JEFF LEITNER is a pioneer in social innovation, a citizen-scientist in large scale social change, and a relentless disruptor — introducing multiple, influential ways to engage brains, talent, and resources in tackling deeply important problems around the world.

Leitner is deep in research on UNWRITTEN RULES, the surprisingly powerful influence on we behave in groups. They are wired into our neurological systems as social animals and they predate written rules by about 300,000 years, but unwritten rules are oddly overlooked as a social phenomenon.

Unwritten rules provide us a window into how organizations change and grow and a potentially invaluable bridge between what we know about individuals and about systems.

“Here’s the good news: unwritten rules keep our groups stable and predictable. Every day when we wake up, we know what’s expected of us in our families, on our teams, in our organizations. But there’s a flip side to stable and predictable: unwritten rules make our groups highly resistant to change.”

lee-sean: I am putting up a one-page site for something called unwritten labs, which i’ll link to when it’s live.

First, Leitner dreamed up SDGS IN ORDER, the optimal sequence for solving all of the world’s problems. Then, in partnership with OECD — the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, in Paris — he surveyed economists, political scientists, and social scientists around the world to put the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in the right order.

SDGs in Order concluded that the ideal progression would be to 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. The complete sequence is available 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 from inside and outside academia in the design of a DOCTORATE IN SOCIAL CHANGE AND INNOVATION. Conferred as an advanced practice doctorate in social work, the degree was the first of its kind.

The two-year, post-master’s degree program includes courses — namely, Design Laboratory for Social Innovation I and II — grounded in the work Leitner did with Andrew Benedict-Nelson on the optimization of relevant social norms. Other courses include: 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.

Leitner founded and led INSIGHT LABS, the first philanthropic think tank. Over four years, the Labs enlisted more than 700 big thinkers — in science, the arts, business, and academia — to help 45 governments, institutions, and corporations with key strategic challenges.

Insight Labs 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 Jason Ulaszek founded and led UX FOR GOOD, the first effort to leverage experience design to solve social problems. Over four years, the initiative engaged more than 75 top designers from around the world in challenges across North America, Africa, and Europe.

UX for Good projects included a partnership with Aegis Trust and the Kigali Genocide Memorial to increase the effectiveness of museums and memorials in prompting humanitarian action; with the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education to integrate mindfulness training into public schools; with 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. UX for Good was awarded the People’s Choice Award by the Interaction Design Association.


Leitner and Andrew Benedict-Nelson developed INNOVATION DYNAMICS, a practical approach to social innovation grounded in the optimization of relevant social norms. The work is grounded in a decade of work across the spectrum of social challenges — including healthcare, homelessness, education, public art, genocide, and international diplomacy.

As social norms are notoriously difficult to see, the breakthrough behind Innovation Dynamics is a set of nine lenses through which the user can see clues to a social 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). Take a free, 30-minute course on Innovation Dynamics here.


Leitner and Andrew Benedict-Nelson conceived and led LAW 2023, a research and design initiative to shape the future of the U.S. legal industry. Lawyers and vendors to the industry debated original insights from economists, sociologists, and technologists to produce seven principles for law firms of the future.

The principles include: 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. Leitner and Benedict-Nelson then worked closely with a large firm to design an industry-specific R&D department.



Harvard Business Review: “‘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

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

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

Forbes: “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


MSNBC: "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

ABA Journal: “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

Book: “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


Chronicle of Philanthropy: “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

Forbes: “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

Fast Company: “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


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