Allison Butler Women's Summit
Allison Butler, Ph.D., addresses a breakout session audience at the Women's Summit on March 14.
‘Less Apathy, More Empathy’: Butler on how to harness design thinking to be a better leader
Mar 15, 2024, by Casey Nilsson
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During a lively breakout session at the 27th annual Women’s Summit® on March 14, design thinking expert and professor of Psychology, Allison Butler Ph.D., shared ways leaders can harness the power of human-centered design to manage high-performing teams at work. 

There’s less micromanaging because you are empowering people to be observant, to be curious, to see the world, and to generate their own ideas," she told the audience, a largely novice group of 50 attendees packed into a classroom in the Quinlan/Brown Academic Innovation Center. “Less apathy, more empathy.”

Alongside friend and colleague Morgan Pearson, senior director of field and customer marketing for online learning company Skillsoft, Butler reframed the five key design thinking principals to apply to workplace leadership:

  • Empathize: Learn about your team members’ values, goals, and needs
  • Define: Construct a point of view (insight) that is based on team members’ needs and goals
  • Ideate: Brainstorm to generate ways to coach team members to better performance
  • Prototype: Try out a new idea or plan to improve performance of team members
  • Test: Provide constructive feedback to promote learning and improvement

These principles are built into the educational experience for Bryant students, beginning with the Innovation and Design Thinking Experience for All (IDEA), a three-day design thinking bootcamp each January.

RELATED ARTICLE: At IDEA 2024, first-year students find passion and purpose in design thinking

Following the introduction to design thinking, Butler invited attendees to draw a present on a Post-it note. Largely, all drawings in the room looked the same: an outline of a small box with a bow. Then, she prompted them to draw one again but, this time, with a specific loved one in mind. That’s when the creative energy sparked across the room, inviting enthusiastic participation and chatter among attendees. 

“When you think of a person — human-centered design — you now have a person to design for,” Butler said.

Pearson then shared an anecdote about a time she inherited an employee who was deemed low-performing. She was tasked with terminating the employee but, instead, Pearson used design thinking methodologies — including empathy interviews to understand the employee’s values and growth areas — to get to the heart of the problem while maintaining boundaries with her direct report, who ended up becoming a star employee on the team.

“It is my proudest professional achievement,” Pearson said. “I have taken credit for driving millions of dollars in revenue; that turnaround really taught me to be aware of biases that are introduced to me, to really be human-centered, and learn about these people first.”

As Butler and Pearson closed out their session, attendees lingered to ask questions, including one about if design thinking tenants could be applied to relationships with supervisors. 

“Absolutely,” Butler said, noting that human-centered design works in myriad situations, whether you’re launching a new tech product, organizing the middle school carpool, or nurturing professional growth among colleagues. 

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