Design Thinking Is Taking Hold At IBM

If Design Thinking succeeds at IBM, a company that for decades has typified how Big Business in the United States works, large numbers of companies will likely follow suit. Is your organization one of them?

Jim Nash, Contributor

January 7, 2016

5 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: amisb/iStockphoto)</p>

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Your company's ability to maximize the potential of information systems might depend as much on emotional perception and responses as it does on quantitative analyses of business needs. This could be a hard pill for some CIOs and IT leaders to swallow.

Like other occupants of executive row, a CIO typically does not understand (and often does not trust) anyone who talks about business in terms of empathy. Your on-the-job kit of emotions often amounts to fear of failure and the need to crush competitors.

But a rising discipline, Design Thinking, calls for a corporate culture focused on the one reason that corporations are supposed to exist at all: to satisfy the customer. It reverses the conventional process of planning a product before finding a market need.

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A big piece of the discipline is something called the journey map. Business consultant and avowed "design thinker" Joyce Hostyn writes: "Journey maps promote emotional contact with insight, distilling research into a concise, visually compelling story of the customer's experience."

That sentence is unlikely to appear in most annual reports. Yet, none other than IBM has accepted Design Thinking as a strategic, company-wide internal tool and a value-added service for customers. The goal is to use the discipline to reignite IBM sales growth.

In June 2015, the company opened a so-called IBM Studio in the Netherlands, the latest of at least 26 IBM centers around the world for Design Thinking. It has been widely reported that IBM would have hired 1,100 designers as part of this initiative by the end of 2015.

Adam Cutler, program director of IBM's Design Studio, told InformationWeek that Design Thinking differs from management fads like matrix management, management by wandering around, one-minute management, and 360-degree feedback.

"Design Thinking is about the fabric of how we do things," Cutler said. "It is not about remembering steps" in a one-size-fits-all approach to increasing innovation or sales. It's a philosophy and a culture of starting product or service development from the customer's point of view.

To succeed here, according to tech-market analysis firm Forrester Research, means "encouraging a more open, collaborative approach to innovation" in every corner of a company.

The Harvard Business Review has examined the Design Thinking concept and found it promising. According to HBR, Design Thinking requires "empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and a tolerance for failure."

Design Thinking encompasses any business decision or process related to products, services, marketing goals, capital expenditure plans, and even hiring.

Chad Coleman, CEO and founder of brand-consulting firm Ascend Agency, is a strong proponent of the idea. "Today's reality is that more transactions occur in one day than happened in one year in 1965," Coleman said. The "buy it because we built or updated it" mentality is obsolete.

IBM's adoption of Design Thinking is important for the company's sheer market heft, but there is another reason, said Coleman. "IBM exists in the gap between the reality of a situation ('We've always succeeded this way.') and what could be," he said.

"Design Thinkers say, 'Sure, that's great, but I have a vision," Coleman said. "Most people fear [a vision] because there's risk involved." He said that if Design Thinking succeeds at IBM, a company that for decades has typified how big business in the US works, large numbers of companies will likely follow suit.

Indeed, IBM's Cutler said the company gives tours of its studio in Austin three times a week.

Pushback still happens among employees and customers, of course. "Anytime something smells like a new process," Cutler admitted, some people are going to get defensive. More than once, he said, he has heard customers of IBM's services say, "'We already do agile management,' and we point out that [the two] are not mutually exclusive."

Other big tech names are buying in, too. Last month eBay hired John Maeda, a well-known graphic designer, computer scientist, and former president of the Rhode Island School of Design. Maeda will lead eBay's new Design Advisory Board, reporting directly to eBay CEO John Donahoe.

The company issued a statement saying that Maeda will be "instrumental in helping us evolve our design-thinking capabilities to deliver differentiated commerce products and experiences."

Maeda has also taken a post as design partner at legendary venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in addition to the eBay job.

In the spring of 2015 Maeda posted an essay at calling for an end to performance-worship. Infinitely fast computers, for example, cannot beat systems in the market that are designed for specific market needs and desires.

In the post, Maeda cited three significant developments in Design Thinking over the last five years.

  • Google, Facebook, Adobe, and others have acquired 14 design agencies and almost 30 firms cofounded by designers.

  • Five startups in the US that were cofounded by designers have raised $2.75 billion.

  • Since mid-2014, six venture firms have recruited their first designers.

Probably the purest example of Design Thinking is Apple, which from its inception has placed a premium on unique software, hardware, service, and sales design.

Competitors have focused on winning marketshare with pricing strategies, while Apple has amassed heretofore unimaginable profits in part by "delighting" markets, in the words of Steve Jobs. Pricing is subordinate to product, service and other designs at Apple.

Will Design Thinking inoculate its adherents against the existential threat posed by a snot-nosed kid with a good idea and no organizational rigor mortis?

Probably not, but Coleman says Design Thinking's logical result is "the best tool we have for creating empathetic interactions and developing responsive flexible organizational culture."

Sounds like a good plan for staying ahead of competitors, snot-nosed and otherwise.

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About the Author(s)

Jim Nash


Jim Nash writes business and science articles, and also shoots urban and nature photographs. He's still searching for a common language to use with his Mensa-smart teenage daughters.

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