The Dunning-Krueger Effect, Design Thinking and leadership

On my journey learning and developing in a few new areas, I have found distinct parallels in observable behaviour in leadership, decision-making and Design Thinking. If this is the case, then more could be done to highlight how to improve decision-making for leaders.

Global problems such as climate change, equal healthcare for all, ethical economic policy and lowering unemployment do not have panacea solutions.  In a vacuum the population tend to crave strong leaders: ones that are decisive and seem to have all the answers.  So how can we ensure we pick capable leaders.

These may not be the super-confident ones.  Confidence comes to some extent from characteristics, but also from knowledge.

“Good” leadership characteristics are those who have the right motivations “personally driven, charismatic leaders seek positions of power because it offers control and influence. But we also have charismatic leaders that are collectively oriented and egalitarian, who care about their followers and have the best for them in mind.” (Sander van der Linden – Cambridge)

As leaders we could be over-confident because of our level of knowledge – we don’t know what we don’t know, or, to put it another way – we are experiencing the Dunning-Krueger effect.

The Dunning-Krueger Effect

The Dunning-Krueger Effect deals with being ignorant of your own ignorance. This is where the less someone knows, the smarter they think they are.  Conversely the more they read, the more they realise how much they do not know.

The Dunning-Krueger Effect deals with being ignorant of your own ignorance. This is where the less someone knows, the smarter they think they are.  Conversely the more they read, the more they realise how much they do not know.

Some people recognise their own ignorance and look to become better informed.

Other people never realise the extent of their own ignorance and go through life thinking they are amazing.  They are overconfident.

(David Dunning and Justin Krueger)

The quality of problem solving or decision-making in leadership could be assisted by understanding the Dunning-Krueger effect, but this does not tell us how to get out of this problem-solving quagmire. 

Design Thinking on the other hand does. It involves a method for expanding our knowledge at the right points in the problem solving process, and then being decisive at the right points as well.

For those of you who do not know what Design Thinking is, here is a precis.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a method used to solve complex problems and find desirable solutions. A design mindset is not problem-focused, it’s solution-focused towards creating a preferred future.

Design Thinking process
Design Thinking process

But think about how this might be applied to leadership.

Leaders should seek out the opinions of experts: with expertise comes the ability to accurately make decisions on capabilities, problems and solutions.

Confidence does have its place.

“There are situations in which even unrealistic confidence is good, and situations in which unrealistic confidence is very, very bad.  In the preparation stage of things, you really want to be underconfident or obsessive.  But on the day of battle you can’t really show doubt. Its time to lead.  You need to know where confidence works, and where it works against you.” (David Dunning)

Leaders who embrace Design Thinking methods potentially have the confidence to make decisions based on good understanding of the problem, and good solutions because they know when to ask the right questions – and when to bring in the experts.  Lets hope leaders everywhere adopt this approach……

why design thinking should also serve as a leadership philosophy

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