Mindset is the secret sauce in human centred design

I had the amazing privilege to represent Huddle with Simon Lawry and speak at UX Australia in August (and again at the redux in October) on the topic of the role of mindset in human centred design. You can grab the audio and see sketch notes and photos from our talk directly here: http://uxaustralia.com.au/uxaustralia-2014/mindset-user-centred-design

But what is mindset? Mindset is the perspective and worldview you bring to a situation. It is the frame you exist and live within. It determines how you interact with and view the world and how you view what happens to you. As an example, optimism is a common mindset we adopt in design.

Mindset however, is often missing or only subtly implied in a conversation about design. The focus instead is on the knowledge, skill and tool sets of design. Within literature and practice there is an imbalance toward the doing aspects of design – the process, methods and tools – in comparison to mindset. Where mindset is discussed it is usually only stated with little insight into what different mindsets there are, how to develop or enact them, or how mindset can impact on practice.

Through our research and experience in industry we’ve become increasingly aware that mindset is the secret sauce in human centred design. It is the mindset we bring as designers that is our key differentiator in being able to navigate complex problems, not the knowledge, skills or tools we use.

Mindset however is like air. Its difficult to be aware of and name the mindset we are adopting and enacting. If we want to change it, it requires a change in composition, and effectively, a change in us. Our mindset also changes how we apply the knowledge, skill and tool sets of design. In this way, a change in mindset, changes the possibility for outcomes.

To understand mindset in context, last year Huddle conducted a large research piece for a client where the research question was: What can we understand about people that is relevant for the future? We conducted observations, used cultural probes, contextual inquiry and in-depth interviews with a diverse range of people to gain insight into this research question.

One of the largest findings from the research was the emergence of two overarching mindsets: a generative mindset or a receiving mindset. The mindset impacted on how people interacted in and with the world.

A generative mindset believes in the ability to have agency in and affect the world. It has characteristics of being proactive, being courageous, and seizing opportunity. Kids are a great example of a generative mindset. They see the world as full of possibility they can interact with and test. They continually play and test the environment they are in and see opportunity rather than constraints.

In comparison, a receiving mindset believes the world affects you and you can only receive and react to what the world offers you. In this mindset, the individual is driven by fear, uncertainty and sees the world as a set of constraints.

In short, a generative mindset represents a view of ‘me and the world’ compared to a receiving mindset which represents ‘me vs the world’.

We also learned however that an individual is never wholly generative or wholly receiving. Its a continuum you move within dependent upon the situation. In our findings we were able to determine three influencing factors that contribute to the mindset an individual adopts within a situation.These factors are: belief in agency, sense of self and locus of control. As a result, your perception of your agency, sense of self and control within a situation will determine the mindset you bring to it. As such, your mindset shifts dependent on the context. In this way, neither mindset is better or worse, good or bad, positive or negative but a decision based on perception and belief.

From this, the most challenging finding that emerged from the research was that fundamentally you choose the mindset you bring to a situation. You have the ability to be aware of and decide on your mindset in a situation. As such, we challenge you to consider: how might you encourage a generative mindset in yourself and the people you work with?

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From dinner to dining: the evolving role of the designer

I was privileged to speak this week at LeanUXNYC 2014 – amazing conference filled with super smart, fun people sharing awesome stories. Here I share with you my contribution to the conference: slides, social media and script a framework of the evolving role of the designer based on some of my PhD research findings. It was a 20 minute talk – so apologies for length! :)


A love affair with cooking

I love to cook. Its making and therapy all in one! There is something amazing in the making magic of putting seemingly random things together and creating something new that is delicious and even better that you can share with others. I think I’m a pretty good cook if I do say so myself! But a good cook doesn’t make me a chef. Similarly just because I can design, it doesn’t make me a designer.


Design is evolving in popularity and complexity

Over the past decade design has evolved both in popularity and complexity. As was mentioned yesterday most people still consider design in the traditional aesthetic and product sense, even as it has grown to include the design of intangible services, systems and experiences. With this designers often have trouble articulating what design is and what they do.

