Doctor’s Note — Issue 17 – You’re not as dumb as you think you are.

In this issue: Imposter Syndrome vs Dunning-Kruger / Design Leadership as slow-motion facilitation / Design Politics online and on sale / The Linkhole / Book Corner

Welcome to Issue 17 of Doctor’s Note. If you were forwarded this by a friend, you can sign up here. If you love it, you can buy me a coffee and I’ll love you back even more.

Imposter Syndrome vs Dunning-Kruger

My previous piece on The Design Leadership Dip appeared to resonate with a lot of people. Imposter syndrome is apparently rife amongst design leaders and many people told me their own experiences of the dip.

A couple of folks commented about riding the Dunning-Kruger rollercoaster. I think those people are being too harsh on themselves. The Dunning-Kruger Effect gets bandied about a lot, but it’s worth looking at the definition. Here’s the summary about it from Dunning & Kruger’s original paper (read their follow up too):

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. 

Donald Trump is, of course, the shining example and why I alluded to him in the last issue:

“Leaders who are convinced by their own brilliance and have no imposter syndrome at all can be pretty awful to work for. Imagine if someone like that became the President of the United States.”

The next day Trump suggested injecting disinfectant into people as a potential cure for the coronavirus.

Imposter syndrome was originally coined by Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes as imposter phenomenon. It’s a phrase I prefer, because it describes something that happens from time-to-time rather than a life-long affliction. Interestingly, their original study was of high achieving women:

“Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists [sic] in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

I’ve seen this plenty of times amongst female work colleagues and coachees, but clearly the structural biases in those workplacesactively contribute to the creation and maintenance of those beliefs. It’s basically workplace gaslighting. But I’ve seen it plenty in men too.

The Design Leadership dip creates a lot of imposter feelings, but it’s not the Dunning-Kruger effect. I would suggest it is impossible to have both simultaneously, because they are opposites. Having self-awareness of the journey of competence you are on, that it might be a struggle sometimes and that you feel like a fraud is evidence that you’re not suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect. So you can relax. You’re really not as dumb as you think you are.

Photo by Brandi Ibrao on Unsplash

Design Leadership as slow motion facilitation

A lot of traditional models of leadership, especially in the corporate and political worlds, take on military language. There has been a lot of it recently. When you refer to customers as targets, talk about your decisive strategy to win, or of crushing competitors as part of your daily language, it’s no wonder leadership literature often take on similar metaphors. McKinsey famously compares itself to the Marine Corps, after all.

It creeps into leadership training too, but I have often seen this approach fall very flat when design leaders are exposed to it. Designers are less likely to say, “Follow me into battle and we’ll crush the enemy!” than, “What’s the reason behind why we are fighting and what are the needs of the other side?”

Design Leadership, like any successful leadership, is about making the best of your strengths rather than trying to compensate for “weaknesses” that aren’t actually weaknesses. They’re often just character differences. Putting a lot of effort into trying to master something you’re just not that into is a recipe for the imposter phenomenon to take hold. 

Many designers have had a lot of experience with and are strong in facilitation of workshops and co-creation sessions. It’s an area many design leaders excel at far better than their non-designer colleagues. So, instead of thinking about setting up and managing teams, departments or studios as switching away from design and into “business” mode, think of it as slow-motion facilitation instead.

A good facilitator understands who is being invited, who is being excluded, the power structures at play, what the purpose of the session is, what tools, methods and spaces are required, and what the cadence of the day is. She’s able to read the room and see when people need an energiser, or when a person on a table is off to one side and disengaged during an activity, for example. She knows when to encourage divergent thinking and when to draw things back together to land the day with a good sense of closure and clarity around what comes next.

If you’ve done this, you’ll know how the smallest things, like poor spaces or food, cheap sticky notes and patchy WiFi can tank an otherwise great workshop. All these things are true for design teams and individuals, too. Structural work—remuneration, career pathways, responsibilities, etc.—are important, but daily irritations can make or break a studio’s culture through worn down morale. Fixing them is often a quick way to generate a lot of goodwill. A decent coffee machine is an investment that pays itself back tenfold.

Penny-pinching on budgets for the tools people use every day (like real Post-It™ notes and Sharpies™), being told by I.T. that you can’t use the software you’ve gained years of muscle memory using, or a lock on the beer fridge are the body language of your organisation. They say, “we don’t think what you do is important enough for us to take care of and we don’t trust you to be adults either.” 

Just like in workshops, teams and individuals sometimes get stuck. Sometimes a team—or even a whole studio—is in the messy middle, all at sea with too much data and too many options. They need some structure to bring focus, just as you would bring to the post-ideation activities in a workshop. 

The secret, I found, was that it often doesn’t matter so much exactly what that structure is. I would regularly help a team get over the initial hump of synthesis by drawing some kind of synthesis template on a flip-chart page as a way to start filtering the data. 

