Design Thinking in Your [Big or Small] Company Is Possible

You’ve heard it all before. Consumers today are demanding higher quality experiences at a rate faster than we have seen before. It almost feels that there is a sense of panic in some ways happening out in the world around this idea. Companies that are “behind the ball” in their consumer effort/experience areas are looking to their designers to accelerate “being a consumer-centric company”. But, do businesses know what that really means? And, for those who are really interested but don’t know how to initiate such a shift—does it matter how much they know? Maybe it’s enough to have the appetite to reframe mindsets of both the business and designers, and then slowly chip away at creating an environment where the consumer truly becomes the center of what they do.

I’ve been reading a lot about companies that have been able to introduce design thinking into their practices and the same themes are seeming to bubble to the top. IBM has become one of the most well-known design transformation companies over the last decade. They’ve had some pretty serious traction in their efforts and have been viewed as being “legendary”.

Arin Bhowmick who is the VP and CDO over at IBM has said, “design thinking transformation is a journey. It’s not a flip of a switch. You need to build up credibility and the investment follows.”

Case Study: IBM

A bit of background on IBM: They have over 370K employees that are scattered all over the world, they are a company that’s over 100 years old with a long history of innovation but somewhere along the way in the 90s after a couple of the major players in creating the design program passed away, design really kind of fell by the wayside.

Then, in 2007 after Phil Gilbert was hired as the GM of design, he started chipping away at building the program back up. His team has been able to start changing the conversation to using design to solve problems and achieve great outcomes.

So, how did they do this? What they knew was that the business didn’t care about design thinking or the practice of it. They care about market outcomes. Their approach was to evangelize on the outcomes delivered to the market that were a result of the practices.

Another major thing they did was they collaborated with stakeholders and customers in co-creation sessions. When they got people like distinguished engineers for example involved in their process, they got excited and then spread the excitement. They saw people realizing “hey, this actually makes doing our job even better!”

They applied problems that were specific to the business. When they were able to show that their designers were tapped into the metrics and the needs of the business as well, they showed that they were strategic, and able to predict issues and come up with solution sets—and this got their executives not only listening, but buying in.

Another notable thing that they did was to create their own mental model of a process that worked specifically for IBM. Traditionally we’ve all seen the 5-step process where there is “empathize” “ideate” “prototype” etc, that wasn’t necessarily jiving with their teams, so they developed their own process which is called The Loop and they have created their own field guide to share with stakeholders. If you haven’t already checked out this amazing documentary that InVision put together on IBM’s transformation you can check it out here: IBM Design Documentary


Case Study: Cisco

Cisco is another company that really focused on grass roots efforts to get their design transformation up and running. They refer to their transformation as a “middle-out” effort.

Matt Cutler, who was previously the Design Thinking Transformation Lead at Cisco says, “Make it easy for those who are interested to change, to become a part of what we do. When the humans change, the behaviors result and the outcomes flow from them.”

To give a bit of background on Cisco, they are a 34-year old company, have over 70,000 employees all over the world, they are known to acquire a lot of companies, and they have a non-centralized design team.

So, how did they do this? They “built a coalition of the willing” and they did this with employees from different teams (within brand, service, sales etc). There wasn’t a top down initiative in Cisco’s case. Their approach was to bring people in who were interested to make the case that introducing design thinking within their process created great results. Within their coalition, they led design thinking exercises to educate and increase awareness. From there, they tracked results and gathered great case studies.

So, knowing all of this, how can one make small changes in their teams, or companies without do any major heavy lifting? Some key behaviors of successful companies keep emerging and they are smart approaches that I believe anyone can start thinking about and acting on today.

Reframe mindsets:

  • Shift the designer’s mindset to the design of business. We as designers we have a responsibility to service towards the business. Know the metrics that foster the growth of the business.

  • “MacGyver” the system. Work with what you’ve got and hack the system. Start small, avoid silos by teams or departments and identify how you will measure success.

  • Ease up on design lingo. The business doesn’t care about design thinking and/or the processes, so if you speak in plain language and bring people in on their levels we’ll have a better chance of keeping them engaged.

Build a coalition:

  • Consider focusing on non-designers. Build a stakeholder group that includes people outside of design. Get people excited so that they can share the excitement.

  • Avoid silos. To piggyback off the point above, bring in people from outside of your team for example, in engineering, sales and product, so that we can start to bring the different parts of the organization together to collaboratively solve big problems.

  • Compile great case studies. From these communities, track and measure to show tangible results.

Truly collaborate:

  • Host co-creation sessions with customers and stakeholders. Get your teams working directly with the customer to get more intentional outcomes. You’ll get people starting to realize that the insights gathered from these sessions start to direct the products and experiences in smarter ways.

  • Identify business problems that highlight an areas of specific business value. Help lower the resistance of executives by providing support for solving big problems.

  • Create your own process. Find what works for your company and customize the design processes and tools that resonate with the environment.


Shh! Don’t Tell Them There’s No Magic In Design Thinking

Lessons from design leaders: elevating design

THE LOOP: IBM Design Documentary