A Human-Centered Approach to Leadership

You may have heard of Human-Centered Design, an idea made popular by the design firm IDEO, among others, and beginning to gain mainstream traction, especially in the innovation space. The idea is that you put the human at the center of whatever it is you are designing, because after all, they are the users and ones you are supposedly designing for. In order to succeed in truly human-centered thinking, you need to take an ethnographic, anthropological approach, spending time getting to understand the needs of the people you are designing for, and developing something that is useful and makes practical sense based on your investigation and observation.

Being a human-centered thinker is at the core of modern leadership. This might seem obvious, or that it should be intuitive, but often times, the humans being served are the last to be thought about.

To help illustrate exactly what human-centered thinking is, let’s start with a design example – how many times have you used a product or tried to navigate a building and thought to yourself, “who did they design this for?” Maybe it’s a package that is insanely difficult to open, or a shelf that was installed too high for any normal-sized person to actually reach. This particular design story is about the mop. Yes, your good ol’ household cleaning mop. Think about the terrible impracticality of a mop – you need to lug around a bucket of water in order for the mop to be useful, which quickly becomes dirty water that you end up spreading all over the floor. If you are putting the user at the center of the mop experience, the mop is an irritating, at best, cleaning appliance – it is cumbersome, messy, frustrating and inefficient.

Continuum, a design firm, had consultants spend time watching mop users in their homes. They stood in corners and observed as people lugged around soppy mops and spilling water buckets. They thought about what they could design that would serve the same purpose but be more efficient and make the users life easier. And after hundreds of hours of observing and iterating, the Swiffer was born.

You might be thinking that this approach makes sense when designing products, but how does that translate into anything outside user experience? IDEO and Marie Stopes International teamed up to take design thinking and apply it to educating young women on sexual and reproductive health. They realized that instead of trying to do outreach on their terms – teaching classes in schools or in health clinics, where they were normally done – they needed to understand what would be most accessible to the youth they were trying to reach. They created pop-up nail salons and teen speak-easies that were fun and unthreatening, training college-aged women on how to be sexual and reproductive health teachers and advocates to the teens who came to these facilities.

So how do you translate this into a human-centered approach to leadership? The above are tangible examples of taking a human-centered approach, but hopefully they illustrate what the concept means as we begin to move into the more abstract – human-centered thinking as a day-to-day skill and quality of the modern leader.

Taking a human-centered approach requires engaging a toolkit of soft leadership skills, including deep listening, empathy, curiosity, and openness. It is about recognizing the potential of every person that you interact with and engaging with them as a thought partner who has intrinsic value.  When you are thinking about developing your leadership philosophy and practice – think about the people who you touch, who are around you – how do you interact with them? Are they at the core of your decision making?

By using a human-centered approach as the core of your leadership philosophy, you are developing yourself as a leader who is accessible, who celebrates diversity in people and thoughts, who welcomes opposing viewpoints and is flexible and open to change, and who respects and values every person who you interact with. It is leaders who engage in this type of thinking who will be able to shape the emerging future.

Practice a human-centered approach: Clear your mind, open your heart, and be intentionally and mindfully present with each person you interact with today. When you catch yourself making judgments, dismissing people, or going through your regular motions, remind yourself that you are practicing your human-centeredness today.


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