How IBM changed their culture from the ground up

This fourth post in the series explores how causes a change in culture from the ground up in large organisations. Read more about Thinking in the first part here, the second here or the third here.

The cultural impact Design Thinking has had on large organisations is one of scale. Since Design Thinking has been embedded within large organisations as a problem-solving mindset for its individuals and teams, there has been a consistent struggle of balance deriving from understanding its fundamental principles to its practical uses. This source of this unbalance is often because of those who disagree with the culture of work Design Thinking brings, they realise that in order to be able to keep up with the demands of modern enterprise something needs to change but do not believe creative processes are the right answer.

The struggle for this balance has left a lot of large organisations wasting resources on Design Thinking when it has failed to be adopted, perhaps due to the methods own limitations of communication. However, the biggest driver behind this culture is user centricity which some organisations use to influence their work culture, but others fully embrace it as a cultural shift across their organisations to get one step closer to user-centric innovation.

Step in, IBM

IBM has one of the most successful stories of how a large organisation managed to embed and scale a Design Thinking culture within their organisation.

Famously, IBM manufacture and market computer hardware and software, they became leaders in the 20thcentury as the first organisation to run a corporate design program at a time when their portfolio of designers grew and championed many of the values that are present in our modern interpretation of Design Thinking today. However, much like the challenges many other large organisations have faced IBM needed to make a change in order to stay relevant and in line with the needs of their customers.

“We’re living in a continuous delivery world now. Our users and our clients, they’re not going to sit around and wait for IBM to release a new product or service 6 months down the line — they’ve got needs right now. We must be responsive to that. We have to build an operation here that meets that need. If we don’t, we’re irrelevant.” — Doug Powell

Powell’s quote contains elements that call for principles of a Design Thinking approach such as speed and flexibility but also contains caution not to commit to the approach perhaps due to the size and complexity it took IBM to introduce Design Thinking as a new and successful culture.

This quote from Powell encapsulates what IBM recognised as a whole, that their users could not and would not wait for 6-months for each update or product, they needed to be faster in order to stay relevant. Design Thinking was used throughout IBM but due to the scale of the tasks and the limitations of Design Thinking that have already been discussed in this paper, it failed because as a mindset it was not accessible across the organisation.

The Loop

Throughout different iterations of the IBM Design Thinking approach,the organisation looked to evangelise the outcomes deriving from embracing a Design Thinking mindset rather than the mindset itself, as it was recognised that business simply did not care about design or Design Thinking but only tangible results.

The emphasis of Design Thinking was placed on the “Non-designers’ in order for them to buy into its values and champion them individually or in teams. The way in which individuals or teams understood Design Thinking was also challenged, by avoiding phrases or visuals that meant you had to fully understand the user the model became flexible and more like a constant learning approach.

The Loop is IBM’s iteration and evolution on the traditional approach of Design Thinking. It has been changed to be the Design Thinking “that anyone can pick up” within the organisation. The principles of The Loop are based on three core areas: a focus on user outcomes; enabling the building of multidisciplinary teams; and “ ”, or the idea that “everything is a prototype” and therefore disposable. By building on a Design Thinking approach that had already been established in the industry, for their own use in their unique situation makes The Loop and evolution of Design Thinking.

The Loop works for individuals and teams by moving through a constant cycle of observation, reflection and making followed by further reflection and then observing the results again. By moving through this constant cycle approach teams are able to immerse themselves in the real world and get closer to their users. This is then followed by them being able to reflect on what they have learnt and translate insights into opportunities before making a solution.

The key in the cycle is that this solution is reflected upon and shown to the user, so the loop can start again. What the Loop addresses, where Design Thinking lacks, is that knowing a user or group of users is a learning process. It does not matter if you do not fully understand the user before moving on but if you keep going through the loop this understanding is able to grow along with the solution.

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