Today all chef executives (CEOs), from those running transnational corporations to fast-track entrepreneurial start-ups, are under immense pressure to deliver results.


There was a time when the big players amongst them would call on support from the special skillsets within their management team: the CFO for financials, the CMO for marketing, the COO for operational matters, the CTO for tech advice and the HR director for people issues. The entrepreneur CEO had fewer options, but still needed to ask those searching questions:


Who looks at the way in which the organisation ticks and how it envisages its future? Who understands the experience of being in the company and the experience of its customers, suppliers and investors? Who can grapple with the problems of developing products and services that create a coherent experience for the user, regardless of channels, media and distribution methods?


The anxieties of chief executives are often caused by the limitations of their own professional backgrounds, irrespective of their talent for leadership. Many are former financial officers themselves, schooled in looking at issues in terms of numbers, rather than people or emotional experiences (God forbid). Analytical thought is principally linear, searching for a logical result by focusing on a goal and pursuing it relentlessly. It’s all part of traditional business school training. Nothing wrong with that you might say, and very often you’d be right. It’s just that nowadays business life is increasingly unpredictable and subject to rapid change. And, crucially, customers and users are not behaving the way they used to.


In the Henry Ford era the main task of business was to bring products to market at reasonable cost, make a decent margin and plan for volume sales.  

More recently, market research has guided companies to refine their offerings to customers’ needs and aspirations. Businesses have also begun to understand how the motivation and commitment of staff can impact the way the organisation performs. Technological innovations fuelled by the digital revolution have brought new products and services that improve people’s lives. The problem is that many of these worthwhile initiatives are not effective unless they work together, interact on each other positively and influence the nature of what we experience.


Enter the Chief Design Officer (CDO). This new role has emerged from the concept of ‘design thinking’, which at its simplest level is using the principles and processes that designers typically use in order to help resolve business problems. According to the UK Design Council a number of corporations including PepsiCo, Philips and Hyundai have recently appointed CDOs to their boards. The idea is about changing the way businesses think in order to deal with complexity and to gain a fresh perspective on the customer’s experience. If you think like a designer you think differently from the way business traditionally thinks. Your language and your ways of working are different. Your starting point is often simply observing. How can people use and interact with products and services in simple, intuitive and rewarding ways? Design thinking asks those awkward questions: why and what if? It privileges experiences and emotional responses, thus empathising with the user rather than treating them sales targets.


The current enthusiasm for design thinking in some quarters of business emanates from the success of companies such as Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent) and Amazon, the top three of Fortune’s most admired companies. They are all relatively new operations and Apple’s success, in particular, has a lot to do with the way it builds design seamlessly into everything it does. In this instance, it is not about just designing clever and good-looking products, but providing an experience that runs from trying out devices in store, to unboxing your purchase from the neat packaging, to achieving instant familiarity with the user interface and engaging with the clear and intuitive operating software. Apple’s products, services and communications are culturally consistent.


More recently, we have seen a business such as Airbnb come from nowhere to disrupt an entire sector. Much of its success can be put down to the online design experience that people can enjoy – clear, simple, focused, human and intuitive. As Jon Kolko, director of Austin Center for Design, says, writing in the Harvard Business Review, “Design thinking is an essential tool for simplifying and humanizing”.


Another enthusiast for design thinking’s key role in organisations is Scott Cook, CEO of Intuit, a financial software business he co-founded in 1983. Cook now claims to have 35 designers at executive level in the organisation, but design thinking is not restricted to them and their teams. In talking about his company’s commitment to design, Cook pinpointed the challenge for everyone: “We needed an awakening and more of a grand vision. We needed all our people to understand that designing great products and user experiences is a team sport that includes not just designers and product managers but everybody else – even the CEO.”


But it is not just the newer tech businesses that are embracing the power of design. One of the earliest pioneers of design in business was IBM, and now the company is reiterating its commitment. According to the Harvard Business Review, senior vice president of IBM Global Business Services, Bridget van Kralingen stated that “there’s no longer any real distinction between business strategy and the design of the user experience”, thus putting design at the heart of the organisation once again. It was 50 years ago that IBM’s then chief executive Thomas Watson Jr proclaimed in a lecture at Wharton Business School “good design is good business”. Back then it required the single-mindedness of a strong personality and the inspired recruitment of creative talent to make it happen.


Today design thinking is, and needs to be, much more about inclusive involvement (by building collaborative teams to crack problems) and self-sustaining models that rely less on inspired leadership and creative genius. That’s not to say leadership is not helpful, nor creativity vital. As with Apple, we have seen that leadership and creativity have been key motivators.  


The real test will be to see if organisations can successfully embed design thinking into their cultures for the longer term. In part, the key may be in the training of a new breed of design thinkers. One of the leading educational players is Stanford University’s Institute of Design in California. Known to all as the D-School, it says about itself: “We learn by doing. We don’t just ask our students to solve a problem, we ask them to define what the problem is. Students start in the field, where they develop empathy for people they design for, uncovering real human needs they want to address. They then iterate to develop an unexpected range of possible solutions, and create rough prototypes to take back out into the field and test with real people. Our bias is toward action, followed by reflection on personal discoveries about process. Experience is measured by iteration: students run through as many cycles as they possibly can on any project. Each cycle brings stronger insights and more unexpected solutions”.


For the D-School design thinking operates at the intersection between business, technology and human values. Arguably, it is there that the value of the discipline lies. It cannot resolve all problems nor anticipate the future, but a business that lives with a design culture will find it easier to cut through complexity, embrace collaboration, experiment and be responsive to people’s real life experiences.



12 ways in which design thinking can help business


Design thinking works by:

–  looking, and seeing 

–  putting yourself in the place of the user

–  watching how people behave

–  asking awkward questions, and exploring multiple answers

–  seeking to understand emotional responses as well as rational ones

–  valuing intuition and collaboration

–  thinking laterally and making apparently random associations

–  articulating ideas visually as well as verbally

–  simplifying complexity

–  testing out ideas through the making of models, either physical or virtual

–  seeing failures as opportunities to learn and progress

–  developing constant iteration