Real Leaders

The Future of Innovation: Learning to Lead with Heart

Design Thinking (DT), (also known as human-centered design) is an innovation process used to evolve products and services in business and social impact sectors. World-renowned companies like Apple, Google, and GE, use DT for business solutions, and top-tier colleges like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT teach DT to students looking to solve the world’s biggest problems.

But is DT the be-all and end-all to how we solve problems? The short answer is not always. DT is what it says it is: design thinking. We’ve been using our heads, and along the way, we’ve left out our hearts.

DT started being written about in 1987. I was introduced to DT in the early 2000s. Then, business leaders like Daniel Pink, one of the top 15 business thinkers in the world, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, a design and innovation company, and the, a design-focused learning program, at Stanford University, began introducing DT to the business world.

Throughout my career, I always felt something was missing in the innovation and design process. Design models discounted the impact of emotions and behaviors played in business. I was then introduced to DT and knew this was precisely what was missing. It brought a new perspective to the business world. It placed the “human” at the center of the problem and the solution. DT had the power to transform people and culture, and it has somewhat.

However, because of a lack of understanding of what it means to be genuinely human-centered (you have to connect to your emotions and humanness first), DT’s performance and success has been limited.

It has now been almost 20 years since this concept was introduced into Business. With advancements in technology, smartphones, and social media apps, it seems the world has become more interconnected and disconnected at the same time. There’s a lack of engagement; people have retreated into their own worlds of self-separation and self-protection. This is having a significant effect on organizational outcomes, corporate outreach, and social impact. It limits the ability to connect, hold positive tension and cross-pollinate ideas. If we’re going to solve challenges in the world today, we will have to evolve, find new ways to reconnect and re-engage and work together. That’s where a heart centered approach comes in.

Two years ago, I started working with one of the world’s largest beverage companies.
Our goal was to create a DT innovation lab that would increase employee engagement and improve internal shared services. During workshops, we started noticing barriers that were limiting potential outcomes. Participants thought they were being human-centered, but in reality, they were self-centered. They were unconsciously focused on being right or “winning” rather than establishing meaningful connections.

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With the best intentions, they would continue through the DT process and unconsciously revert to a self-centered approach. They mastered the process but could not truly embody the human-centered attributes of empathy, ambiguity, diversity and inclusion, altruism and patience.

We found participants had a lack of awareness of their own humanness; they had not developed their personal internal connections. It made it almost impossible to collapse inner polarities between right and wrong, us and them, and control and curiosity. One of the most significant divides was between the vulnerability and risk inside the workshop, and the fear and scarcity outside the workshop where support and adoption were critical to achieving success.

We came to realize that if we wanted to innovate genuinely, we all would have to connect internally first before we could connect to the problem, the solution and those around us. More meaningful innovation only occurs when we connect the head and the heart, and not, the head and the ego.

“In the past, jobs were about muscles,” said Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics. “Now they’re about brains, but in the future, they’ll be about the heart.”

Both leaders and employees are going to have to become more aware and connected to their humanness. That means learning how to co-create using both the head and heart, collapsing the polarities within ourselves, and over time, with others. We will have to move beyond the user-experience to the human experience and go from a human-centered approach to a heart-centered approach. We will need to create safe spaces and new methodologies that allow us to practice becoming more fully connected, engaged and trusting.

“If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves, including their unarmored, whole hearts – so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people – we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard and respected,” wrote Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, in her book “Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.”

DT practitioners would say that DT is excellent and that it does the job, and in some ways it does. However, those professionals may not recognize the disconnect. They see it as just an innovation tool, and not as a powerful transformational tool for people and organizational cultures.

I believe we have the power and the potential to do much more. First, we must change ourselves as facilitators, designers, and leaders. A heart-centered approach means taking off our armor and finding the courage to connect to our own vulnerability, worthiness, shame resilience, bravery, and trust. All of these are integral to innovate and create meaningful change truly. A heart-centered approach is the innovation process of the future.


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