From this evolution, two issues have emerged:

  1. Firstly, with the growth in popularity there are a lot of home cooks who are marketing themselves as chefs. There are a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon and naming themselves designers or design thinkers with little understanding of what this is or means. This is impacting on how design thinking is being understood and perceptions of the quality outcomes design can offer – for example the difference between a take out meal, home cooked dinner or full fine dining experience.
  1. There has also been an emergence and convergence of design and designerly disciplines. Its difficult enough for designers to articulately and convincingly differentate disciplines such as user experience, design thinking, service design and strategic design. If we can’t do it, how do we expect our customers or clients to? To designers, there are subtle more than substantial differences. To people who do not understand design they all sound the same.. I have seen designers often revert to the home cook style of showing people their recipes or fancy tools as a way of making what they do accessible and understandable which instead simply belittles it.

Designers need a better way to articulate what they do and the value they provide. In addition, the ‘chefs’ need to differentiate themselves from the home cooks.


The curse of expertise

One problem though is that research from Stanford University shows that once someone is an ‘expert’ in something they can only articulate a small proportion of their expertise of what they ‘think’ they do. The rest of a person’s expertise is so embedded it becomes tacit knowledge or ‘unconscious competence’.

My PhD research explores an aspect of this asking the question: how is design thinking enacted in practice? How does the designer lead design projects?

To understand this I used ethnographic methods and interviewed approximately 50 academics and professionals about how they understood and applied design thinking in practice. I was also a participant observer in the field working on a half dozen complex design projects. My research found there are five core roles a designer or design team embodies and enacts when leading design thinking projects of: design lead, facilitator, educator, composer and cool kid. Understanding these five roles provides some insight into the ‘unconscious competence’ of the designer.

First of all, lets consider what it means to dine out. Fine dining is all about quality and experience. I went to an amazing new restaurant in Melbourne recently…First we were seated at the bar for our pre dinner drink – The barman was theatrical in his cocktail making, and engaged us in a humorous conversation. Then when our table was ready we were escorted by the maitre d who introduced us to our waiter. The waiter then took over – told us the specials, gave us menus and throughout the dinner in the background the waiter ensured we always had water and the wait between courses was just right. The food when it came tasted just as amazing as it looked. And the wine matched perfectly. It was like being centre stage in a play – it was an easy, seamless and memorable experience.

So why am I telling you this story? It shares many similarities with how designers lead codesign projects with clients and organisations and highlights the five roles of that emerged from my research. Let’s take a quick look at each one.


1. Chef = design lead

People come for the food first

First and foremost people will decide on a restaurant for the food. If the food isn’t delcious, everything else about the experience just doesn’t quite make up for it. So the chef is critical. Interestingly however, the chef is not customer facing, but their product very much is. This correlates to the role of design lead. People choose designers firstly based on the quality of the design outcomes and deliverables.

In my research, I observed that designers acted as subject matter experts in design, often leading a client team with little or no experience. Designers involved client teams in the process through workshops and activities but also separately synthesised and sense made what they had learned from these activities using this as a basis to design from. While the team participated and contributed to the experience, the designer took charge of designing. So the food, the meal itself, is most important. Similarly to the dining experience however, the role of design lead itself is often not customer facing, it happens in the background, but the end product, the deliverables are at the forefront.


2. Waiter = facilitator

Navigating people through seamless service

The second role is that of wait staff who are also critical. They navigate the path through the experience – they provide the menus, give the specials of the day, fill up your water glass when you aren’t watching, bring your food. The waiter is the tactical glue of the whole scene, connecting customers with their general and specific needs through facilitation.

