How designers can lead without being the boss

Part two of a blog about Design Leadership by Jeroen van Erp and Merijn Hillen. Read part one here.

Merijn Hillen

After winning the pitch for a large corporation’s new digital product, we have been invited to give a more in-depth presentation about our vision and our approach. This time our audience consists of the board, and the marketing manager.

After the last slide, our two contacts - the head of ICT and the product owner - look at their CEO enthusiastically. He frowns. “Guys, this is not what I had in mind at all.” The subtext is clear, and regrettable: he does not agree with the vision. His pitch team briefed us about an ambitious innovation of the product, but he just wants a direct return on investment with a quick and dirty product optimisation.

There we are, designers in a meeting room, sitting between a bickering CEO and product owner. The value of the work we did seems to have evaporated, and so have all the possibilities we saw for our client with our proposed product portfolio innovation. Do you recognise this disappointment?

Vision and ownership

As designers, we have a tendency to look only at the product or service we want to create. We focus on coming up with good ideas. In practice, it’s not the good ideas that lead to success, but how much vision and ownership the client has. It’s all about what you do in situations like the one in that meeting room. Do you give way, with the risk of becoming a pawn for departments that cannot agree? Or do you take on the role of manager?

In our earlier blog The need for design leadership, we described four quadrants that are created by plotting ownership on a vertical and vision on a horizontal axis. We wrote about why some projects grind to a halt because nobody knows the right direction, while others start with far too much ambition, but cannot actually be realised. Each quadrant requires a different kind of Design Leadership. We will look at them one by one.

Leader type: The light-hearted and confrontational leader (quadrant 1 - weak ownership, diffuse vision)

In projects without ownership and vision there is often a client who has bitten off more than they can chew; the ambition is too high for reality. Many government projects - such as the implementation of an electronic patient file in the Netherlands - run aground because of lack of ownership and vision. But bureaucratic corporations can also fall into this trap, especially when the people who are enthusiastic about the change are not the people executing it. It is a big pitfall for new CEOs and presidents.

Hunt the “no”

In this quadrant you will be doing yourself and the client a big favour by having an open conversation about the project’s risks. What we recommend, and this will feel counter-intuitive, is to “hunt the no” - assume you are not going to do the project, unless ... (whatever it is that you need). Your honesty should pay itself back later on.

Another route, which is interesting for designers, is developing a dazzling idea that people are able to embrace and which activates them to create budget and means. The project will then move further to the top and to the left in the matrix; the designers are supplying the vision, the organisation has to try to achieve a vision-supporting organisational structure. Put the ambition of the project as high as possible - seeing as it is very likely that it will have to be toned down during the process - and let people know which conditions you need for the project to succeed. In general the clockwise route is one that is closer to a designer’s competencies than the anti-clockwise route. From here, you can continue as described for quadrant three.

Leader type: The political enabler
(quadrant 2 - strong ownership, diffuse vision)

Projects with good ownership but without a coherent vision often only become a problem when the organisation does not realise that this is the case. In this quadrant we find well-organised, successful companies with a lot of energy, but which also prefer to respond to fads and trends rather than develop a long-term vision, for example retailers or e-commerce companies.
If your project is in this quadrant, the easiest approach is to have a big meeting with all the people involved and ask each one about their view on the innovation needed. If these people have different ideas then this will become apparent very quickly.

The situation we described above, with a difference in project vision between the CEO and the product owner, was a quadrant two situation. There was ownership (the product owner had a budget and a mandate), but there was a clear difference in vision between the directors and the people who had to carry out the project.

Good cop, bad cop

The goal in this quadrant is to reach a strong vision and get it accepted by the people who formerly were of different opinions. Explain that they need to reach an agreement. In this case, a good cop/bad cop approach often has good results. Create a team with one diplomat and one critical thinker. Together they can make use of the power of the outsider position. Involve all stakeholders in drawing up the foundation of the vision (for example during a special session).

However, remain sharp when processing the input, don’t find yourself having to work with a compromise.

Create a visually compelling, final manifesto that can be understood by laypeople. Include powerful arguments as to why the vision is believable, so that all people involved are seduced as well as rationally convinced. Keep the manifesto as the guide to your process. The fact that there is well-organised ownership should be of help to you here, because the product owner can execute the chosen route independently. If there are problems after all, you can fall back on advice from the third quadrant.

Leader type: The Coaching Leader
(quadrant 3 - weak ownership, shared vision)

In the third quadrant the problem is obvious. You will not need to go to much trouble to convince people that the project is not running smoothly, everyone can see it. But how can you get things going again? In this situation you can lead by focusing on the process. The fact that there is a shared vision will help you here. Take the enthusiasm that comes from that vision to convince your client to move to the end goal in small, clearly defined steps. In those steps, decisions have to be definite, so that you create clear points of no return. Find an ally on the inside, the person in the organisation who is the biggest believer in the vision and who has the diplomatic know-how to inform you how best to continue. These kinds of people often know exactly what their managers need to hear from someone on the outside. Always keep all stakeholders informed about how the vision is going to be achieved and how far along you are. This quadrant often benefits from an agile method.

Leader type: The excellent executor
(quadrant four - strong ownership, shared vision)

When you have strong leadership and a clear, shared vision, your project has - on paper - a perfect baseline. You will want to select an all-star team and then just take the time to do a good job. The most important pitfall in this quadrant is a fight of egos, as the designing team as well as the client are strongly convinced that they know exactly what needs to happen and they are probably both right. In that case, there is a need for servant-leadership; the leader should make sure nothing is holding the players in his or her team back and that they can work together constructively. The leader also needs to make sure the team remains small. Great projects often attract more people; everybody wants to tag along, give their opinion and become a part of the success. Keep asking yourself the question: does this really make things better?


Carefully chosen Design Leadership is a way to make sure that projects based on a good idea will actually lead to an end product. The most influential factors for the transition are a shared vision and strong ownership on the part of the client. To choose the right Design Leadership, follow the following steps:

  • Make a diagnosis: what is lacking, which quadrant is the project in?
  • Check awareness: does the client know what the problem is?
  • Choose the fitting leadership type and devise a strategy.
  • Create a team, appoint the person who is responsible for the end product, and get to work!

Each transition will have new obstacles along the way. So keep monitoring carefully where you are with your project. Before you know it, you’ll be in a different quadrant :).

This blog was based on the chapter “Designing Transitions, pivoting complex innovation” by Merijn Hillen, Jeroen van Erp and Giulia Calabretta. From the book Strategic Design, edited by Giulia Calabretta, Gerda Gemser and Ingo Karpen (BIS Publishers, 2016).