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The innovative engine of IBM’s design philosophy

September 7, 2021, 3:37 PM UTC

When IBM acquired Austin-based business processing software company Lombardi Software in 2010, Phil Gilbert, then Lombardi CEO, stayed on and was tasked with doing at IBM whatever it was he did at his former company to make customers love their product. Turns out, that thing was a working design practice. But it wasn’t so much the practice itself that tipped the scales, but the way Gilbert and his team spread it across every facet of the organization from product development, to sales to finance and on and on. One year in at IBM, things were going so well that Gilbert was asked to integrate his process not just in his own little Lombardi silo, but throughout IBM. “What we did there was we primarily brought in a new skill set – designers – and we educated the non-designers about the role of designers in the product development process,” says Gilbert. “We integrated designers into the team in a fundamental way. Design and design thinking are not things; cultural transformation doesn’t happen until you put it into practice.”

IBM has continued to grow and with Arvind Krishna, who became CEO last year, at the helm, the company is leaning into a focus on hybrid cloud and A.I. Gilb ert’s design team has played a major role in exploring innovative areas of A.I., quantum computing, and industry-specific cloud solutions to customers in 175 countries. In addition, by the end of 2021, IBM will spin off Kyndryl, an independent business to house IBM’s managed infrastructure service arm to design, manage, and run technology infrastructure for its clients.

With this new chapter underway and a decade in on the process he started, Gilbert is stepping away. In July, he hired Katrina Alcorn to take his place as design director at IBM. “The original mission I had for the program was to establish a sustainable culture of design and design thinking at IBM,” he says. “The hard part is that one word ‘sustainable.’ That is what I lost sleep over. At the end of the day, there is no way to test for sustainability until the senior leadership changes…We are winning awards. We are doing everything with a human-centered lens. The culture no longer needs to be established. It’s here. We have this incredible platform and it’s time for some fresh perspective.”

We caught up with Gilbert and Alcorn, discussing the design legacy Gilbert started there as well as what Alcorn has in mind for IBM’s future and the mark she hopes to make in her new role. 

Fortune: When did you hire your first designer at IBM?

PG: We spent 2012 designing the program and started hiring our first cohort of designers. We started with about 60, and put 20 experienced people around them. We had roughly 100 in 2013. Now we have 3,000 designers at IBM. And, we have people certified in design thinking and implementing it into everything we do.

How did that initial transformation work on the granular level?

PG: It kind of goes back to our philosophy. When the first group of designers showed up, we allocated them into seven teams. We put them in design camp. We said, “Here are your new designers, let’s start working on your product together.” We didn’t teach people about design. We just started using it. We infiltrated teams that were building products and added full time people to interact with every aspect of the way the product functions, even all of the really gorpy details of integrating a product.

Was there pushback?

PG: There was skepticism at first, but once people saw the benefits they all got on board. We really focused on the real details and the face-to-face stuff. I can count on one hand the number of people that left as skeptics. People can get things in their heads but until it’s in their hearts they don’t actually change. We had to make sure people’s hearts – their guts – were changed by having new types of people on their teams. That only happens through experience. You can’t teach that.

How would you characterize the way IBM leans on design and design thinking?

PG: The use of design as a strategic lever. The term in the tech world is ‘shift left.’ We are trying to shift all of these skills earlier in the process. We aim for more collaborative processes up front to get better outcomes sooner. We are using design in all parts of the company: performance evaluation, HR, the employee experience, in our finance organization, data.

KA: A lot of people think design is about how things look. We are describing the big D design. It’s about solving intangible problems: methods and tools to understand human needs and using technology to solve them. You can apply that to every aspect of the business, every product, every program. For instance, Phil talks about the Austin office. The thought that went into how the office is structured and how people work and the way the space is laid out to encourage collaboration. That philosophy was there from the beginning. It’s a different paradigm and it is how we work.

Is there a formalized list of design principles at IBM?

PG: They are fairly abstract. Users are our north star. Restless reinvention. Diverse, empowered teams. We think diversity needs to exist as an input in all its forms. Those are the foundational principles, then we ladder up to more concrete and specific principles in each case.

When did you meet Katrina?

PG: I talked to dozens of people. In February, we met. From the first conversation, our value systems were aligned. So many see design as the end goal. The way she sees design, the end goal is for businesses to win and grow and thrive. Design plays a role in that, but it isn’t the end game. Katrina was one of the first design leaders outside of IBM I met who thinks this way. We spent several months recruiting her and August 1, she took over. We meet regularly, but this is her show now.

Katrina, how is this role different from others you’ve had?

KA: I’ve been practicing design for 20 years. We were always starting from scratch. This is the first time I’m walking into a situation where Phil and team did it. My job is to take this amazing practice and talent, and figure out how we make sure design really is solving problems for people – our customers and the company. I’m looking at things like how are we using research? Design can’t be effective without a solid research practice. How are we looking at our customers? Where is design in the process? We have designers and design executives in every part of the company. Are we getting involved early enough in the projects to shape product strategy? We are designing things but are we designing the right things? There is a lot of exploration for me. I’m mining for opportunities.

How is design playing into the changes and transformations ahead with the onset of A.I. and cloud-based products at IBM?

PG: This transforms IBM itself from becoming predominantly services to predominantly products. Our relationship channels are more important than ever before. We are now using design more and more to transform the business. Forget the cultural transformation, this is that product design experience. As we really understand the use cases around hybrid cloud, design is now much more strategic than it ever was. It’s helping to inform our strategy as a business more than ever.

What’s the key to scaling big change within an organization as sprawling as IBM? How much is intangible? Physical?

PG: You have to have a formula if you’re going to scale. People plus practices, plus places, equals outcomes. If you want to change outcomes, you have to change something about each of those things. Places have been a first order citizen since day one. We spent a lot of time and effort designing the studio and that became the blueprint in every aspect of IBM. The fundamental design language; our finance team now views all of the people they serve as their users. They apply human-centered design to everything they do. Ultimately, if you really have this cultural approach, every single functional pillar and part of your business has to adopt this mentality. Your salespeople have to have an empathetic approach to selling. Your marketing people. Everyone has to do it.

How can it backfire?

KA: There is this perception that design and research will slow things down. That’s pervasive. I came from Silicon Valley and Phil did pave the way for that change. Hearts and minds have been won. Design can make us more effective and help us solve problems in a more successful way. IBM is a big company and there is still work to do there, but how do we make this better? How do we take this established practice and make sure it’s being used as it should be used?

PG:  We started with the green grass. We paved the dirt paths and now you need to pave it, Katrina. You know where the people want to walk now.

Katrina, how are you framing the work you’ve got ahead?

KA: This has to be about meeting people where they are. I’m spending a lot of time right now making my way through the company talking to all of the key stakeholders in my world. Where is the opportunity for design? Are we meeting them where they need to be met? There is something magical always when you have this touchstone about customers. Different agendas and different ways of working can dissolve when everyone looks up and says, “Oh this is who we are designing for,” and “This is what we are all doing.” There are ways to take those ideas and scale them. I don’t want to come in like a bulldozer and say, “This is how we’re going to do this.”

Is there a particular area you’re most interested in exploring?

KA: I’m very interested in how we leverage customer research. We do a lot of customer research. I’ve heard of great examples where we are co-creating with customers and bringing them into a lab and working through thorny issues to make sure a product works the way we need it to work. At IBM we have amazing design research teams who are constantly surfacing insights about our customers, and helping to make our products more intuitive and delightful to use. The next step is to scale this so that these insights are informing all levels of decision-making at IBM. That’s when we have a truly design-driven company. 

Nicole Gull McElroy


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