David Kelley on Designing Curious Employees | Fast Company

Design thinking is a process of empathizing with the end user. Its principal guru is David Kelley, founder of IDEO and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (otherwise known as the d.school), who takes a similar approach to managing people. He believes leadership is a matter of empathizing with employees. In this interview, he explains why leaders should seek understanding rather than blind obedience, why it’s better to be a coach and a taskmaster and why you can’t teach leadership with a PowerPoint presentation.

Kermit Pattison: How has the design thinking model influenced your approach to leading people?

David Kelley: The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing–building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help. Once you understand what they really value, it’s easy because you can mostly give it to them. You can give them the freedom or direction that they want. By getting down into the messy part of really getting to know them and having transparent discussions, you can get out of the way and let them go. The way I would measure leadership is this: of the people that are working with me, how many wake up in the morning thinking that the company is theirs?

Empathy is not always talked about as a leadership quality. Why is it so important?

For me, it’s all important. If you want the people you work with to do extraordinary things, you really have to understand what they value. I’m trying to get people to remain confident in their creative ability. In order for them to have that kind of creativity, you have to be very transparent. Understand them and involve them in the decisions being made. Even if the decision goes the wrong way, they still were there and saw how we decided to do this and so they’re behind it. The worst thing you can do to a creative person is have commands come down from the top so they don’t see their role and don’t see the trade offs. If they see the trade offs, they’ll get behind it and just use that as constraints for doing their job.

What happens when the leader has to crack the whip? In the world you describe, how does the boss exercise authority and deal with someone who’s underperforming?

I always found that if you handle a problem in a benevolent way and a transparent way and involve other people, so it’s just not your personal opinion, that people get to the other side of these difficult conversations being more enthusiastic. You have more of a friendship than you do with the ones where you don’t deal with it.In design school, I had to learn this a long time ago when my students present something and I’m supposed to critique it. You can critique it in a harsh way and they might get it. But you also can critique it in a benevolent way so in the end the student realizes the reason I’m spending the time telling you this is that it’s a form of caring. It’s a form of respect, not trying to put you down.

A lot of this must depend on hiring the right people who have an internal desire to do well.

I don’t think people do anything out of fear very well. So I think the only choice is to have them intrinsically motivated. Yeah, it has a lot to do with hiring them. You want to really make sure that they want to be there. I love that example of Zappos where they offered employees three months pay to leave. It’s brilliant. You don’t want anybody there who doesn’t want to be there.

When interviewing candidates, what do you probe for to see if they’re a good fit?

I’m looking for somebody who has a positive attitude and is confident enough to express their ideas. They’re confident enough to disagree with me, confident enough to say what they think and paint a picture of the future as they see it. But at the same time, they’re questioning whether there is some better solution and whether they’re right or not.It’s this balance between confidence and questioning. This represents a kind of curiosity, an open, child-like mind of being enthusiastic enough to talk about their ideas–and questioning them enough to build on that idea rather than think it’s all done.

What questions do you ask?

The main thing is I trust my intuitive mind. There’s a time to use your analytical mind and there’s a time to use your intuitive mind. Most people, when something is really important, decide to trust their rational mind. For something really important like hiring a person or deciding whether they get into Stanford, I use my intuitive mind. The questions I ask are really pretty straightforward. Mostly I say, “Why?” And then after they’ve answered, I say “Why?” again. You really learn a lot about them. The main thing is just trying to hang back and let them explain why they care about certain things.

Part of your mission is teaching “creative confidence.” What does that mean and how do you do that?

It’s pretty amazing to watch. Students come in and say, “Oh I’m not creative.” That just makes my skin crawl. I really think everybody is creative. There are just some blocks in the way. Lots of CEOs, when I go in their office they say, “Geez, you’re so creative and I’m not a creative person.” It’s not that I’m creative and they’re not. I need to unlock that. The best way to unlock that is to give them creative confidence. Sometimes it’s getting them to be able to stand up and draw stick figures. Sometimes it has to do with getting them to make their strategic plan visual. But the main thing is you have to give them an experience. Creative confidence comes from us teaching organizations, individuals, CEOs, students, or whoever, a methodology. We call it “design thinking” but it’s really an innovation methodology. It’s a little prescribed, but that makes them feel more comfortable because they have this kind of step-by-step approach. It takes them down the path of doing a project and then there’s this moment where they realize that they’ve come up with ideas a lot better than what they would have come up with using their normal method. All they have to do is be mindful of that methodology and continually improve it.

How can a leader nurture a culture to support the organizational goals and how did you do that at IDEO?

The whole thing about getting people to do their best and go down the path of what’s best for the company is to really have a collective vision about where you’re going and make sure that they own that. Sometimes at IDEO we’ll even paint a picture of that future with a video, something that’s visual that everybody can agree that that’s the direction that we want to go. It’s a question of empowering people and letting them feel ownership. It’s much better for them to feel ownership and do some things that are little off-base and then have the group reel them back in than it is to tell them what to do.Think of leadership as a team sport rather than an individual sport. You put together this diverse team and get them to feel “it’s all up to us.” Then you’re really a coach and you’re just doing course correction.

How do you develop leaders?

It’s back to building confidence in people. When people are defensive or in the wrong mindset, it’s really hard to make them the leaders. But if you have them in the right mindset they can. Leadership is really the same for me as building creative confidence. We teach them a process–here’s how to get better at this. If I’m trying to mentor somebody, I try to give them experiences that build that confidence. You really can’t talk somebody into being a leader. I can’t convince you to be a leader by showing you a PowerPoint deck. But I can give you the confidence that you are a leader by giving some experiences where it comes out bet
ter than you thought and you were the leader.

Who is the most influential boss you’ve ever had and what did you learned from that person?

I’ve really never had an influential boss. I’ve had plenty of influential professors, but the most influential people in my life are my students. Like some people say, “The eggs teach the chickens.” Every year there’s a new group of students and they just have a view of the world that’s different than mine. Stanford kids are super smart. They’ve been all over the world, from all different places, and they have this positive worldview. As an old fart, I’m thinking, “ugh, that won’t work” and they’re coming up with ideas that open my mind. Hanging around with students is the most excitement I get in feeling like I’m learning something new.

You survived a bout with cancer. How did your illness change you?

I think it changes everybody. The whole notion of that that I was going to die from cancer was scary, but it was more enlightening to just realize that you’re going to die. I was running my life as if I had all the time in the world. There was no reason to be efficient about what I did or who I talked to. Once you’ve had that kind of disease, you realize the time is now. I have much more bias towards action now. I would talk about stuff for a long time before acting. Now I just act. It’s kind of staying in the moment trying to say “Hey, this is fun talking to this guy on the phone right now.” I try to only put things on my calendar that have meaning for me.

Has the experience given you any new insights about managing people?

It really made me think about people as humans–back to empathy. You’re more human if you had this kind of disease. I think of everybody as a person rather than a block on my organizational chart. Things like work-life balance were just management terms before. Now they’re real.

Click here to read more Leadership interviews from Kermit Pattison