An innovative and user-centric Ethics & Compliance Project


Employees of UCB, a global pharmaceutical company based in Belgium, work in a highly regulated industry. A project within the Ethics & Compliance team applied design thinking to develop a novel solution to better support their colleagues when facing difficult situations. 

The starting point: How to help colleagues in case of an ethical dilemma?

How can UCB support employees facing an ethical dilemma in their decision-making? The Ethics & Compliance team of UCB decided in 2017 to develop something helpful to their colleagues, who are facing difficult situations. The first version of the newly formulated ethical dilemma policy was not embraced back in 2017, remembers Karen Eryou, head of the international markets team within in the Ethics & Complianceteam. Although the team had interviewed colleagues, the focus of the policywas not clearly defined and the response of the Executive Committee was: „We understand the concept of this policy – but what is going to grab people? How can we convince them and bring them on board?“ Especially within the overall context of the Ethics & Compliance team wanting to become more advisors than controllers, Karen Eryou decided with two colleagues to take their challenge to a four-day Design Thinking workshop in 2018.  This workshop, led by HPI Academy coach Selina Mayer, was part of yearlong multi-module program of UCB to spark innovation. 

Key insights: Creating a space where it is okay to say ‚I don’t know’

Before the workshop, the team had thought that 90 % of their work was done. However, they soon learned that they needed to redefine the problem: „As an ethics & compliance specialist I can tell you how to identify a dilemma ,” says Karen Eryou. In interviews with users, the employees of UCB, the team learned that they could not expect the same from their colleagues working in other departments. The problem is not only how to behave in case of a dilemma, but also how to detect a dilemma. Even more so in a global company, since the definition of a dilemma might change according to the cultural context or the user’s experience. 

The team drew these key insights from Design Thinking interviews and prototyping. It also revealed what the colleagues actually needed in these delicate moments when an ethical dilemma occurs. The project team learned that their colleagues did not want a written decision tree or an algorithm. They wanted to discuss live cases, and to have easy and instant access to information. Last but not least, what was needed most, was the possibility to talk to a real person. Prototyping itself was ambitious in the globally dispersed team, as Karen Eryou points out: „Getting people creative via Skype was a big challenge. But it worked!“ 

Eryou continues on another important learning: “If we had proceeded the usual way, we would have had a heavy educational tone. But we realized that we need to show in an intriguing way that we are smarter when we debate things, when we say: ‘I don’t know.’ This implies to take the ego out and bring empathy in – which can be  quite hard to do in a corporate environment.“ Therefore, the solution also implies a small but significant change in the company culture. 

Impact: The Decision Dilemma Tool rollout

The more open and participatory concept lead to changing the solution from a policy paper on ethical dilemmas to the „Decision Dilemma Tool“. The rollout of the tool started in spring 2020. The Decision Dilemma Tool consists of a series of professionally produced videos, played by actors, based on real UCB cases. Apart from this, several UCB coaches from now on help directly with finding answers in difficult situations. As an add-on, the impact of the solution is measured within a Ph.D. project and will be published later on. 

Karen Eryou, who is also enrolled in the HPI Academy Coach Certification Program, points out the value of the HPI training and highlights applied failure culture: “It was the space, the environment. It was almost as if we were allowed to fail.” Not only will the new Decision Dilemma Tool encourage people to be transparent about their uncertainties, but Karen Eryou has developed a new approach to so-called failures in her daily work: “In the project, we were half-way through the spend with an external vendor. Nevertheless, we were extremely unhappy with the results, and this is when I decided to end the cooperation. I am not sure if I would have had the courage for this bold decision before.” 

Now that this project is almost finished, the application of design thinking within UCB has only just begun. The design thinking enthusiasts in the company still gather for DT lunches to exchange ideas and support each other. With each successful design thinking project, the network of people experienced with design thinking is growing, and new projects are launched. They touch on very diverse topics such as IT, Health, Safety & Environment, and sustainability. „It is as if I had an inhouse consultancy running, because I get quite often calls from other departments,“ says Eryou.