Regardless of the challenge, Leitner ignites those around him and dares them to think beyond what would otherwise seem possible.


Leitner is one of a growing number of researchers and practitioners advancing the science and application of unwritten rules. Largely overlooked as a social phenomenon, unwritten rules appear to play an out-sized role in all social environments, including teams, organizations, markets, industries, and communities. They may also prove to be an invaluable bridge between the what we know about individual behavior and systems.

“The good news is that unwritten rules keep our groups stable and predictable. Every day when we wake up, we know what’s expected of us by our families, our colleagues and our companies. But there’s a dark side to stable and predictable: unwritten rules make those groups highly resistant to change.”

For updates on this work, see here.


As a Bretton Woods II Fellow at New America, Leitner developed the first optimal sequence for solving all of the world’s problems.

With OECD — the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in Paris — Leitner surveyed economists, political scientists, and social scientists around the world to put the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in the right order. That initial research produced an optimal sequence of 1) promote the rule of law and access to justice; 2) eliminate the most extreme poverty; 3) ensure access to safe, effective and affordable health care, medicine and vaccines; 4) ensure women's rights to economic opportunity, property ownership and inheritance; and 5) ensure government accountability and transparency.

For the full sequence, see here.


As the inaugural Innovator in Residence at the University of Southern California, housed in the world’s largest school of social work, Leitner led a team inside and outside academia in designing the first-ever doctorate in social change and innovation.

The program is grounded in the work Leitner did with Andrew Benedict-Nelson on the optimization of norms for social change. In addition to their Design Laboratory for Social Innovation, the groundbreaking program includes Leading and Managing Large, Complex Systems; Leading Public Discourse; Financial Management for Social Change; Data-Driven Decision Making in Social Services; and Communication and Influence for Social Good.

For a program overview, see here.


Leitner and Jason Ulaszek launched the first-ever program to leverage experience design to solve social problems. In its first four years, the effort — awarded the People’s Choice Award by the Interaction Design Association — enlisted more than 75 top designers from around the world in tackling challenges across North America, Europe, and Africa.

UX for Good has partnered with Aegis Trust and the Kigali Genocide Memorial to increase the effectiveness of museums and memorials in prompting humanitarian action; the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education to integrate mindfulness training into public schools; The GRAMMY Foundation, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, and Clinton Global Initiative to boost the standard of living for professional musicians; and with Streetwise, CeaseFire Illinois, The Third Teacher, The Adler School for Professional Psychology, and the Global Lives Project to identify new ways to help at-risk populations.


Leitner founded and led the first-ever philanthropic think tank, through which more than 700 big thinkers — in science, the arts, business, and academia — came together to help 45 governments, institutions, and corporations with strategic, public challenges.

Those projects included re-conceptualizing U.S. investment in emerging democracies for U.S. Department of State and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; expanding the reach and impact of mobile care for Harvard Medical School and Family Van; integrating empathy training into public education for Ashoka; restoring Congressional support for NASA; isolating the key to creative collaboration for TED; safeguarding design in the corporate environment for Starbucks; designing a new model for international organizations for U.S. Department of State and Community of Democracies; and institutionalizing art therapy in military hospitals for the National Endowment for the Arts and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.


Leitner and Andrew Benedict-Nelson developed the first practical approach to social innovation — grounded in the optimization of relevant norms. The approach emerged from their 15 years of work on a wide variety of social challenges, including healthcare, homelessness, education, public art, genocide, and international diplomacy.

As social norms are notoriously difficult to both see and change, the breakthrough of Innovation Dynamics was nine lenses through which a user can see clues to a problem’s norms: actors (people or groups related to the problem); history (how the problem came to be); limits (laws and constraints related to the problem); future (expectations about how the problem will resolve); configuration (sorting of the problem’s components); and parthood (how the problem is related to others).

For a free, 30-minute course on Innovation Dynamics, visit here.

LAW 2023

Leitner and Andrew Benedict-Nelson led this research and design initiative to shape the future of the U.S. legal industry. With economists, sociologists, technologists, lawyers, and industry executives, they developed seven principles for law firms of the future.

The principles were: 1) Technologies will allow lawyers to bill for real value; 2) Firms will develop offerings that transcend jurisdiction; 3) Demand for responsive institutions will create new markets for accountability; 4) Firms will tap new talent and enable new pathways to practice; 5) Transparency will push firms to seek hyper-specific markets; 6) Firms will launch R&D departments to create new offerings; and 7) User research and innovation will shape client experience of legal products.

For a deeper dive, see here.

“The headline is — Law 2023 got it right. Law firms are accelerating their focus on innovation with increased time, resources and investment. There is measurable evidence of firms engaging in some or all of the design principles predicted to optimize growth.” Moving from Good Law to Great Law, ABA Journal


“‘For all that designers can do with space and all that leadership can do with policy, social norms trump all,’” says Jeff Leitner.” Designing Offices Where Privacy Doesn’t Compromise Safety, Harvard Business Review

“The SDGs are a postmodern, deconstructed, Jackson Pollock-version of a to-do list.” Why are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Stalling? Pacific Standard

“At any moment, you are subject to tens of thousands of written rules, most of which you are completely unaware of.” Podcast, CoreNet Global What’s Next

“Don’t brainstorm. I know that’s deeply counter-intuitive, but brainstorming in a group is a waste of the group’s inherent value.” Insight Labs on How to Solve the World's Toughest Challenges, Forbes

"If they were in Silicon Valley, we'd be worshiping them," said Jeff Leitner, founder and dean of Insight Labs. "But they're NASA, so we're cutting their budget." How NASA Could Get its Groove Back, MSNBC

“They didn’t understand what I was doing but it seemed audacious and absurd, and what they were trying to do was audacious and absurd.” Interview with Jeff Leitner in Innovation: How Innovators Think, Act and Change our World, Amazon

“And I said, ‘Steal it? Here, take it. Go crazy. I’ll write down all the rules I know,’” says Mr. Leitner. “And they were totally flummoxed by that.” Helping Nonprofits Benefit From Fresh Ideas, Chronicle of Philanthropy

“Leitner then goes on to suggest that unwritten rules are reinforced by social cues; more powerful than written rules; virtually invisible; and insurmountable obstacles to change.” In Praise Of Deviants, Forbes

“It works, Leitner says, because smart people engage in more innovative thinking if they don’t have a direct interest in the problem they’re trying to solve.” How Insight Labs Gets Smart People to Brainstorm Solutions to the World’s Problems, Fast Company