Interview by Moxie Sozo

Douglas Powell
Bringing Design Thinking to Big Blue

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IBM is in the midst of a design-driven transformation that includes educating its worldwide staff of 380,000 about the value of design thinking. As a company that’s been around for more than a century, this can be a tremendous challenge both from the inside-out and outside-in. Changing perceptions and expectations is not an easy task.

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In 2013, Douglas Powell was hired to head up the design education program at IBM. Powell has more than 25 years of experience in a wide range of design disciplines. A recipient of the 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award from the Sam Fox School of Design at Washington University in St. Louis, and the 2014 Fellow Award from AIGA Minnesota, Doug is a lecturer, commentator and thought leader on design issues, having presented at a variety of national conferences and forums including the 2015 Beirut Design Week in Lebanon, the 2015 Offset design conference in Dublin, Ireland, Bright Ideas on Minnesota Public Radio, the 2011 Mayo Clinic Transform Conference, and the 2012 TEDx ArtCenter. Between 2011-2013 Doug served as the national president of AIGA, the professional association for design, the largest and oldest design organization in the world. He is currently a Distinguished Designer at IBM, directing the program to scale design and design thinking across the global tech company.

We asked Doug about his ambitious educational role and how its changing the culture within and perceptions about IBM.

Until recently, IBM has been seen as a very traditional, old school IT model. When did the old guard come down and new ways of thinking come in?

IBM has reinvented itself many times over in its 100-year history, and design is driving this latest reinvention. It started nearly five years ago when our CEO Ginni Rometty took her position. Her opening statement is very revealing. She said, “There’s one key to our future growth: the client experience.” What Ginni was saying here, is that the experience that people have with IBM—our products, services, spaces, people, brand—is the key driver to the success of the company. That’s a pretty remarkable idea! Furthermore, she recognized that the people who have the skills to create great human experiences are designers, and there simply weren’t enough designers at IBM at that time to deliver on her vision. Ginni made a massive investment in design and designers at IBM.We have hired nearly a thousand new designers at IBM, developed the practice of design thinking at a global scale, and opened 30 design studios around the world where our designers are working and design thinking is practiced.

Can you give me a little background on how IBM started this design education program? Were they lagging behind in design and design thinking compared to similar businesses? Was it a cultural shift?

Culture is at the core of this transformation, in fact our mission is to “Create a sustainable global culture of design at IBM.” This is a big, ambitious and audacious idea, and it won’t be achieved by simply hiring a bunch of designers, building some studios, and sprinkling design thinking on top.

Culture change in a huge organization happens when enough people truly believe in the mission and internalize it in a visceral way.

In fact, we are finding (somewhat to my surprise, frankly) that we are way ahead of the curve in our adoption of design thinking for global companies. There is now an extraordinary demand for IBM to deliver our design thinking training to many of our client companies, which are some of the biggest organizations in the world. We are now working with organizations in virtually every sector—financial services, retail, healthcare, government, etc.—to help them apply design thinking the way we do it at IBM.

Were employees resistant to this big shift or did they embrace it?

Initially there was a great deal of resistance, especially from the engineers. IBM is a proudly tech-driven company that takes on the most complex problems in the world, and the way an engineer typically solves a problem can be quite different from the way a designer does. What we have found is that when we just talk to our cross-disciplinary partners (engineers, product managers, marketers, execs) about design, it is not very interesting or convincing to them. But when we give them an experience with design, they totally get it! Design thinking is great for this because it is so inclusive and collaborative. So whenever possible, we bring those non-designers into our design studios and have them participate in design thinking workshops as a way to demonstrate the value of design. The results are almost unanimously positive.

Are you creating curricula specifically for IBM or is it more about broad design thinking—or both?

It’s really about both. We need to make sure all IBMers understand why design and design thinking can provide value to the work they are doing and to the company overall.

Designers are essential to this transformation as the practitioners of the craft of design. Design thinking is the methodical approach that our multi-disciplinary product and services teams—inclusive of designers and others—are practicing to achieve this. Our approach to design thinking requires us to focus on the real people who use our technology; to understand them as holistic people. You can check out our design thinking model here.

What kind of experience are you looking for when hiring designers for this program?

