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President Obama Goes Optimistic. Obama Is The Design President

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on March 9, 2009

David Burney sent in this great post about President Obama. He reminds us that Obama’s earliest days were spent in community organizing in Chicago. That means that he gets the bottom-up approach to understanding issues and problems and to solving them. We all need to keep this in mind as we navigate this uncertain and fearful era. A designerly approach based on a clear understanding of the people in need and their culture is the beginning for all solutions, from education to energy.

Here’s David—

“Since the earliest days of his campaign, it is clear that President Obama possesses a genuine understanding of design and open source thinking. He is a gifted communicator who aligns perfectly the form/media of his messages with the content he’s delivering. His principles, words and actions are in sync. When he speaks of ‘bottoms up’ problem solving, he ‘gets’ it far beyond intellectual and competitive theory arguments. I’d say that’s a good set of attributes to describe the ‘designer’ of the future.

So, while Bush was our first MBA president, I think it’s fair to claim Obama as the first, modern ‘design thinking’ president. I can only assume his work as a community organizer helped him realize the deep cultural underpinnings that are necessary as a platform to put collaborative innovation/tranformation to practice. But collaborative design cultures are fragile. It is hard for the chickens to collaborate with the fox. Or with his news channel. (I couldn’t resist)

It’s hard to overstate the obstacles that real change will face. When I worked at Red Hat (for most of the past five years) we coined the term ‘colloberation’ when referring to participants more interested in forcing others to ‘collaborate’ with their agenda than any authentic collaboration. I’m reminded of that term now as I watch the Republican leadership desperately attempting to position the new administration as arrogant, partisan and non-collaborative.

This new form of collaboration works. The open source software development community is a wonderful example of the value, speed, efficiency and competitive advantage radical collaboration can ignite. Open source demands transparency, freedom, authenticity, commitment and courage. Roger Martin’s book— The Responsibility Virus— offers a great recipe for how to apply it in more traditional organizations.

We should not be fooled into thinking any of this will be easy. It will be hard work. But it certainly feels great to be optimistic again!”

What do you think of David’s comments?

Reader Comments

Tom Lassiter

March 10, 2009 3:55 PM

I heard this and more when he spoke last week at High Point University. The rationale for this approach flies in the face of top-down, directive management that often decides in advance what the outcome will be. But as so many of us like to say, look where that's gotten us over the last eight years.

Problem-solving by design/collaboration will make organizations and the people in them uneasy until the outcome justifies that new and scary route. Burney's an evangelist who personally knows that it works.

Let's try it his way for a change.

James Todhunter

March 10, 2009 5:04 PM

David's comments don't ring true on several levels. Statements from the White House and majority congressional leadership, which are now a matter of public record, make it clear that partisan politics as usual, and not collaboration, it the order of the day. So much for change.

It is all well and good to try and attach a popular term like design thinking to Obama, but there is no evidence to date hat supports this.

David's commentary and tone suggests that he either has an agenda or is simply uninformed.

David Burney

March 11, 2009 12:35 AM

First of all, what an honor to be included in Bruce Nussbaum's blog. Thank you, Bruce.

Then, the confession: Perhaps I am both— agenda-driven AND uninformed. But let me be clear that Mr. Todhunter is right. I have an agenda. I had hoped that was fairly transparent.
I believe in design thinking as a way to solve complex problems, find competitive advantage and build sustainable business models and powerful brands.

As such, I also believe design thinking is far more than a 'popular term.' Positioning design thinking as such is a subtle way to mock it. As Tom Peters wrote in Re-imagine, "all freaks need guardians." I'll accept that agenda too.

Now, if the fact that President Obama hasn't perfected an absolute change in the status quo of partisan politics during his 50 days in office proves that he is not a 'design thinking' president... well, who am I to argue in the face of such overwhelming and conclusive evidence?

On the other hand, if one believes that the last three decades of 'free market' business models— made possible by a government unwilling and unable to meet its responsibilities to secure the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of the people for whom it existed— have failed, then there's plenty of blame to share among both the Democratic and Republican parties. If blame is your game.

Peter Drucker said an organization's strategy and structure had to be aligned or the organization was doomed to failure. Companies and governments who believe traditional strategies will drive an advantage in today's competitive landscape should continue to invest in traditional structures and cultures.

Those who believe things have changed should look for new kinds of models to compete. And if, today, innovation is strategic to an organization's ability to succeed, then design thinking is an alternative that works. And open sourcing— a way to scale design thinking and build authentic relationships with customers— is also an proven alternative.

At least the writings and research of people like Roger Martin, Gary Hamel, Henry Mintzberg, Kathleen Eisenhardt and Tom Peters lead me to think so. Their work and the work of other business researchers that I follow in the Harvard Business Review and SloanMIT's Management Review.

Mozilla, Red Hat, Google, Apple and Proctor& Gamble are a few companies that seem to me to be adding to the body of evidence that design thinking and/or open source models work.

Matthew Szulik— the Ernst & Young 2008 Entrepreneur of the Year— seems to add to that body of evidence.

The creation of Stanford's D-School, curriculum changes at Harvard and Yale and many of the other top-ranked United States business schools seem, to me, to be evidence that /they/ believe design thinking to be important for discovering competitive advantage in the future.

But, then, I am an optimistic, unabashed, agenda-driving evangelist.

As such, I find the words and actions of President Obama authentically connect to the culture and principles that govern open source and design thinking. Uninformed or not.


March 13, 2009 2:29 AM

I agree with the D. Burney's statement in full: "As such, I find the words and actions of President Obama authentically connect to the culture and principles that govern open source and design thinking. Uninformed or not."-------- this being said, he should reach out to the "informed"- design thinkers, innovators, and consultancies.

Not only would this revive their businesses, but would also present designers probably their greatest design challenge-

So, why hasn't President Obama yet reached out to design firms/ consultancies to tackle some of his governmental tasks- why aren't there trained "design innovators/ thinkers" in the government?? Or, why doesn't he hire design university students/ design professionals/ consultancies to solve some of his greatest challenges??

After all, designers are "people" too- and that is what he does best; he understands it's a collaborative effort- get the people involved....(aka consumer insights)


David Ngo

April 10, 2009 7:38 PM

I think aligning whatever "agenda" you have with a popular political figure is easy to do, and probably quite effective. Unfortunately, it's completely superficial and really hard analogy to make with any rational credibility.

Plus, I think being optimistic while spending trillions of dollars is in no way like design. That's just bad business. Think Enron. Just because you're smiling and optimistic, doesn't mean you did that right thinking to produce good results.

Design is far more considered than that. And comparing it to the spend-and-hope policy of the current President would be giving Design a bad name.


May 11, 2009 4:04 PM


May 11, 2009 5:13 PM

Bottom up is a celebration of human potential -- most of it left lying fallow on the 'machine room floors' of the knowledge economy.

2.0 gives rise to the voice of these undercapitalized resources. They will make or break companies depending on whether or not companies are prepared to harness the voices or continue to waste valuable resources to 'silence' them or ignore them.

In the realm of physics and machine theory, the 'noise' is an indication of instability. Ignore the noise and the instability can take down the entire mechanism.

BTW, where in the company does the business model support the watching/listening/responding to the larger systemic issues? Operations, IT? Do you hear words from those leaders that suggest it's on their radar?

david pinto

May 12, 2009 6:53 PM

genuine collaboration still needs to evolve to a point which is scalable...
the open source movement hasn't evolved beyond an advertising-funded business model
and still speak about designing for people
as if they can't design for themselves

but let's david is right about the design president

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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