Our thoughts are with our members and their organisations impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle. Boards have a key role to play in the wake of any crisis. See guidance for chairs and directors

Our thoughts are with our members and their organisations impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle. Boards have a key role to play in the wake of any crisis. See guidance for chairs and directors

Preparing for Design Thinking Governance

By Judith Thompson CMInstD & Pamela Bell MInstD
18 Nov 2021
read time
5 min to read
circular architectural pattern as a façade of building

The first article of this series looked at the design thinking organisation and introduced the idea of the design thinking boardroom. We’ve noticed that the benefits of design thinking may be inside organisations, but not yet influencing boardroom culture. We shared five key insights on what we have learned so far about bringing design thinking into a governance setting.

  • Lead with a human-centred mindset.
  • Find ways to stand in the customers shoes.
  • Build a board-CEO relationship and performance metrics that support risk-taking.
  • Value diversity, and value the divergent ideas and conversations diversity brings.
  • Approach board conversations with genuine curiosity.

In this second article, we delve into behaviours and approaches that can help you prepare for taking design thinking into the boardroom.

A Design Thinking Governance mindset

Your value as a director is about what you bring to the room: your perspective, your experience, the questions you ask, the projects you champion. You may be starting out as a director and want to bring your best self to the role, or you may be a seasoned director looking for a fresh angle and new learning. It all starts with the mindset you bring to the role.

Following are some attributes and ideas to prototype that can help you re-set your default to a design thinking mindset.

1. People first

Directors need to approach discussion and decision-making from multiple perspectives, considering financial and legal implications, alignment with strategy and the competitive landscape. These aspects are critical but should not be the first or only lens to look through. A design thinking mindset starts with human empathy.

Try this: When reading the board pack and considering business cases, adopt a people-first lens. Satisfy yourself that the case for customers stacks up by asking:

1. What customer needs are being served by this?
2. What problems are we solving for our users better than anyone else?
3. How will this deepen our employee experience and help them do a better job?

2. Opportunity bias

As directors we can be unconsciously biased towards looking for risk. We don’t intend to be naysayers, but the governance focus on risk identification and mitigation can lead to looking more strongly toward negative consequences that might derail us, rather than what opportunities we might be missing. Most organisations have risk registers or risk frameworks. How many organisations have opportunity registers? A design thinking mindset is biased to optimism, not in a Pollyanna way, but in a way that looks expansively at opportunity before considering the risks of whatever proposal or decision is in front of us.

Try this: Lead with optimism. Before narrowing down on the risks of a proposal, ask yourself:

1. Is there a bigger opportunity here?
2. What else might we be missing?
3. Who can we partner or collaborate with to make this happen faster or better?

3. Being generative

Re-framing issues by expanding the boundaries of both problems and potential solutions is central to design thinking. Adopting a generative approach is about saying ‘yes ….. and’. It’s about building on ideas and proposals that come to you as a director by looking beyond current priorities and expanding your vision.  A generative mindset looks to a further horizon and helps uncover issues and opportunities that the board may need to pay attention to in the not-so-distant future. 

Try this:Think beyond the decision or discussion that is in front of you. Build on the ideas or proposals in the board papers by placing them into a future scenario. Before thinking about whether you agree or disagree, ask yourself:

1. How can we make this idea better?
2. How can I inspire a future-focused conversation?
3. What are we missing that we don’t know about yet?

4. Learning by doing

When Satya Nadella became CEO and Chair of Microsoft, he famously said he would move the company from being a ‘know-it-all’ organisation to a ‘learn-it-all’ organisation. Growing 600% under his leadership to become the world’s most valuable publicly traded company is clear testimony to the impact of a learning mindset at the top. Often the best learning is not from big research projects and long reports, but the rapid learning cycles developed from iterative, learning-by-doing and fail-fast approaches. 

Try this: Challenge yourself and other directors about how much you are learning from the decisions you make. Ask yourself:

1. Are we taking enough small bets, learning and moving forward quickly?
2. Am I acting as an accelerator or a brake on experimentation in the organisation?
3. How can I encourage and influence other directors to adopt a learning mindset? 

Developing a user lens

One of the most valuable assets you can bring to your work as a director is a customer perspective. The boardroom is a great discussion environment but it’s not the real world and directors can become isolated from the reality of customer experience. Board reports that distil customer insights into bullet points give little idea of real-life interaction. Marketing team powerpoints with on-brand messages only tell you what the company is saying, not how your customers are really feeling.

Quantitative data, board papers and presentations provide essential director information. As a director, if you can contextualise this information with experiential learning, your contribution will be infinitely more valuable. Interaction with your organisation’s employees and customers is the best board preparation you can do.

Developing a user lens requires seeing and hearing customers in real situations where they interface with your organisation. It’s not about asking people what they think of your company or your service. Learning comes from observing what actually happens and how people behave in real-life and digital situations. A design thinking approach enables understanding the personas of your customers and their steps along the journey of engaging with your organisation.

Here’s three things you can do outside the boardroom to develop your user lens:

  1. Build empathy: What opportunities do you have as a director to observe how customers and users interface with your organisation and its people? You are more useful if you can understand first-hand customer pain-points and the workarounds your people are using to get their job done. This is not about catching people out not doing things properly. It’s about developing empathy and understanding with your customers and employees so you can help improve things
  2. Understand extreme users: How much information do you get about people at the ends of the spectrum. Synthesised data gives us a great picture of the middle of the bell-curve, but meeting the needs of the average customer will keep your business in an average place. Understanding extreme users, people with specific or unusual needs, can lead to unique solutions that are better for everybody and create a point of difference. Before your next meeting find out how your organisation is learning from extreme users and customers with specific needs.
  3. Look for customer generated solutions: If your organisation uses co-design, agile or similar tools, explore what is being learned from customers. Experts bring technical expertise that is critical to solving problems, but as a director you need to also understand how the organisation is harnessing the power of users. Can you hear the customer voice in your papers? Are you well-informed about how your organisation is listening to and collaborating with customers to generate better solutions?

Getting a fuller picture

What you learn outside the boardroom and what you experience beyond board papers and reports will give you a fuller picture of your organisation, its staff and your customers, and enable you to make a more valuable contribution as a director.

  • Listening to the business is only half the story. How can you engage with the other half – the customer voice?
  • Listening to the senior executive team is also only part of the story. How can you develop understanding of the employee experience?
  • Listening to the CEO is an even smaller part of the overall picture. How much weight are you placing on the CEO experience and how are they bringing the voice of the senior team, employees and customers into the room?

Design thinking can give you a better line of sight into your organisation and the eco-system around it. We encourage you to experiment and prototype alongside us, building on these behaviours and approaches and sharing your experiences and ideas with other directors and colleagues. 

Read the third and final article in the series: Using Design Thinking Governance in the Boardroom

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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. pamelabell.nz 

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