Of the nearly 1,000 designers we’ve hired in the last three years, more than two-thirds have been recent college graduates. This commitment to entry-level talent is unique in the industry where there seems to be a bias against designers at the beginning of their career. We recognize that these designers, coming out of the academic design setting, are not fully prepared to contribute to the IBM team they will be joining. This is not because they aren’t great designers–we are hiring from the very best programs in the world–but rather because the technical and business spaces they will be working on are deeply complex, and our practice of design thinking is very specific to this setting.

We have developed a three-month bootcamp experience that all newly-hired designers at IBM go through. This is an intensive experience that we consider the “missing semester” of the academic experience. It is a project-based and deeply collaborative program that has proven to be an extremely effective to bring new designers into a complex and complicated organization.

How will design thinking enhance and improve IBM products and services?

IBM makes technology that helps people do their work better, faster, and more efficiently. As you know, the demographics of the workforce are changing dramatically; as of 2015, millennials make up more than half of the workforce. The expectations of this younger, more digitally-oriented worker for the technology they use at work is that it will be as delightful and user-friendly as the technology they use in the rest of their life. That is why it is important for us to understand our “users” as people, and to design experiences for them that they love. When we do this, our businesses thrive and our company is more successful.

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Can you give me a specific example of a product or app that was developed recently by the design studio and why it works so well?

The best example of this is IBM Bluemix, our Cloud-based app development platform which was one of the first products to be born and launched out of IBM Design. The user for Bluemix is an app developer working in an organization of virtually any size (could be a three-person start up, or a global enterprise) who needs a robust development platform to meet her needs for connectivity, security, and expandability. This developer can now discover Bluemix, have an experience with it, purchase an individual license to it, and begin using it. This business model is radically different than the traditional one for IBM in which the company buys a “system” regardless of whether it is the right fit for that individual developer.

Bluemix is one of our most successful new products and is driving much of our growth. Now many of the other IBM businesses are trying to emulate the “user first” business model of Bluemix.

IBM is now competing against other big companies to hire and recruit great designers. Why would someone go to IBM over a company like Apple, which has embraced design since the beginning?

We’re finding that our designers are energized by being a part of building a design program at a scale that has never been done before. Plus we are in the very early stages of a long journey, which means designers who join us now have a disproportionate influence on the future of the program.

Another real draw for our designers is that the scale of our global program allows designers to move around to different teams and different businesses without leaving the company. This is something no other company can offer and it makes our program a great fit for young designers who often have the desire to have many different challenges as designers, especially early in their career.

Finally, the three-month bootcamp that I referenced earlier is a big deal for newly-hired designers. This is important for two reasons: First, it sends them a powerful signal that IBM values them and is investing in them. Second, the education they receive in this bootcamp is as valuable and enriching as they will receive anywhere else.

Recruiting and hiring is important, but retention is a major priority for us, and we are really pleased that our retention rates exceed our expectations. This tells us that we are doing something right and creating an environment where designers can grow and thrive and advance their career.

How have things improved/changed since this design education initiative began three years ago? Is there a significant difference in culture/products, etc?

In three years we’ve brought nearly 1,000 new designers into IBM and empowered them as leaders of this design movement. We’ve also given more than 10,000 IBM non-designers here an experience with design thinking. Through this combination, we are starting to see our teams truly adopting this new collaborative way of working that is driven by the fundamentals of design: divergent thinking, visualization, and a focus on people. This comment comes from a long-time IBM technical leader who recently attended one of our design thinking workshops:

I’ve never had an experience at IBM like this before—and I’ve been here a long time. I’m more excited to get back to work next week than I have been since I started working with IBM [more than 20 years ago].

This is the type of feedback we receive all the time from the people who attend our workshops. While it doesn’t tell the whole story, it’s a pretty cool validation of the impact we’re having.

What is the biggest challenge for IBM moving forward?

Quite honestly, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in the company around the demand for design, designers, and design thinking. Whereas three years ago when we first launched the program, we had to twist a lot of arms in order to generate interest and make our case. Now, the demand is more than we can meet. So scaling and growing our program is the big challenge now.

This is an exciting problem to have! For generations, designers have been trying to “get a seat at the table” with the leaders of big business; to try to get them to believe in the value of design and to invest in it.

At IBM, we are sitting at the table—now we just have to prove that we belong there.


July 15, 2016

A Special Thanks To

Douglas Powell