How Innovating On Design Thinking Itself Drives IBM’s Transformation Journey

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IBM’s pivot to a cloud-first strategy has been an enormous transformation. And according to Karel Vredenburg, it wouldn’t have been possible without embedding design thinking into the company culture – and making it uniquely their own.

As Director, IBM Design and the head of IBM Studios Canada, Karel has taught IBM Design Thinking to hundreds of companies around the world. I sat down with him to find out how IBM Design Thinking is different, and how it keeps IBM responsive and relevant.

What is the most exciting thing you’re working on at the moment?

Right now, we’re bringing all parts of the company together on how we approach and engage with clients. It’s a leg of our new transformation program, which started about 4 and a half years ago – I call it ‘putting design thinking on steroids’.

We started by introducing a whole new approach to building a culture of design thinking across all of IBM, first with our product divisions and then with our business and technology services and sales teams. They all orchestrate together to leverage our version of design thinking – we call it IBM Design Thinking.

So what is IBM design thinking?

The fundamentals are the same: empathy for users, developing ideas collaboratively. The major differentiator is a focus on how this is embedded in a company. All of the relevant disciplines know what their unique contribution is, and we lock that in and align that with the executive organization as well. Design doesn’t lead it; in fact, we get management to lead, so a vice president or a general manager has an active role to play.

We’re constantly looking at core elements, like aligning the team on what their overall objectives are, something we call “Hills”. We focus on making sure everybody is collaborating and iterating quickly, and understands that’s expected, and we interlock that through what we call “Playback” reviews with all stakeholders. We also interlock with our agile methods as well.

This transformation, was it a bumpy ride?

It involved about 380 thousand employees, so it’s been a fair challenge. But whenever we figured out what we needed to fix, we had the leeway to make those changes.

You’d think that a company as large as IBM would have to be slow – well no, you don’t have to. We look at things like: How are things proceeding? What have we learned in the last little while? What things have worked? What things have failed? And the things that have worked, we can amplify them; the things that weren’t working, we can go and fix. We’re given air cover, if you will, by our CEO and our board, to really do what’s necessary.

So are you now transformed as a company, or is it an ongoing process?

IBM has been around for 104 years, so it’s had to change pretty dramatically several times in its history. Is that transformation completely done? Well no – but we’ve been able to move through it much faster. I see it in our interactions with clients; the difference between what we would have done in the past, compared to the way that we show up now, is huge. It’s us now understanding what they want rather than trying to sell them something, for example. We’ve also formalized the education inside IBM using these methods, so we can measure how we’re transforming. It’s definitely still ongoing.

What is the next phase of the IBM transformation?

We’re innovating all the time on the practices themselves. We’re also trying to discern the essence of this approach: which things are the most powerful, and what are some of the holes still in it? Everybody practices the fundamentals largely the same, but there are areas where I think we’re somewhat complacent as an industry. We shouldn’t assume that everything Stanford’s d.school does is the be-all and end-all. We’ve already innovated a bunch on some of that, but I think there’s lots more to do.

What advice do you have for other large companies on a transformation journey?

In terms of corporate labs and incubators, you need to think about the organizational and physical structure of your company. You can’t just outsource innovation by buying space in an incubator, for example. You need to think through how to inject this stuff throughout the organization. We don’t have a separate team that does all the innovation; we build it in. But yet, there are amplifiers in the system, labs and studios, to generate more of those ideas. It’s not as simple as just adding up separate items – we’ve got some designers, we’ve got a lab – you’ve got to think through those.

There’s been a few articles claiming that design thinking is a fad – what are your thoughts on that?

Our designers are more empowered to practice their craft when the rest of the company is using design thinking. I believe in the t-shaped person, and I think the horizontal stroke of the t for every discipline, including design, needs to be knowing and doing design thinking.

That said, I think a lot of people get the practice of design thinking wrong; like, equating it with doing a workshop or using Post-it notes. It’s mostly a state of mind, it’s the approach you take to something.

And that comes back to really embedding this into the culture. You can’t delegate this out – it doesn’t work that way, in my experience.

Learn how Karel and the IBM Design organization helped IBM pivot into a design-led intrapreneurial enterprise at #INTRACNF Toronto this November. Grab your ticket and secure your spot here.

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