Similarly the role of facilitator in design thinking guides people through the design process and drives engagement and participation in it. This is about deliberately creating a structured environment for people so they can walk into an unknown situation and be confident they can move through it. This expert facilitation appears as a seamless conversation between the designers and the client team. This requires honed skills in order to critically assess a situation, be responsive to it and lead people through the process of change to achieve outcomes in the most appropriate and effective way. Think of the waiter, who needs to be aware of quick flick of the eyes, or slight nod of the head or how full glasses are. They need to understand the rhythm and energy and pace of each table and respond to needs quickly. So the designer also needs to understand the rhythm and energy of the situation and being able to respond to it and move people through it to progress.


3. Sommelier = educator

Share what you know, teach through experience

The sommelier’s role is often subtle. They work in the background and foreground. They can assist the chef in designing the menu with appropriate wine matching and can also be on service to provide first hand advice and knowledge to assist customers in making the best choices in regard to flavours.

The sommelier, aligns with the role of educator in design thinking. Teaching design is both implicit and explicit through the design process. Simply through the experience of design thinking, participants naturally learn some aspects. Deliverables are also often educational documents – discussing project outcomes and recommendations but also detailing the process and tools for the organisation to use. At other times training and skill development is explicitly integrated within projects. I watched designers lead workshops to teach design skills and tools such as how to conduct interviews and create prototypes. This was found also at Proctor and Gamble in their evolution to a design led organisation where they found design and its value couldn’t be explained only experienced.

The key purpose for this role of educator is to build enough capability for people to productively contribute and participate in the design process not develop expertise. The sommelier juxtaposes with the waiter and the chef to navigate people through the process, and deliver the best possible food experience.


4. Maitre d’ = composer

Direct the experience, be ready to improvise

The fourth role is the maitre d’ who coordinates and oversees the whole experience. In some ways their role is similar to the waiter, but on a more strategic level, ensuring that the tactical experiences executed by waitstaff are coordinated and seamless.

Within design thinking the ‘composer’ is the maître d’. The composer is focused on designing an orchestrated and positive experience of design. It is responsible for designing and planning the whole process, as well as each individual activity and sequencing of events. It’s about being well prepared but flexible enough to respond to anything in the moment. It is crucial to ensure participant engagement and to aid project progress toward design outcomes. The criticality of the designed experience is evident in the research of Karen Sobel, from Macquarie University, where she found a business’s first experience of design thinking needed to be positive for further adoption. She found those who had poor experiences become disenchanted and dropped support for design thinking and explicitly identified the need for ‘well-trained and experienced design thinkers’.

Relating back to the matire d’…the food attracts people and it can win people over but if the service and experience of the restaurant is poor people are still unlikely to come back.


5. Barman = ‘cool kid’

It’s more than just mixing drinks

Finally the barman. We rely on the barman to lighten the mood through the drink service – we have an expectation of fun and intrigue when we peruse a drinks menu. They add to the experience with their theatre.. Also, stereotypically in movies, people sit at the bar and the barman listens to all your problems. They are part of the dining experience but there is a sense that the barman is also your friend.

The barman is closely related to the role of cool kid. In the end, designing is not just about designing. It’s also about building a relationship and constructing a shared story. The role of cool kid is about being the person who inspires you, excites and encourages you, provokes you to step beyond yourself. So the cool kid is focused on building relationships and making connections with people. It’s the social interactions around the project – the conversations about peoples lives, career paths, organizational journeys, giving them books to read, encouraging them. The underlying sentiment is about bringing change to people, inspiring them, bringing new possibilities and ways of working and being.


Designer as enabler

So in the past, the designer was only expected to be the chef and play design lead. However, now these five roles are interrelated and interdependent in providing the full dining experience that is now often expected of design. As I mentioned earlier they can be executed by one person or a team of people.

If we go back to the notion of the curse of expertise – in my research designers could usually articulate the roles of design lead and facilitator to some degree, though many enacted more in practice. With just these two roles you can certainly still have a dinner experience however it is not like the fine dining experience. Its in the breath and depth of the roles and the broader explicit inclusion of educator, composer and cool kid that design reaches its full potential and the ‘unconscious competence’ of the expert designer starts to be revealed.

