Using Design Thinking Governance in the boardroom

By Judith Thompson CMInstD & Pamela Bell MInstD
7 Dec 2021
read time
5 min to read
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This is the third in a series looking at the role of design thinking in a governance setting. Design thinking or user-centric design is a lens through which to question and potentially let go of old structures that aren’t useful. It is a way to reset, reframe and prototype approaches to how we operate in the boardroom, both individually and collectively.

The first two articles covered the individual director’s perspective on design thinking:

  • Design Thinking Governance: Fundamentals of Design Thinking Governance (DTG), including customer perspectives, valuing diversity, and creating a culture of curiosity.
  • Preparing for Design Thinking Governance: Preparation for board meetings, including a design thinking mindset, developing a user lens by building empathy, and getting a fuller picture by listening more broadly.

This article covers what you can do to influence collective interaction around the board table. It starts with a focus on the critical relationship between the board and executive, the CEO in particular. It then suggests some Design Thinking Governance behaviours, approaches and tools for using in the board room. To bring this to life, we have reached out to others in the growing community of thought around design thinking and governance for their experiences.

The board/CEO relationship

The CEO is the linchpin between the operational and governance aspects of an organisation. Boardroom conversations, processes and decision-making respond to the tone of the CEO’s approach to innovation and the organisation’s collective appetite for risk. Design thinking tools can be useful in re-setting the board-CEO relationship to an innovation-orientation while maintaining the key aspects governance oversight and holding management to account.

We spoke with both directors and CEOs with experience of design and innovation led organisations for their perspectives and experiences of translating design thinking into the boardroom setting.

Elle Archer, an experienced director undertaking PhD research in progressive governance and converging ecosystems, believes the current governance/management divide, acts as a barrier to innovation and unified decision making. She believes governance focuses too strongly on individual expertise and needs to operate in a space of convergence; moving from the ‘me’ to ‘we’ approach to provide true collective leadership. Design thinking values the individual expertise that each person brings, but rather than defaulting to the person with the most subject matter experience, it harnesses everyone’s contribution to arrive at better solutions.

Working with a founder CEO in start-ups brings different board challenges. Melanie Templeton, who has worked on both side of the table as a CEO and chair observes that the governance role needs to adapt to the style of the CEO. She believes founder CEOs are likely to bring a highly creative approach to strategy and therefore a higher propensity for risk. The role of the board is to support the CEO’s drive for growth and innovation while ensuring the company remains viable.                                         

Design thinking approaches can help bring innovation across the governance-management divide, establishing boundaries in the Board-CEO relationship to help navigate risks and learning collaboratively from fast-fail approaches.

Design Thinking Governance - tools to consider
  • The right dashboard. Are you getting strategy-aligned data that supports the board-CEO relationship? Are the CEO performance metrics incentivising the level of risk needed for growth.  David Tse commented that what is deemed a 'quality dashboard' differs depending on what type of business it is, and where in its lifecycle. Many businesses are focused on mainstream financial metrics such as revenue and profitability, while “directors of fast-moving tech companies need real-time data and have a line of sight to other factors such as recurring or SaaS customer acquisition and growth rates, inbound marketing lead generation, etc”.
  • Innovation conversations. If your tendency as a director is to go down the rabbit hole of questioning the CEO around small mistakes, chances are you’ll learn very little and shut down the possibility of a more expansive and open conversation. You’re all in it together. Don’t force the CEO to become a good news machine. Gael Surgenor’s experiences of managing innovative cross-agency public sector initiatives have led her to steer away from a focus on risk mitigation towards wanting to understand what the organisation is learning and asking leadership questions like, “Have we been bold enough?” and “Have we taken enough risks?”

Using design thinking in the boardroom

The purpose of using design thinking approaches in the boardroom is to bring directors closer to the real experiences of customers and enable more expansive ways of looking at opportunities. It helps with normalising different ways of approaching diverse and creative ideas. John Brockies told us, “I feel sometimes that we put the idea of innovation too much on a pedestal rather than thinking of it as simply making changes that add value”. One suggested technique is the “I’ve been thinking…” 10-minute slot for a board member to express their point-of-view from the perspective of their own subject matter expertise.

This can occur at the beginning of a meeting as a thought-starter and means that ideas and opportunities that might not get expressed through an agenda-driven meeting can be raised and discussed with open minds. Rather than blue sky thinking happening just once a year at an annual strategy session, it becomes part of every meeting.  

Samantha Gadd has used design thinking approaches to innovate and disrupt in the HR sector with her companies Humankind and Employee Experience Design School.  For Samantha, design thinking provides a framework to define problems and design solutions in the most impactful way.  She describes design thinking as being intuitive for her as a leader and says, “when people are involved in designing their own solutions there is real power, ownership and ultimately far better outcomes.”

Richard Shirtcliffe has more experience than most in leadership of design-led businesses including, Phil & Teds, Tuatara, Coffee Supreme, noho, and his latest venture WildClean.  He told us that while design thinking is fast gaining ground at operational levels and has been a core element of a number of businesses he has led, he believes it is largely foreign at the board level in NZ.

There is an opportunity to better align boards with the company’s innovation purpose. Design thinking approaches can be used for idea generation and co-design in the Boardroom.

Design Thinking Governance - tools to consider
  • An opportunities register. An opportunities register enables the board to document, actively watch and decide when to investigate new ways to grow, change and transform. John Brockies suggests running an ideas register where the numerous ideas that come out of discussions can be captured and then reviewed in a structured way pre-business plan review. He says, “Sometimes these nuggets are lost because they are tangential to the matter immediately at hand. It helps diverse thinking around the board table if you also have a diverse way of capturing the myriad ways that the ideas come up.”  Having regular ideas generation sessions to capture those ideas without filter and judgement is a great way for boards to build up a reservoir of creative ideas for future strategy sessions. An opportunities register balances out the risk register which is already firmly established at the board table.
  • Co-creating solutions. Active involvement in new product and service development is usually seen as outside the board’s realm of activity, but designer and social entrepreneur Jade Tang-Taylor sees co-design as the perfect tool to bring into the boardroom to elevate and value the voices of lived experience in the discussion, and help inform decision making around the table. Jade advocates for the use of co-design as an opportunity for directors, CEO, employees and customers to work together creatively on problem solving. Co-designing solutions, breaks down the organisational power structures that get in the way of open dialogue and gives directors a unique opportunity to interact and build empathy with users. Moving away from the presentation and report receiving format, also allows directors to interact in a dynamic way with the operational team and to learn together as a board.

Evolving design thinking

Design Thinking Governance is an innovation mindset and a user-centred approach. In working with our emergent community, we are exploring how people are using and evolving design thinking and other innovation tools in governance settings. Together, we are on our way to building a Design Thinking Governance toolkit that is both practical and relevant.

In the New Year, we will be digging deeper into specific areas of governance that can benefit from a design thinking reset. Keep an eye out as we bring you deep dives into dynamic strategy, active reporting, innovative inductions, and co-created charters.

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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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Also, please let us know if you are interested in exploring Design Thinking Governance further and being part of our growing community of practice. 

Thank you to our community of contributors:

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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