Design is Here to Stay

Jason Davey

Under the glimmer of a fantastic Melbourne sunset, design in business was set to a new dawn. On Tuesday 24 January, 40 passionate people (designers, entrepreneurs, product managers and technologists) crammed themselves into the FromHereOn training room - eager to hear about how a corporate technology company was re-inventing itself.

    |   There is a design movement upon us - you should get involved.” Sudhindra V

Sudhindra V (Chief Design Officer of IBM - Bangalore) states very clearly that a design movement is currently underway in the global tech giant IBM… and it’s given birth to the ‘new’ IBM that contrasts to the ‘old’ IBM.

Creating the new:

We are currently living in an Experience Economy, rather than a products & services economy. Given this, IBM does not want to be left behind, so Ginni Rometty (the first woman to head IBM), took on the task of restructuring the company and hired Phil Gilbert - who formed the design practice under one umbrella.

    |   “IBM has finally found the user” - an audience member

IBM has embraced the culture of design and developed a partnership with Apple to help enhance the design thinking process. Engaging other supporting partners (like IDEO) was an important part of this process.

Sudhindra V at FromHereOn meetup

So what happened at IBM?

Even after becoming aware that another approach was needed to create the ‘new IBM’, the CEO needed to affirm the realisation about the impact of design in the next phase of the company.

The design team have been given the opportunity to feel empowered to be heard and to have the ability to share our design views. Sudhindra shared the overall approach - the IBM blueprint currently forming change within the organisation:

PEOPLE + PLACES + PRACTICES = OUTCOMES

Get the right people with the right attitude + provide them with the right tools in the best places + give them the right thing to work on will achieve the best possible outcomes.

IBM have experienced a lot of resistance, due to people not being told what to do from the outset - this brought a lot of fear and uncertainty about people futures. Smart people who see ‘why’ they were being involved in this new way of working, were able to contribute and collaborate efficiently. 

    |   “Our people have now experienced more freedom in their approach to solving problems”

The understanding from the CEO down, is that this process of ‘transformation’ will take some time, but it’s no different to the previous versions of IBM that have altered and re-invented over 100 years.

Sticky questions:

From the very passionate audience came a barrage of intense questions, where an understanding of design and its implementation was the key topic area.

    |   “How do you define design?”

Understanding people very deeply. Design is rooted in empathy. If it is not, then it’s not design. Whatever works is also design and you may not get it all the time - that’s why you need a process.

Semantics plays a big part of how people understand design - there are far too many words describing the practice of design and we should not worry about these descriptions - but understanding that design is not just a set of screens… it is about an understanding of people and their needs.

Who is spending the money on technology in organisations today? It isn’t the IT department any longer - it’s the marketing department, and there’s been a trend over the past few years of the blind-leading-the-blind. The recent realisation is that design is the process of creating and supporting that knowledge gap and building understanding, by uncovering the important ‘unknowns’.

    |   “How do we keep doing our BAU (Business As Usual) while we change?”

How do we manage this disruption and keep our business going?

It’s like repairing a car while it’s moving - it’s hard. The leadership support helps but only to some extent. The right people tend to understand this problem naturally. Attracting the right people in the mix of the business is important to help solve process business orientation, where there are a lot of unknowns.

The places:

Sudhindra shared with the group that part of the plan at IBM was to create spaces where Design Thinking could be structured as part of the ideal state practice.

The ‘studios’ strategy involved setting up 24 locations, where attracting young fresh design talent from universities and colleges was the focus to build a ‘people’ capability.

The location aspect of the new design-led culture, enables perpetual change as needed. The studios constantly work under the need to adapt to providing the flexible environments necessary for people to facilitate cultural change.

The practices:

Only when you empower the right people in the right locations, can you have a great design practice.

IBM Design Thinking is that practice - where the focus on outcomes is the most important aspect of how the process works. What is different? (For the full story, checkout IBM Design)

IBM Design Thinking practice core components

IBM Design Thinking practice has 3 core principles in it’s direction:

  1. A focus on user outcomes
  2. Multidisciplinary teams
  3. Restless reinvention - doing a better job than before (actioned in The Loop)
3 core Design Thinking principles

The Loop: is structured on three core tenants:

  1. Observe - understanding from watching & listening
  2. Reflect - synthesis and insights
  3. Make - If you can’t produce a prototype, then you’re not done with Design Thinking around the problem
3 core Design Thinking tenants

The Keys: are a framing for how to apply the Design Thinking tenants:

  1. Hills - a signpost concept of what the outcome is to be - the goal. It translates into epics & stories for the Agile processes
  2. Playbacks - understanding & aligning the team, stakeholders, clients. It happens in the nature of sharing.
  3. Sponsor users - the ‘actual’ user base of our clients
Design Thinking Keys

And then the penny dropped… well at least for one audience member...

    |   “What you’ve done there is created a cultural hack for solution providers!”

When you gather a number of forward-clever thinkers in one room, you tend to see the dots connecting - often visualised by the analogy of light bulbs flashing on above people's heads. Even with an overview slide with three shapes and labels, the construct of the IBM Design Thinking approach became apparent.

Yet, Sudhindra is realistic...

    |   “We still haven’t reached utopia.”

Key challenges:

IBM is a large company. Propagating a ‘design thinking mindset’ amongst lots of people takes time. With this recognised, the ability to achieve scale in a ‘reasonable’ timeframe meant that the language of design had to be articulated in a way that everyone could understand easily and share with others with little guidance or support.

The four most important observations from Sudhindra are as follows:

  1. Legacy processes and thinking
  2. Design thinking as a sales tool
  3. Design practitioners treated as Tech practitioners
  4. Design culture needs a Design mindset

Sudhindra claims the majority of different departments of the 380,000+ employees still operate under the ‘old’ way, but he is strongly optimistic that the design-led change will trickle through the multi-cultural, multi-company structure that will become ‘one IBM’, in the not too distant future.


At FromHereOn, we’ve experienced similar issues when assisting organisations in their transformation journey. From a Design perspective, we consider these types of challenges as ‘constraints’. Good Design outcomes are born from people's ability to solve problems within constraints - as well as knowing how best to navigate to the next step. Sometimes the best solutions are derived from utilising the Design Thinking process, because it broadens ideas generation and simplifies decision making. 

Find out what’s possible and how the game is changing >

For reference:

If you’d like to know more about the IBM Design Thinking Story, you can checkout the following links:

For those of you who attended the first Design Thinking and Business Innovation meetup for 2017, please feel free to leave some feedback in this survey. This will help us provide an even more awesome experience for you next time. As a bonus, we’ve also provided a highlights video of the event. We look forward to presenting the next meetup session soon.

Big thanks to The Sponsors of this meetup

Meetup Sponsors

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