Overall the designer acts in an enabling capacity. The designer moves in, out and between roles according to what is needed in the situation. In taking on several roles, the designer enables a clear pathway through the experience of designing and solving complex problems.


So what? A framework for understanding and growing

So what does this mean? Understanding these roles assists designers in three ways:

  1. It provides an articulation of what designers do and how it has changed: It provides insight into how designers lead design projects including the roles they take on and the broad knowledge, skills and tools they use. It makes explicit some aspects of their unconscious competence. It can help in avoiding using a cookie cutter recipe explanation and assist others to understand the depth of capability of the designer. It’s much more than just cooking dinner.
  2. It provides insight into design thinking maturity: These 5 roles require a diverse set of knowledge and skills, and a whole new understanding of the designer. It provides a framework to a designer’s maturity and consider capability development – for example you do you need to develop your skills to be a better chef, waiter, sommelier, maître d or barman?
  3. It can assist in differentiating the dinners from the dining experiences and evaluate quality in design. For example, Are you providing a great meal but poor service experience? What quality of dining experience are you marketing compared to what you are providing?

After all – a good space, a first class kitchen, good wine list, doesn’t guarantee a great dining experience. These simply assist the restaurant staff to do their best work. Let’s ensure we start to improve the articulation of what designers do and make explicit decisions regarding the experiences we provide. Designers will differentiate themselves based on the how they enable great dining experiences, not just a good home cooked dinner.


Filed under design thinking

Design thinking for designing and delivering services workshop redux

Last Friday I was privileged to deliver an action packed, fun filled design thinking workshop for the Queensland University Libraries Office of Cooperation. The focus was on introducing people to design thinking principles and providing them with an experience of design thinking.

Participants brought real world issues and challenges they are currently facing in their libraries to work on. When synthesised, these challenges grouped into five key areas: providing integrated library and information services; moving teaching and learning online; redesigning the physical library experience; enhancing the online library experience; and raising awareness and marketing of library services.

Despite the differences in problems, solutions included many overlaps particularly in creating engaging and valuable 24/7 services that can be accessed online and face to face. In particular the concept of a real and/or virtual library concierge was popular with one group naming theirs ‘Alfred’, also known as ‘R2Help you’.

One of the wonderful participants blogged about her experience creating a pop librarian chat called  the ‘Light bulb librarian’ in response to creating new responsive services in the online environment.

Overall a day of great ideas, great energy and fun with participants taking back ideas and some implementable solutions to their workplaces.


Image 1: Meet Meredith, stressed out Masters dress, complete with A line sparkly silver dress.


Image 2: Prototyping a new experience of the physical library


Image 3: Testing the prototype of Alfred the library concierge, more fondly known as R2HelpYou

For tweets and lots more photos: [View the story “Design thinking for designing and delivering services” on Storify]


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May 19, 2013 · 1:28 pm

Designing our library future: be involved or be forgotten

What is the future of the Library? What is the future of the Librarian? These are questions we hear and see discussed ad nauseum at conferences, in blogs, in our tea rooms. In reality the ‘future library’ has already snuck in the back door. We were just too focused on the discussion to notice.

There is no doubt that technology has changed libraries, and the role of the librarian, exponentially over the past thirty years. Over this time as librarians have adapted and taken on new roles and more responsibilities they have in fact become less adept at being able to succinctly describe their role, and more importantly less able to articulate their value.

Perhaps the library world thought it could just get by on its warm fuzzy factor… after all everyone seems to love libraries! I’ve never seen a library receive poor ratings on satisfaction surveys. Libraries have the power to have people protest at their closing down who have never walked into the building. In actuality, people love the idea of libraries more than the reality of the juxtaposition of books, shelves, space and people they are forced to interact with. What is it about the idea of libraries (more than the reality) that people are so committed to?

In light of this, the library world has a lot of questions it needs to answer:

What is the role of the library today?
What is the value of the librarian?
What is it about a library that makes people care about it?
What do people need from a library?
How do people use a library?
And most fundamentally of all – What do we want the library to be? 

