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In Business, the ‘Frozen Middle’ Blocks Design Thinking. Here’s How to Fix It

IBM has more than 2,000 formally trained designers on its staff—potentially more than any other company in the world. But the multinational corporation still struggles to implement design thinking.

“We see a CEO advocating and buying in [to design], we see teams on the ground ready to go, but it’s that frozen middle that really needs work,” Doug Powell, IBM’s vice president of design, told the audience Wednesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore. “We have that condition at IBM too.”

The “frozen middle,” as Powell calls it, is the inertia that occurs when a corporation decides to overhaul its approach but fails to provide its mid-level staff with the tools necessary to carry out the change.

“The solution is partly getting designers into key leadership roles,” Powell said. “We’ve done a lot of work to elevate design leaders within our company so that they’re sitting at the table not only at the c-suite level but across [all levels] of the business.”

IBM has a central management team in charge of overseeing the company’s implementation of design thinking strategies, but the company’s 2,000 formally trained designers are spread throughout the corporation. IBM also incentivizes its management to deliver on design solutions by including consumer sentiment as an indicator in manager-level performance reviews.

However, Big Blue’s solutions might not work best for every company. Nathan Shedroff, the executive director of blockchain-based A.I. development platform Seed Vault, joined Powell on stage for Fortune’s discussion on integrating design into business. Shedroff highlighted five different innovation cultures that exist within industries.

The culture perhaps most effective at spurring innovation, Shedroff said, is one where the various units of an enterprise are highly interconnected and each team is supported by strong management. At the other end of the spectrum: companies that outsource their innovation to third parties.

“It’s important for any innovator to identify the culture that they’re in,” Shedroff said. “That’s what’s going to define what will work and what won’t.”

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.