Design and Leadership

February 24, 2017

Design plays a role in our society across increasingly complex disciplines. Some designers work in the existing built world, focusing their expertise on products, communications and architectural environments. Others, like service designers, stretch design principles beyond consumption to shape interactive human experiences. And still others work at the leading edge of change by radically challenging current structures, introducing emergent systems and reimagining future paradigms. These include practitioners in fields such as social innovation, leadership development, organisational change, public policy, currency design and environmental sustainability.


Scholar-practitioner and PhD candidate, Aiden Thornton, is one such expert working at the emergent edge of leadership development. As a practitioner, Aiden is the only Certified Master Development Consultant in the southern hemisphere, and one of four globally. He is currently in the process of publishing a white paper through The Centre for Workplace Leadership at University of Melbourne entitled Integrative Leadership Development for the 21st Century, which offers a completely new paradigm of thinking about how to do leadership development given the complexity that is inherent in the 21st century.


I recently had the privilege of working with Thornton on a proposal for a leadership intervention project. In our time together, I was privy to the foundational principles of leadership that ground his approach to program design.


According to Thornton’s research, many organisational leadership interventions emphasise the growth of an individual’s mindsets and behaviours. These individual capabilities can include strategic thinking, collaborative relationships, results oriented behaviours and active talent development.


Although significant, Thornton’s research suggests that far more is required of leaders if they wish to successfully navigate 21st century conditions. Consequently, an effective leader intervention design would take into account individual mindsets and behaviours as well as relationships, systems and contexts.


Thornton adds that for each of these domains, interventions that focus on building high levels of psychological complexity, collaborative decision-making capacities and an ability to design, interface and leverage agile technologies are all essential. His close collaboration with Lectica™, the leading provider of developmental assessment located in Boston USA, provides evidence-based developmental principles, practices and metrics for determining how best to meet leaders where they are at and support their growth across each of these domains in a tailored way.

With these foundations in place, Thornton’s approach to designing leadership intervention shares some principles with Human-Centred Design (HCD) and the Double Diamond process. Firstly, time spent determining and articulating a clear vision by which an intervention program can chart its course is prioritized.


Secondly, a diagnostic phase that challenges the brief and emphasizes 1st, 2nd and 3rd person perspective seeking/taking guarantees that initial assumptions about the system are challenged. This approach parallels HCD’s commitment to conducting unstructured, qualitative, ethnographic research to ensure that the right thing is being designed before too much time is spent ‘designing it right’.


Thirdly, levels of design, both contextual and detailed, are iterated, tested and adapted to make sure input from multiple perspectives and a review of required resources are thoroughly included in the planning phase.


Similarly to the HCD approach, pilot testing on smaller cohorts precedes system wide roll out to make sure as much testing, adaptation and trouble shooting is conducted in preparation for implementation.


Finally, post implementation review and feedback are essential steps in the process. Although seemingly linear, like HCD and the Double Diamond approach, review, feedback and adaptation run concurrently across each stage.


Aiden Thornton is one of many practitioners designing developmental outcomes for complex human systems. His fresh thinking, masterful understanding of human development and evidence-based research is indicative of many working at the emergent edge in their respective design fields. Thornton is reimagining the future of leadership in ways that foster the health of organizations, societies and global ecosystem. I am deeply grateful for his thought leadership and look forward to learning more about his work for years to come.


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