These are all questions we need to be able to answer – articulately, succinctly and passionately – if we are to regain control over our own future. Notice this does not include technology or tools but is about people, culture, and needs. In true librarian style we are instead having a pleasant leisurely conversation about it over tea and biscuits rather than understanding the urgency of the situation.

How might we, the library industry, design our own future?

There is no question that we are facing a paradigm shift of epic proportions that requires a complete reconsideration of the very foundations and ideas of the role and value of libraries and librarians. It’s messy, it will feel uncomfortable and take some getting used to, but we need to put down the tea and bickies and embrace design thinking. In its essence design thinking is a collaborative and human centred problem solving approach for solving complex business, organizational and social problems.

Design thinking offers an approach for the library world to strategically move forward, as co-authors of the future of libraries. It provides an opportunity to explore in a structured and meaningful way these philosophical questions and ‘problem find’, to then problem solve, appropriately.

Co-authoring and collaboration here does not mean a team of librarians, or even a team of librarians and designers, but a multidisciplinary team that represents all the people who have a stake in the library. This includes: librarians, designers, customers, vendors, service providers and other major stakeholders depending on the library’s context. Further to this, a human centred approach not only considers just the librarian or user or vendor. Instead design thinking ensures a holistic solution is designed that is sustainable and caters to all the humans involved, not just one segment.

The process is grounded in engaging and co-creating the future with and for all stakeholders with the human always at the centre. It is a proactive and future focused approach that is grounded in understanding the stories of the past and the current operating context.

Design thinking is already being used in libraries to rethink and redesign the future of libraries, as in this presentation by Scottish service design agency Snook:

We have to understand this is not about adding on, or adapting, or evolving, or rebuilding, but redesigning the very core of what a library is and means in today’s postmodern world.

Or will we be sipping our tea, eating our biscuits and talking about how important we are while the world moves on without us.

(Note: This was a guest post for ALIA Sydney. It also appears over here . Same content, different coloured background ;) )


Filed under design thinking, innovation, leadership, librarian profession, value

Using participatory design for redesigning organisations

I awoke to a beautiful morning in Melbourne today – perhaps Spring is finally on our doorstep and realised that in fact I was supposed to be in beautiful Spain today instead delivering a paper at the Information Seeking in Context conference. Thankfully I have a wonderful co-author and our ‘compromise’ was I would develop our presentation and she would have the ‘tiresome’ job of travelling to Spain and delivering it on both our behalves. I still haven’t quite worked out the equality in that deal…

Within Auraria Library at the University of Colorado, Denver something is happening…employees are engaged in collaboratively designing their workplace structures and systems. A new University Librarian, Dr Mary M Somerville,  was catalyst to providing the opportunity for change. Auraria Library was transformed into a social organisation in which individual and  collective capabilities developed through workplace socialisation processes.

Within just the first few weeks a new leadership structure was in place – not a radical organisational restructure or overthrow but a shared leadership structure – not based on heirarchy, but on drawing together a representative group across all functions and levels of the organisation.

This first phase of the  project used an appreciative inquiry process where each staff member was engaged in a conversation with the University Librarian or a senior leader (yes, the people at the top) in regard to their personal histories and future aspirations – liberated from corporate memory and past performances. Long term employees in this regard were offered a fresh start and the opportunity to tell their own story. This looking back and forward process empowered staff with not only a voice but also recognition of their service and wealth of experience. Through this process of discovery, staff were able to reframe their histories and renegotiate their roles. This resulted in the reorganisation of staff and redefinition of teams and roles in line with strategic goals, immediate business needs, individual skills and interests.

Phase two of the project employed participatory co-design approaches to imagine and redesign organisational information and communication systems. This process was facilitated through participatory design workshops on communication, decision making, and planning system elements which support the Library’s shared leadership philosophy.

