to work for a larger aerospace company, and she was trying to get manufacturing engineering people, and engineers together to work on some problems for the production line, and she taught them all how to do brainstorming. And then they were gonna go actually talk to the production-line workers who build these giant jets and find out what the challenges were, do some need finding.
She got about that far into the process when the vice president of the R&D team, and she’s six layers down, called her into his office and said “I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re making everybody really mad and you gotta stop doing it. These teams you’re putting together, engineers talk to engineers, manufacturing people talk to manufacturing people, and nobody talks to the production workers. We just tell them what to do.” Okay. So, that’s the culture that a lot of companies have. They have these very siloed things.
One of the reasons when we rebooted the design program and now called Design Impact is if you want to have an impact, you’re going to have to lead this change. Although most companies will now say, “Yeah, we get it. We want some of that design innovation stuff.”
They don’t really understand the structural changes that that implies, that everybody’s gonna work together on the same team, but everybody’s gonna radically collaborate to make the best possible product that the customer and the people servicing the customer have to be in that team because they have all this on-the-ground information, and that team has to be able to talk to anybody.
Let’s take a VP of Marketing as an example. It took him 20 years to become VP of marketing. The VP of engineering, it took her 15 years to get that job. When you’re in those positions, what you’ll discover is really the only authority you have is you can deploy money and you can deploy people. And if all of a sudden this radical collaboration, multi-disciplinary team is innovating rapidly and coming up with prototypes, and you haven’t even had a design review yet. You don’t feel like the vice president anymore. Right?
So, people start to control and control and control. I know the IBM situation a little bit. They started with the design teams, and then they realized “Wow, well, one of the things is the program manager is gotta get on board with this because this is a completely different way to run programs.” And the program managers were going “Whoa, whoa, whoa, this is not what we’re gonna do. We’ve got toll gates, we’ve got design reviews, we’ve got six sigma” And then it’s like “Okay, we’ve gotta integrate them.”
I’ll give IBM tons of credit. They’ve pulled lots of other processes into design thinking to make it operational in a giant organization like that, but you absolutely have to get everybody else onboard, and you do that by service leadership. “Hey, I know marketing. I know you and I are in the same boat. We want to make the best possible product. Now you could spend another three months writing that marketing requirements document and then throw it over the wall here, but what if we collaborated with the customers to see if we could discover a need that our competitors hadn’t found yet? Wouldn’t that be cool?”
You have to be the storyteller, you gotta be the influencer, and you gotta be the leader if you want to change our organization, and that’s why we have the Design Leadership class.
Eli: That’s fantastic. This has been a really great chat. I just want to leave off with one quick question. You’ve written a book, which I heartily recommend, called Designing Your Life, which you co-wrote with Dave Evans. Other than that resource, which I think is fantastic for people who are considering a career change or just a life change of any sort, are there any books or other resources you’d recommend to folks that are interested in learning more about leadership or design thinking?
One of my mentors here Bernie Roth, wrote a book called The Achievement Habit and it’s not so much about leadership, but it is about how you change yourself to be more authentic and to get more things done, and I think if you take the model of a service leader, you gotta work on yourself first before you start trying to get other people to change.
I have always used Jim Adams’ book The Care and Feeding of Ideas. It’s his second book. He wrote a book called Conceptual Blockbusting, but the second book was about how to make organizations more creative.
Then I’ve always followed the philosophy of a guy named Dee Hock. He was the founder of Visa, and arguably kinda the inventor of the credit card, and he’s written a lot about leadership and what leadership really is. He’s got a motto where you spend 50% of your time managing yourself, spend 40% of our time managing the people above you to get them outta the way of your team, and 10% of the time with your team and you’re gonna do great.
So, I like that model, and then, of course, Bob Sutton who’s here at Stanford, has written a number of books on innovation, creativity, leadership, Weird Ideas That Work, is one. But the one he wrote called The No Asshole Rule, which is about how to deal with difficult leaders, I think is probably a must-read for just about everybody.
Eli. That’s great. Thanks so much, Bill, for being on Conversations.
Bill. You’re welcome.