Do you have a CDO?

I would like to propose every company should have a Chief Design Officer on their board

Do you have a CDO?

I would like to propose every company should have a Chief Design Officer on their board. That’s not just industries that rely on design as an output, such as fashion houses, but every company. Thames Water even. Or especially Thames Water because they are in crisis and a ‘steady as she goes’ approach will not solve their problems. It needs more radical thinking, but also pragmatism to realise those radical thoughts successfully. This is where designers come to the fore. 

To be a designer, you need to have both strategic vision and hands-on practicality. With those skills, you can deal with not just a crisis but also make opportunities happen. Steve Jobs knew this in building a multi-trillion dollar business and this is why he kept his VP of Design, Johnny Ives, very close. 

You’d think other businesses would note that dynamic and its resulting success, and hire their own CDO, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. We see Chief Marketing Officers but, whilst they are engaged in creativity, their role is marketing, and their creativity is focused on communicating what they have, not what they could have. 

Now I have to declare that I’ve never sat on the board of a large corporation, so perhaps I am unqualified to make this recommendation, as I cannot truly understand what goes on there. I have, however, when consulting with these corporations seen evidence where you can see this role is absent and I know the disciplines from which board members are drawn and the roles they play.  

I have witnessed unproductive circular conversations between R&D and Marketing, which start with Marketing saying: “What have you got for us?” R&D responds: “Well, what do you need?” and so it goes on. Each sit in a different camp, not really understanding the other. A designer sits between and provokes: “What if we had?” which inevitably gets all parties talking together. Designers understand people (consumers or customers) and how they interact with things (products or services). But they also understand how things get done (bringing in production and supply-chain) and so you have an invaluable facilitator, sparking opportunities and building alliances among the board.

I have also, all too often, witnessed major and exciting projects to develop new brands, products, or capabilities wither on the vine. There was no lack of feasibility or energy at ground level, but something seemed to lack of leadership and sponsorship above. Designers are very comfortable with change and, at a board level, would have given encouragement and reassurance that the ‘new’ and the ‘different ‘are good things for a business. They would have championed these projects at the highest level and so got them through the naysayers at every other level. 

A few years back, I was involved in the emerging Direct to Consumer model. Working with large consumer goods businesses, who put had DTC teams in place, we explored some very exciting business opportunities, but it was agile start-ups who in the end stole the march in the end. The corporations got stuck and their only response was to buy the start-ups, hoping some of that entrepreneurial spirit would rub off – but it never did, and the opportunity was lost.

There are good reasons for stifling uncertainty. People who run businesses are rightly focused on efficiency and effectiveness and that requires as much certainty as possible through measurement, organisation, roles, responsibilities, and procedures. Innovation is disruptive, so it needs a champion high up in the business to fight its corner and redress the balance.   

Change is a constant, but you wouldn’t know it in some businesses. Scale and momentum can hide it to a degree. Now there is no hiding away. Our planet needs radical change but, to date, the response has been cautious and incremental and it’s just not enough. German car manufacturers, until recently, still thought there was a future for the internal combustion engine. They were forced into change by Tesla and impending legislation and lost their leadership and momentum in the marketplace by not moving fast enough. Now Artificial Intelligence is going to speed up change to a degree we cannot even imagine. If they are to flourish or just survive, every board needs someone who has the focus and capabilities to manage that change. That’s your CDO.

The CDO doesn’t even need to be a trained designer. After all, at this level, their discipline would be too narrow to be of practical help. They don’t even need to head up an internal design team. In fact, that could tie them down too much to one function. Whilst others on the board handle functions like finance or HR, the CDO, like the CEO, should have a different remit. If the CEO is there to guide, then the CDO is there to provoke, inspire and facilitate. That person is likely, by their nature, to have come from a design background or perhaps from marketing (without being limited by their department responsibilities) but it is mostly about who they are. Steve Jobs was one, James Dyson another. It is their temperament, outlook and approach that is most valuable. 

You see companies struggling to keep up with a changing world swapping out their CEO regularly as their only response to the problem. Perhaps a judicious hiring of a CDO would keep the CEO in their job for quite a bit longer. 

Nick Dormon
Nick Dormon

Share via
Copy link