The workshops allowed participants to express workplace values, critique current organisational processes and systems, and imagine an idealised work environment resulting in the co-design of potential solutions.  For example, participants articulated ideas such as valuing learning from one another. This raised the question of how does this occur and how do you implement intentional social learning elements into the work environment? And what measures can provide evidence of the value and impact of these learning encounters? By the conclusion of the workshops, participants had identified and in some cases co-designed a number of initiatives to implement the concept of ideal workplace communication systems.  These ranged from small initiatives such as standard file naming conventions for ease of repository retrieval to much larger and more ambitious initiatives.

Many of the initiatives identified within these workshops are now common work practice within the organisation. They are successful – and staff love them – because they were engaged in the process of ideating and designing them and they are specific to the context and needs of the people within their workplace. This was not a one off set of initiatives but the commencement of ongoing iterative collaborative design cycles to continue to build a workplace with and for Auraria Library employees.

Involving your staff in redesigning the workplace to be more effective for them – as individuals, as teams and as an organisation – is achievable and results in not just better systems and processes but more engaged and happier staff. So it can be done. Have you done something similar in your organisation? If you have I would love to hear about it. If you haven’t I challenge you to have a go – you may just be surprised by the amazing ideas and improvements your team come up with.

There is lots more to the story so if you got this far you may like to read the  full paper.


Filed under leadership, organisational culture, organisational design, organisational learning, participatory design

Designing workplaces conducive to work

In an episode of the US sitcom Better Off Ted a staff survey revealed low employee morale. To solve this, the director Veronica calls Linda, an employee, into her office and asks what would make the employees happy. Linda says the company treats them all like drones and suggest Veronica let everyone decorate their cubicles to let their workspace feel more personal and individual. The next day Linda arrives at her cubicle to find it’s already been decorated with cats. Veronica explains that upper management believed it too risky to allow employees to decorate their own spaces and so each was decorated for them in one of four inoffensive themes: Green Bay Packers, cats, cars, and space.

This unfortunately is not so far fetched from some of our own workplaces where customisation, personalisation and social identity are often suppressed or discouraged. The norm is to assign people a generic workspace of sorts with a desk, PC, chair, small filing cabinet, pinboard and a whiteboard if you’re lucky.

We are all familiar with the Google style of offices – kooky interiors, in house chefs, gym fit outs, dream boy games rooms and the like to encourage creativity, innovation, engagement and collaboration. Closer to real life many workplaces are redecorating with bold colours, a variety of tastefully mismatching furniture and eye catching wall graphics in the hope of envoking a sense of fun and impacting organisational culture and collaboration in a positive manner. These are often architecturally impressive but functionally disappointing.

Macquarie Bank, at their new state of the art fit out at One Shelley Street in Sydney takes the ‘Google model’ one step further with the introduction of activity based working. From architects Woods Bagot:

In this new environment, no occupant has an assigned desk: rather the work space provides employees with a variety of settings that allow them to do specific tasks in tailored work settings. This design philosophy encourages increased collaboration and a more productive mode of working. An employee has an anchor point, which is allocated as their ‘home base’ and it is here that their locker and storage resides. The design embraces the changing needs of Macquarie staff (and other users) through the employment of technology (laptops, touch screens, USB ports, WiFi etc.) to enable completely mobile and flexible ‘real time’ work with colleagues.

It does also include some of that Google office style and feel as architects Clive Wilkinson describe:

Numerous work zones surround the atrium, designed to house 100 employees each in adaptable neighborhoods…The Main Street on Level 1 offers communal spaces that are highly conducive to corporate and philanthropic events and includes a café and dining areas. Within the office floors ‘Plazas’ were modeled after collaboration typologies—the Dining Room, Garden, Tree House, Playroom, and Coffee House, where cross-pollination among business groups is encouraged through spontaneous encounters.

This recognises that people’s work styles are changing and each have differing work preferences and needs – which can differ on any given day and according to the task at hand. Activity based working provides autonomy to employees to work in the space and manner of their choosing.

