IBM at MX 2014: Design-centered at Scale

I’ve been going to the MX: Managing Experience conference since it began in 2007 (full disclosure: I used to work for Adaptive Path as a Studio Director — I even spoke at the first MX!). Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of amazing work done to manage and lead in organizations from a design perspective. The war stories, successes, and failures are amazing and have influenced me greatly. One of the things that stood out most from many of them is how important commitment from overall leadership is to putting design and experience at the core of an organization’s activities. Design-led change is hard and it’s clear that lip service to design doesn’t really cut it.

That’s why I’m so excited to have the opportunity to share what’s going on at IBM right now (I’m a Design Principal in IBM’s new Design Division). IBM is serious about design in a way I have seldom seen. The amount of social and financial capital that they are investing is unprecedented. It also raises major challenges and questions:

How do you take one of the oldest and largest companies in the world and put design and experience at the center of everything it does? How do you scale the basic tenets and approaches of design in all its many flavors to truly be at the center of an entire company? How do you orchestrate transforming a company to this new way of being when it has over 100 years of working in a different way? How do you do it on a fairly short time scale?

That’s the endeavor our IBM Design team is engaged in and that we are excited to share and discuss with the MX community. We’ve had a number of early successes both inside IBM and outside. Two topics we’ve been thinking about a lot recently (and that I’ll be covering in a workshop and a talk at MX):

Scaling up — When IBM Design really got going about 18 months ago, we had a major design talent shortage. We realized we needed to grow our design staff by about 300%. In a company with more than 400,000 employees, that translates to hundreds of designers per year over the next 5 years. (Yikes!) To grow staff that much and that quickly without chaos, we’ve had to create a massive on-boarding, training, and integration approach. We’ve had to redesign the way product teams incorporate designers. We’ve also had to fundamentally alter the organizational structure of IBM as a whole to elevate design as a first-class citizen. These changes are how we are building and growing high-performing teams that work across channels, products, and the organization as a whole.

Putting design at the center — Design isn’t so much a strict process as it is a way of solving problems. For the sake of brevity, I’ll call this approach “design thinking”. For design to have impact, we need to put design thinking at the center of how our product teams do their job (rather than just the way the designers work). We need to scale design activities beyond designers to be for whole product teams. So, we’ve expanded ideas from design thinking into a lightweight product development framework with a few core concepts and practices that EVERYONE does: design, product management, and engineering. We call it IBM Design Thinking and it is becoming the core of how all of IBM’s teams work. We’ve given it a special name because we’ve created something that goes beyond most conceptions of design thinking (little “d,” little “t”) to address the needs of product development as a whole, while still bearing the strong imprint of a design approach (divergence/convergence, iteration, empathy, radical collaboration, etc.). I’ll cover this in my talk and go into the practices in detail at the pre-conference workshop on Sun morning. IBM Design Thinking is one of the keys to how we are delivering change across the organization.

We’ve got lots of other things going on, of course. And we’re in the early stages here. We are constantly enriching our understanding of our users (IBM employees), prototyping, evaluating, and iterating as we move down this road. In a year, many of the things we’re doing now may be quite different. Still, we look forward to sharing where we are and getting thoughts and reflections from MX attendees and the world at large.

If you want a little more background about IBM Design and some of our recent activities, check out this article about the opening of our Austin Studio last year.

I hope to see you at this year’s conference!

[Photo caption: IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty talks with designers. The entire senior leadership team for IBM was on hand for the opening of the Austin Studio to show IBM's level of commitment to the IBM Design initiative.]


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