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IMHO: Design thinking governance

Taking a design thinking approach, using specific steps and tools, can help to reframe problems, diversify team thinking and unleash creativity from the behaviours and biases that constrain it.

By Judith Thompson CMInstD & Pamela Bell MInstD
5 Jul 2021
read time
4 min to read
looking up at light bulbs

Design thinking can transform the way organisations develop strategy, understand customer needs and create breakthrough products and services.

Initially associated with digital technology companies in Silicon Valley, design thinking has steadily gained traction globally and in Aotearoa. Organisations from banks to healthcare providers to governments are using design as a key driver of innovation, strategy and value creation. According to global research and advisory company Gartner, design thinking is the number one emerging soft skill for C-Suite executives. 

While design thinking has had a major impact at executive and operational levels, it seems largely absent from the governance conversation.

Our experience, from both sides of the board table, is that designers and creative thinkers approach problem solving in ways that often doesn’t gel with orthodox governance methods and therefore find it hard to have their voices heard.

We think design thinking is not a skill confined to designers – there are broad benefits for all directors in staying current, agile and poised for future changes. It is particularly relevant today as boards navigate the effects of digital disruption, COVID-19 uncertainties and growing consumer demand for ethical transparency.

What is design thinking? 

“Design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success,” says Tim Brown, executive chair of design consultancy IDEO.

Design thinking is a problem-solving method that is human-centred and possibility-focused. It uses the methods that create great designs to create successful organisations.

Apple is the poster child of design thinking, but it is not just product, technology and creative sector companies that have benefited from design moving centre-stage.

The growth of the service economy, the role of organisational strategy and the desire for innovation across all sectors have created a need to better understand customers and users. Taking a design thinking approach, using specific steps and tools, can help to reframe problems, diversify team thinking and unleash creativity from the behaviours and biases that constrain it.

Key elements of design thinking

  • It’s human centred. Design thinking puts people at the centre and seeks to understand their real needs before jumping into solution mode.
  • It’s expansive. Design thinking encourages us to expand the boundaries of problem definition and question whether we are dealing with the right problem.
  • It’s collaborative. Design thinking is about bringing diverse voices into the solution finding process and co-creating with them.
  • It’s experimental. Design thinking requires real world information alongside historical and financial data and seeks to understand what really works through prototyping and testing.
  • And it’s fun! Design thinking reframes problems from being irritants to avoid, to opportunities for innovative and creative idea sharing.

Design thinking governance

Design thinking is not just about thinking, it’s a transformative way of thinking and behaving that infuses the culture of the entire organisation. This is why we see design thinking as starting at the top with the directors.

There are two clear pathways to create value for boards:

  • Valuing creative voices around the table and proactively recruiting designers and design thinkers into governance roles.
  • Using design thinking methods and approaches to enable a common governance language that is human-centred and innovation focused.

Governance is more about asking the right questions rather than having the right answers. In an increasingly complex world of disruptive technologies and events, generating better questions at board level requires both different strategic approaches and greater diversity of thought.

We asked two directors who have hands-on experience of using design thinking within organisations about their experiences of bringing a creative focus into the governance setting.

Suse Reynolds MInstD is a director immersed in the world of start-ups as executive chair of the NZ Angel Association and a board member of Angel HQ and Creative HQ. She also sits on the IoD Wellington branch committee.

“I love the notion of ‘not for me, unless it’s with me’. It sums up so neatly what’s at the nub of design thinking... which is building and creating solutions, products and services that are genuinely valuable and make the world a better place,” Reynolds says.

“You can only do that well, if the people you are creating those solutions for, are at the heart of board decision making.”

Rick Wells CFInstD is an early adopter of design thinking. Founder and director of innovative company Formway Furniture, Rick also championed design within government and served on the Better by Design advisory board.

“Given that satisfying, or better still delighting, customers is at the heart of every business, assessing whether the organisations products, services and business model do this really well, is a key focus for directors,” Wells says.

“Over these three areas, design thinking can transform a business by significantly building competitive advantage. After reading the papers for a meeting, I like to take time out to think customer-centrically about the implications of new proposals as this often points to insightful questions that enhance the board’s problem-solving potential.”

Why design thinking matters

Design thinking matters because organisations that use design deliver more value for customers and create more value for shareholders. Research by McKinsey, Stanford University and others provides ample evidence of the value of design for business.

Within your organisation, aspects of design thinking may already be in play but, to optimise its value, design thinking needs to be embedded at the top.

Design thinking matters on a number of levels - to you, your board and your organisation:

  • To you, design thinking matters to your personal continuing professional development and knowledge building as a director
  • To your board, design thinking matters in order to be dynamic, inclusive and keep customers at the forefront of governance decision-making
  • To your organisation, design thinking matters in the way it develops and delivers on strategy, as well as the way it approaches problem solving using design-led and user-centric tools and templates.

We’ve worked with many organisations who use design thinking as a core operational skill and are now keen to start a wider conversation around design thinking in the boardroom.

About the authors:

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 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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