When determining favoured work styles I like to ask the question: how do you work at home? I listen to music, change rooms throughout the day, and my posture will vary from lying on the couch with the laptop on my lap to perching on a bar stool at my breakfast bench to sitting at a regular desk with an OHS style chair. It is in these spaces where I feel comfortable that I am most creative, productive, efficient and happy rather than my more sterile white work pod.

Activity based working as demonstrated by Macquarie Bank translates my home experience to some extent into the workplace. It allows people to work where the want, the way they want, according to the work they need to achieve.

The lesson here?
This era of mass customisation and individualism has not yet invaded the majority of organisations who still attempt to control the space and methods of how people work. People want to be able to create and customise their own workspace according to their preference, mood and need on any given day as much as they vary the music they listen to on their iPods. This requires a large shift in trust in organisations – where proximity to supervisors, clean desks, neat dress and strategy models plastered to pods does not make a good or a happy worker. Instead, design workplaces people want to work in, that are conducive to work. Create flexible workspaces where furniture is easily movable and adjustable into a variety of configurations suitable for both individual and collaborative work. If people are familiar and comfortable within their space it assists in inspiring motivation, efficiency, productivity, creativity, innovation…and work.

If you have other examples (and preferably an image) of other organisations using activity based working or flexible configurable workspaces I would love to hear about it.


Filed under leadership, organisational culture, organisational design

What comes first – great leaders or great followers?

Sharing by furiousgeorge81.  Source: Flickr.

Sharing by furiousgeorge81. Source: Flickr.

Jye Smith‘s post Great Leaders, Great Followers on his blog A Digital Perspective
echoed many of the sentiments I feel about leadership and ‘followership’ – and what indeed does come first great leaders or great followers (or as Jye calls them supporters)? Can you have one without the other?

Inspired in part by 10 ways to be a great follower (which is a fantastic post) Jye states

Maybe the qualities of great leaders and great supporters aren’t so different?
By providing a platform of understanding and embrace, you’re doing a large part of what you can to be led, and likewise, a large part of what you can to lead.

To be a great leader you also need to be a great follower. This goes beyond the management and leadership debate and instead recognises the value and importance of leadership across all levels, both horizontally and vertically, within an organisation.

Follower is an uncomfortable term but implies greater participation than simply supporter. Support can be inactive, where as following implies action and participation. For example I think we all support the efforts of charities such as World Vision, but how many of us donate and/ or become invested and follow the charities activities?

A great follower:

  • Self manages well
  • Is committed: both to the organisation and to the purpose which brought the leader and follower together
  • Works with others to reach organisational goals – without needing star billing
  • Builds their capability and focuses their efforts for maximum impact and
  • Is courageous, honest and credible.

From these, you can see that the attributes of a follower are shared with that of a leader and as such through building effective followership skills, leadership capabilities are also fostered.

A follower plays an active contributing role whereas a leader leads other individuals in the collaborative effort – however both have shared responsibility for outcomes (differing from accountability which generally falls to the leader rather than the whole team).

Mark Hurd, CEO of Hewlett Packard describes this as ‘leadership as a team sport’ – and is based on the concept of shared leadership. This moves beyond organisational hierarchies and creates leaders at all levels throughout the organisation – recognising that succes relies upon individuals, teams, and departments working in collaboration both vertically and horizontally across the organisation. In shared leadership the roles of leader and follower are not mutually exclusive or static roles – nor is one afforded more status or importance than the other. Staff members should be able to flexibly move in and out of leader and follower roles as required. The relationship between the two roles is symbiotic being in one or the other role depends on the situation or organisational need.

Shared leadership requires courage at the top of an organisation to relinquish control and flatten heirarchies to allow all organisational leaders (not just managers) to make decisions as appropriate. For me, the strength of a great leader recognises the potential in others and works to bring that to the fore.  A great leader enables a great follower.

Like the old adage – behind every great man stands a great woman…behind every great leader stands a great follower.  Committed, engaged and capable followers, enable great leaders.

So what does come first – a great leader or a great follower?


Filed under leadership, organisational culture