Invariably, I’d walk in an hour later and the team would tell me my template wasn’t quite working so they had modified it. That’s perfect. I don’t need them to follow my orders, I need them to follow their own order. My shitty first draft helped get them unstuck precisely because it gave them boundaries to overstep.

Teams can get bogged down in the weeds, waste a lot of time bickering over methodologies and their field of creative vision narrows or they go into autopilot. 

If you’ve ever been in an ideation session in a co-design workshop and ended up with loads of AI chatbot and drone concepts, you’ll also know that sometimes teams need to be given lateral direction. They need release from structure or at least something that opens up the possibilities again. 

That might mean taking off the pressure or re-setting a sense of perspective. What Fjord’s Mark Curtis often called “a moment of madness.” I once told a client leadership team that in 60 years almost everyone in the room would be dead as a reminder that their corporate power struggles weren’t as significant as they had come to believe.

As with workshops, there’s a flow of information that you may need to release in sequence, cognisant of how it will influence the thinking in the room in future activities. The input-output sequence of activities echoes production paths and working styles in an organisation. Equally you’ll want to strive for a diversity of voices, of imagery, examples, and regularly hand-off to co-facilitators. Sometimes you need to zoom out, sometimes you need to focus on the details.

As someone who likes fractal metaphors I found you can apply this approach at different scales, but I won’t go further into comparing every facet of facilitation. If you possess this experience, then try using that lens as a way of thinking about how you approach design leadership. You may find it more palatable than trying to pretend you’re a Marine Corps General. And if you are currently in a more junior role, facilitation is an excellent way to prepare yourself for a future leadership role.

If you’re interested in my Design Leadership coaching, please get in touch. My approach is far more facilitation than drill instructor.


Design Politics online and on sale!

After a lot of behind the scenes work switching from the live event and working out how we make the virtual one engaging, we are delighted to announce Design Politics 2020 (This is HCD’s first conference) is back on sale. 

It is now a fully online event with the same dates of June 16th, 17th, and 18th. Each session is repeated twice in the day, making it easier for people from different timezones to attend.

You can buy tickets here.

I’ve often wanted to put on a design conference in which no designers present, but other people who are interesting and whose experience you can take back into your creative life. Design Politics is, thus, intentionally small with seven world-class keynote speakersfrom a variety of backgrounds: Lou Downe, Marc Stickdorn, Dr. Kate Dawson, Bulelani Mfaco, Dr John Curran, Vimla Appadoo and Gerry McGovern. 

Although it’s an event that is about thinking and reflecting on the role of design in the world, there are three very practical workshops by Lou Downe, Marc Stickdorn and Vimla Appadoo

The whole thing will be streamed online in the conference “rooms” (member pages on the conference site) and interaction will be via the This is HCD Slack channel. It will be hosted by Gerry Scullion and myself.

Please spread the word!


The Linkhole

  • These deep fake audio mashups are remarkably convincing, entertaining and have some dystopian potential. 

  • This is an old link that I’ve been meaning to mention. It’s a real worry that the humanities will be hit hard as universities struggle. 

  • Daniel Stillman gave a great talk on/at the Future of Now. I mentioned his book in the last issue. If you liked what I wrote above, you’ll like this. 

  • The Peter principle is also a book corner book I haven’t yet bought or read. It’s thesis is that people in a hierarchy rise to their “level of incompetence.” That is, you’re great at your job and so get promoted upwards into a role that you’re no longer competent in, since what got you there isn’t what you need to be successful in the new role. Originally conceived as a satire, as was meritocracy

  • I mentioned Mark Shayler’s Do Present last issue. He’s doing readings of it on Instagram, which are well-worth watching. 

  • If you’re virtually facilitating, have a read of Douglas Ferguson’s post, Take Control of Your Video Streams. It’s worth noting that the OBS plug-in he mentioned now has an installer and you won’t need to do the application building on the command line anymore. 

  • Douglas has also started a new podcast called Control the Room which is all about the art of facilitation, from meetings to workshops. Tge first one is with Daniel Stillman. 

  • I really enjoyed Jorge Arango’s The Informed Life podcast this last couple of weeks. He has an amazing guest list.

Book Corner

“Because competencies are unmeasurable, it is impossible to prove or disprove the assertion that everyone who excels in a particular job possesses a particular set of competencies.”

That’s it for this issue. If you liked it, please consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague to sign-up. I really do appreciate all the shares and feedback. If you have a reading tip, reply to this and let me know or tweet me.

Take care,


P.S. You might also like my podcast, Power of Ten, which is all about design operating at different levels of “zoom,” but mainly consists of me talking to people smarter than me from a broad range of disciplines.