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Most executives see design as a ‘nice to have.’ Others are using it to drive revenue.

May 24, 2022, 5:40 PM UTC

It may be surprising to hear, but even long-established companies like IBM and JP Morgan have design executives making an impact across their respective companies. Janaki Kumar is the head of design for the commercial bank at JPMorgan Chase, and Billy Seabrook is the global chief design officer at IBM iX, the company’s digital design consulting arm.

At a panel at the Fortune Brainstorm Design conference on Monday, those two leaders were joined by Melissa Lemberg, global services leader, experience design at Salesforce, to discuss their biggest design-thinking wins. Seabrook identified the characteristics of a leading design-oriented organization, which represents one-third of those recently surveyed by IBM.

“We discovered a cohort that really embraces design across the entire organization, both for how the company operates and how they go to market,” Seabrook said, adding that those companies saw over 50% higher revenue growth in the first half of 2021. IBM dubbed those companies the “Design Vanguard” and saw they were united in three ways: emphasis on user research, investments in workplace tech, and developing new solutions at scale. 

Despite this connection to financial success, many executives still see design as a craft that is specific to one domain, IBM’s research says. In fact, 61% of executives surveyed said design talent was a “nice to have” as opposed to a necessity.

However, as business leaders reconsider their strategies around talent, social responsibility, sustainability, and diversity, these multifaceted challenges require more sophisticated approaches than ever before. Many are finding design thinking has enabled solutions for any business function to these problems, whether it’s adoption of a new app, decisions around hybrid work, or choosing a new suite of employee benefits, especially during times of great change.

Kumar shared how JPMorgan Chase built out the capacity for design thinking from the top down. She joined the company in 2018 after over 17 years at SAP, most recently working as a VP within the technology giant’s design and innovation centers. “When I came in, they hired a few people like myself, [with] tech backgrounds and design backgrounds, so there was a receptivity within the organization, and it has really taken off.”

Kumar also explained how the financial services company is making good use of design thinking concepts. Even though the company has been very successful and employs an army of experts across all kinds of financial products, Kumar’s team helps those experts optimize the client experience.

“There are specialists who focus on different products, that may be a currency product or line of credit product, or a treasury services expert, and they know the ins and outs of it…our job was real human, trying to bring back the client front and center,” Kumar said, adding that now client-facing teams speak in the language of user research and customer personas. “I think that’s one big step towards humanizing the connection.”

Kumar also shared an example of how customer research helped them identify new ways to support a segment of commercial clients. Those clients said that loan administration, which JPMorgan Chase focused on in its service of these clients, represented just 5% of what it takes to be successful. 

“When we started to say that getting a loan is 5% [of success]…That was a big aha moment for the GM and the CEO, and that started to make some changes,” Kumar said.

Lemberg shared an example of an automobile company that was a Salesforce client but not pleased with the adoption thus far. Her team eventually found out the IT department did not speak with a single user before launching the CRM solution. “Someone told us to implement Salesforce, so we did it,” was the response of the IT team, Lemberg said. 

Lemberg also shared an example of an insurance company which used Salesforce to help client-facing teams address their customers’ most frequently-asked requests.

Ultimately, while user-experience research, technology investments, and agile methodologies are the foundational elements of leading design organizations, the panelists agreed that managing the change and communicating frequently and openly with employees is paramount. 

“This comes as a big trust building exercise,” Kumar said. “You’re actually there to help them, you’re there to help them with deep empathy…The tone that we use to communicate to users and stakeholders matters.”

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