Design thinking governance

By Judith Thompson CMInstD & Pamela Bell MInstD
5 Nov 2021
read time
5 min to read
White sticks of fluorescent lights

You’ve probably heard about design thinking and maybe read our recently published  IoD opinion piece or contributed to our recent LinkedIn Q+A series.

In a rapidly changing world, we’ve seen design thinking become a key driver of innovation and value creation across organisations of all stripes. As companies re-orient to face new challenges and understand shifting consumer needs, design thinking can also provide a lens to rethink governance and build a culture of curiosity across the whole organisation.

This is the first in a short series of articles exploring Design Thinking Governance and introducing some practical tools for directors in the boardroom.

The design thinking organisation

Design thinking is a way to re-frame problems, understand customer needs and create unique solutions. What distinguishes design thinking organisations is not just the approaches they use, but the way they arrange themselves to create a culture of innovation, harnessing everyone’s creative energies in collaborative and cross-disciplinary ways. Design thinking creates value because it enables creative solution finding and because it helps deal with the behaviours and biases that get in the way of innovation succeeding.

Recognising organisations as collections of human beings who are motivated by varying perspectives and emotions, design thinking emphasises engagement, dialogue, and learning. By involving customers and other stakeholders in the definition of the problem and the development of solutions, design thinking garners a broad commitment to change.
- Jeanne Liedtka, Why design thinking works, HBR, Sept 2018

As organisations grapple with the social and economic impacts of a world disrupted by technology, a global pandemic and environmental crises, removing barriers to innovation is essential. In expanding the boundaries of problem definition and solution finding by looking through a customer lens, design thinking approaches can enhance the ability of organisations to find new ways to meet user needs and new pathways for growth.

The design thinking boardroom

While many organisations find design thinking offers a way to solve complex issues at an operational level, few are successfully translating design thinking from operations to governance. Over the past twenty years, design thinking has expanded and integrated with other user-centric tools and approaches such as agile. People familiar with design thinking who have moved into board roles have taken their learning with them, yet the essence of Design Thinking Governance is an evolving school of thought.

Design thinking can set a different tone for interaction within the boardroom and between the board and the executive. What we’ve learned in speaking with people on both sides of the board table is that directors need experiences and information that help them to see and think differently. And executives need to communicate with the board in ways that enable directors to stand in the customers’ shoes to gain perspectives on intractable issues with fresh insight.

What happens in that liminal space between the executive, the board and customers is crucial. Design thinking can provide a common language that is human-centred and innovation focused. It opens up communication pathways and protocols to translate innovative ideas from operations to governance, helping directors get closer to the real experiences of customers.

As part of our ongoing, active investigation into design thinking governance we went out to a community of design thinkers and directors with a series of questions to learn what’s already being put into practice. Here’s five points about what we learned with five prototype activities for the boardroom.

1. Mindset

Design thinking works at an operational level because it challenges the behavioural norms that get in the way of innovation. It instils a mindset that values taking time to diverge and consider options and implications before converging on a specific decision or direction. Bringing design thinking into the boardroom does not fundamentally change the role or responsibilities of governance, but it can help re-frame priorities by aligning the conversation with organisational purpose and customer needs. The design thinking mindset also challenges our unconscious biases that close off receptivity to new ideas and divergent perspectives.

A prototype activity from our community:

After reading the papers for a meeting, try taking time out to think customer-centrically about the implications of new proposals and exceptional results, as this often helps develop insightful questions to bring to the board room.

2. User lens

Directors need ways to get close to customers, understand their real needs and how they experience products and services.  For directors to stand in the customers shoes, experiencing their pain-points and seeing through their eyes they need reporting that takes them on the customer journey. While organisations often dig deep into user needs, by the time these insights reach the board they can be so distilled, they lose all sense of being about real humans. Helping the board understand the richness of customer insights is challenging and can require time and flexibility.

A prototype activity from our community:

Try taking the opportunity to interact with customers on the organisation/customer interface. You could get out to observe customers in action, especially where they are experiencing pain-points or creating workarounds to deal with something that’s not working well.

3. Relationships

The relationship between the board and the CEO can be the primary place where innovation is either fostered or constrained. Companies with a customer-centric culture need directors that support risk-taking and can work proactively with the CEO to navigate the risks of innovation. Reframing the Board-CEO relationship in ways that help directors feel the buzz of organisational innovation and help both CEO and Board balance opportunity and risk is key. Design thinking helps build empathy-based relationships that are very much about holding the executive to account, and also create safe space for experimentation and open dialogue about failure. 

A prototype activity from our community:

Have a think about how to set the right CEO performance metrics. Try to avoid measuring the silos of your organisation with internally focused metrics, and instead create cohesive, purpose-driven and customer-led metrics that measure the collective success of executing strategy across the whole organisation.

4.  Diversity

Diversity is a key enabler of design thinking governance. If everyone has the same perspective, directors are not going to be able to have the dynamic, divergent conversations that are needed to make good boardroom decisions. The right mix around the table, the right voices in the room and the ability of the chair to keep multiple and conflicting ideas alive in the boardroom conversation, are all enablers of better solutions.  In his recent IoD article, Lloyd Mander suggested three ways boards can improve their diversity

  • Think about how to add board members with different experiences and networks.
  • Look to recruit for different perspectives and problem-framing abilities.
  • Enable aligned values around the table but 'red flag' any identical value-sets.

A prototype activity from the IoD community:

Look around your boardroom. How aligned or divergent are directors values? Are you too aligned – what are your red flags?

5. Communicating

More creative conversations require more creative inputs. We need to find better ways to bring customer perspectives into the boardroom. Have a think about whether you are usually thrilled by the board pack landing in your laptop. How might we reimagine board reporting in ways that inspire curiosity, empathy and creativity in the boardroom? The answer is partly about finding better ways of providing information and data-sharing that are dynamic and human-centred. And partly about communicating with the board in ways that that are experiential, interactive and enlightening.

A prototype activity from our community:

Try these sentence starters to prompt creative board conversations:

1. How might we find out the things that our customers are finding hard?
2. How might we direct the organisation differently if our main concern was for the experience created for users?
3. How might our board include regular agenda items that foster innovation?

A culture of curiosity

Through collaboration and co-creation we’re developing a Design Thinking Governance toolkit. There is an emergent community of practice with directors using aspects of design thinking in their boardroom roles, but as yet, the tools and techniques of design thinking have not been collected and codified in a useful format for the boardroom. We want to change that.

The aim of Design Thinking Governance is to help make better, more dynamic board meetings.

  • To bring the customer perspective into the boardroom.
  • To create more aligned relationships between the executive and directors.
  • To bring the culture of curiosity that underpins all innovative organisations into the boardroom. 

Read the second article in the series: Preparing for Design Thinking Governance

Do you have a minute?

Answer three multi-choice questions to help us understand what we can do next to develop Design Thinking Governance resources and a community of best practice.  

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About the authors

Judith Thompson profile photo

Judith Thompson CMInstD is a consultant and director with expertise in design and innovation. As former head of Better by Design, she championed design thinking for export companies and within the public sector.

Pamela Bell photo

Pamela Bell MInstD is an innovation consultant and governance professional with experience across design and construction, manufacturing, elite sport and entrepreneurship. 

The views expressed in this article do not reflect the position of the IoD unless explicitly stated.

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