Descriptive and Prescriptive

In the field of design, we make a big deal about using descriptive language over prescriptive language when leading teams. To be descriptive is to articulate a problem and to be prescriptive is to issue a solution. The problem with prescriptive language is that when we use it, we are assuming that there is only 1 right answer to a problem. But if we use descriptive language, we empower those around us to come up with an array of creative solutions. And in design, we like to go for quantity when problem solving. Just like a photographer takes 100 pictures to find that perfect shot, design teams often consider 100 different solutions before choosing a few  ideas to prototype and test.

This video illustrates this descriptive/prescriptive debate in action. When children are instructed to complete the painting in “the right way” the (prescriptive) instruction inhibits their creativity.  But when they are simply told to “complete the painting” (descriptive) the children are much more creative.

To be honest, this is a tough skill to hone. Through almost ten years of practice, I’ve found that combining descriptive language with a few constraints works well. That is when I have the presence of mind to lead in this way. When I’m tired or frustrated, I tend to be more prescriptive. But practice makes perfect, right?

What has been your experience with descriptive and prescriptive language and leadership?

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