Design Thinking  | 4 MIN. READ

Why The C-Suite Needs Design Thinkers

Nathan Waterhouse, October 3, 2018

The rise of design thinking in the heart of business strategy

Why The C-Suite Needs Design ThinkersCustomer-centricity is the business buzzword of the day — and that’s good news for designers. Every business conference, industry report, and study of CEO strategy shows executives are trying to figure out how to create a more customer-centric culture so that they can deliver more value to customers, the business, and their shareholders. Just ask Jeff Bezos.

 In an interview last month he revealed how being customer-centric has been paramount to Amazon’s success. Amazon “puts the customer at the center of everything they do,” he declared in the interview, arguing that trusting in customer opinions provides his teams with the confidence they need to follow through on new ideas — even if they seem risky.

This strategy helped Amazon become the global giant it is today, and it is quickly becoming the only way to remain competitive. A 2018 Garnet study predicts that, by 2020, poor customer experiences will destroy 30 percent of digital business projects.

The challenge that companies face today is how to shift their culture, strategy, and way of doing business to actually put customers at the center of what they do. Whether they call it an agile transformation, human-centered design, or design thinking, executives need help reshaping their strategy for a customer-centered world. Designers, and those schooled in the art of design thinking, can deliver that expertise — and those with ambition to lead can use this trend as an opportunity to bolster their careers.

Design From The Top

Over the past several years, many global organizations have added chief design officer (CDO) or designer executive officer (DEO) roles to the c-suite, including Apple, PepsiCo, J&J, and Philips Electronics. They are doing this because they see the value of excellent design, and the importance of factoring design thinking into the project planning and delivery process.

These design leaders are positioned to help define the business strategy, and influence which projects are funded, how they are delivered, and how their companies measure value to define business success. In other words, they are changing the way companies operate, and creating a culture that truly (and finally) understands how good design and empathetic customer engagement can drive better business success.

How to Become a CDO

They are also setting the stage for aspiring designers to move into leadership roles of their own. But to take advantage of this trend, designers and design thinking experts need to first climb down out of their ivory towers and start thinking like executives.

Designers have long complained that executives don’t understand the language of design, but they are equally at fault. To be taken seriously by senior leaders, designers must learn how to speak in terms that c-suiters care about. CDOs need to be able to communicate how creativity and design thinking translates into quantitative business results, and how customer centric design leads to improved business outcomes that deliver long term strategic goals.

To make it easier, designers should think of this process as a design thinking exercise, where the c-suite are their customers, and they need to gather their insights, empathize with their needs, and identify opportunities to amaze and delight them. The designers who can bridge this gap, and have the confidence to speak with authority in both worlds, can craft a career path that ends in the c-suite.


For further ideas on the role of a CDO, check out these resources:


Learn how to enable innovation skill-building at scale here or download our free ebook Kickstart Innovation: A Guide for Organizations.


Nathan Waterhouse is a keynote speaker and consultant on innovation and design strategy. At Treehouse Innovation he helps organizations grow their businesses through creating more human centred offerings in the world. Previously Nathan led new business ventures at world-renowned design and innovation firm IDEO. There he co-founded, a social impact community of over 200,000 people, across 190 countries, that collaborate online to tackle big systemic challenges in our society. Inspired by this experience, he also co-founded OI Engine, an award-winning software platform that helps corporations tackle tough challenges collaboratively, rather than in isolation.

Nathan is an expert in organization design and has led organization design programs facilitated workshops with hundreds of participants that have helped shift the innovation strategy for 250 year old organizations like Generali. He also helped create HackFWD, a tech startup incubator for Europe. He has also led innovation programs for ABInBev, IKEA, T-Mobile, VISA, and Vodafone, amongst others.






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