What CEOs Can Learn from the Way Designers Think and Act

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” - Albert Einstein

Why business needs to get more serious about creativity

Creativity is crucial for businesses to thrive, which is why ‘innovate or die’ became a business mantra. For companies to be successful in the long run, CEOs need to be able to both exploit what is and explore what is not yet. One of the main reasons to get more serious about creativity is because the ideal balance between exploit and explore is shifting. Accelerated technological change means shorter business cycles and a higher risk of being disrupted by competitors with new innovations based on new technologies, new offers and new business models.

CEOs are challenged to make more time to explore and design the future of their business, while at the same time having to deal with increasing levels of complexity in their day-to-day business. Wicked problems related to topics such as geopolitics, climate change and escalating regulatory requirements are a business reality, as recent examples like COVID-19 the war in Ukraine and the consequent energy price rise show. Dealing with this kind of complexity is another reason to get more serious about creativity; to accept that you don’t have all the answers, to try out different solutions and adapt when necessary. Many leaders think that creativity is an innate talent, but the truth is: creativity can be learned. How can the key lessons from the way designers think and act apply to business?

Start from the future

A design approach differs from a traditional management approach because it starts from the desired end goal instead of first analysing (and potentially getting stuck) in the present. Think of innovation as a design challenge: What would you like the future of your business to look like? Could you create new sources of income, build a more motivating place to work for your people, or redesign your business to be kinder to the planet? Use your imagination to take your business to the next level. Once you have created a shared vision of your desired destination you can then design the road to get there.

Learn by doing

In a traditional project management approach, you complete a project within a linear sequence. You plan the different steps from A to B, execute, finish, and evaluate. The scope of the project is defined at the beginning, with clear expectations, responsibilities, and stage- gates to decide when to go to the next step. For designers, the road from A to B is not a linear one but an iterative one. They learn by doing, experimenting, failing, and adjusting along the way – just like entrepreneurs do.

Fail quickly and cheaply

To create new solutions, designers embrace the unknown, challenge conventions and allow themselves to make mistakes. The courage to try out new things is often associated with having a high risk-appetite, but you can learn from designers how to take calculated risks by starting out small with pilots. Just like the prototypes of designers, these smaller-sized experiments are designed to fail quickly and cheaply.

Train your creative muscle

Do you think you can learn to be more creative? You may be surprised by the research findings of INSEAD professor Nathan Furr, who looked at the balance between nature and nurture for both IQ (general intelligence) and CQ (creative intelligence). The results show that while IQ is roughly 80% genetic, only approximately 33% of CQ is genetic. Creativity is like a muscle; you can train it by using it regularly just like designers do. And like any muscle, creativity needs nourishment. You may get your inspiration from going to museums, theatres and movies, or from learning new things, reading, playing, cooking or inspiring conversations. It can be anything you enjoy that stimulates your curiosity and your senses.

CEOs can learn a lot of lessons from designers, but let’s not forget that design is a collaborative process. You should not only create the desired result, and the road to get there, but also the team that will make it happen. Just like in any other project, people make the difference between an average design and a great one.


Anne Mieke Eggenkamp and Fennemiek Gommer are the Co-founders of Caracta Business Innovation.

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