Gerry: Hello, my name is Gerry Scullion and welcome to Bringing Design Closer, which is part of This is HCD. I’m a service design practitioner and trainer based in Dublin City, Ireland. Today in the show, we caught up with Doug Powell who’s an award-winning designer with more than 30 years’ experience in a wide range of design disciplines and is currently the vice president of design at IBM in Austin, Texas. We speak in great detail around what IBM looked like around Doug’s arrival, and what things that they did over the last six years to enable design centricity to occur inside Big Blue.
We go into the ROI of design to help us all better understand how they enable the conversation at the leadership level to hire 1,500 designers across the organisation and the globe. Doug speaks about the incredible leadership team that really champion design centricity at IBM. Something that we all know is one of, if not the most important pieces in enabling any transformations to occur. We cover off lots of other little areas in the conversation. I really enjoyed it, so let’s get straight to it.
Gerry: Doug Powell, a very warm welcome to the Bringing Design Closer Podcast.
Doug: Thank you, Gerry. Great to be here.
Gerry: Delighted to have you here. Doug, tell us, where are you coming from today?
Doug: I’m here in Austin, Texas, which is the home base of the global design program for IBM.
Gerry: The HQ. Let’s start off, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to be where you are today?
Doug: Well, I’ve been a practicing designer for more than 30 years now and I’ve been lucky enough to do many, many things as a designer. My roots are in graphic design, the early part of my career was I worked as a graphic designer. Studio owner. Business owner. Ran a small studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the U.S., where we’re originally from. Done a lot of teaching at the university level, and so very strong connections in the design education world.
I’ve worked with the U.S. design association known as AIGA, professional association for design here in the U.S., which is quite a big organisation, 25,000 members. Ended up serving as the national president of AIGA between 2011 and 2013. In 2013, as that gig was kind of winding down, I was looking for my next opportunity. Really, looking to turn the page in a pretty big way for myself and my career and my work. At that time, IBM was just beginning to build the team that would grow this new program. I was super intrigued by that idea and joined IBM in the spring of 2013.
Gerry: We’re going to chat a bit more about where IBM is at in that transformational journey. If you can remember the very first steps, you took into the organisation way back in June 2013. When you entered the business, what did you see?
Doug: Just a lot of challenges. It was a time for not only IBM but for many businesses in enterprise technology where there were just a lot of challenges, that the technology world was changing ridiculously fast at that time. Big global legacy companies like IBM are not built for rapid change. There was just a lot of concern around that, a lot of obviously many opinions about how the company should respond. Not a real open-arms to this newly arrived legion of designers that we were bringing in. You know, nobody at IBM was saying, do you know what need right now? We need a couple of thousand designers to come in and help us reinvent. We had to work with that. We had to work with a very, at best, an ambivalent reception. Certainly, sometimes, a really antagonistic one.
Gerry: Yes, so where were they at in terms of design maturity at that stage?
Doug: Almost zero. This was a company at the time of about 400,000 people. There were about 200 people at IBM who somewhere in their job title had the word design. They were scattered around the company. They had no connection to each other. There were no places where design was practiced, no studio spaces where designers could do their work. There was no common practice of design. There was really no career path for designers. Anyone that was actually a formally trained designer, you know, chances are, they were stuck in their career and didn’t have a lot of change for advancement as a designer along a distinct career path. It just wasn’t fertile ground for design to happen.
Gerry: When have you walked in and you saw, okay, this is like a graveyard, there’s not much going on here in terms of design maturity, especially? What has remained from then to now?
Doug: Well, the other thing, if we rewind to 2012/2013, our current chairman and CEO Jenny Rameti too her role at the very end of 2011. You trace all of the early arrival of the design program in 2012 and 2013 really back to Jenny. Jenny, having an ah-ha moment in there, somewhere in 2012, where she was like, “Hey, we’re behind the game here, user experience is the new differentiator and we aren’t built to create great user experiences in our current form. We’ve got to change that. B, there’s a real opportunity because all of our competitors are equally, if not more, behind the game. We’ve got a chance, IBM has a chance to really differentiate itself in the market, in the enterprise technology market.” She made a major investment in design, starting at that moment.
Gerry: Yes, she was the instigator, so to speak, of the entire movement. If you had to, say, you met somebody who’s listening to this, perhaps, and they were looking to transform their organisation, and they were in a position of power, like Jenny was at that stage, and they didn’t know how to go about it, what would you say to them?
Doug: Well, one of the important things that we did at that moment was to establish the mission for the program. The mission is to create a sustainable culture of design and design-thinking at IBM. It’s a very powerful mission I think, and it was one of the things that really drew me to the program here. If you would have said, hey, our mission is to hire a couple thousand of designers and get them to work on our apps and digital products. That would have been very interesting. When you think about that mission, it’s about changing the culture of a century-old company.
That’s a really cool idea, to have that as the thing that’s guiding us. That’s really ambitious and that’s really audacious and that’s something I can buy into as a designer, as a creative professional. I can really get behind that. What I would say to somebody just where we were six plus years ago is, pay attention to the mission that you’re setting for yourself and make sure that it is a big one. Bite off something that you probably can’t chew and be ambitious about it.
Gerry: Yes. If you had to look at the last six years in terms of, say, an experience map. Like, the first year, maybe you could just fill in the blanks for us, what do those six years look like?
Doug: Ups and downs. You know? Certainly, the first year, 12 to 18 months, was just a wild up and down rollercoaster.
Gerry: Which is unusual.
Doug: What we found was that when we could get IBMers, and the first part of our mission was really to contact and touch and get to know as many people in the company as we could. We would bring them into the studio here in Austin and we would give them an experience with design thinking, collaborating through that deeply connected experience of design thinking. We would get them in touch with our designers. That was a real rush. That was a really fun experience. Almost unanimously a positive one. When those IBMers would come in and they would have that experience, they were bought in. Then you get on a real high, you’re feeling great.
This is awesome, we’re making a difference here. Then those folks go back to their day-job and then we step back, and we look at the difference that we’ve actually made and, in that moment,, and we realise, that’s a drop in the bucket, this is a huge company and we’ve only touched whatever it was, 30/40/50 people. That’s not going to move the needle. Then you come to a crushing low. There was a lot of that. There was just a lot of it. It took a lot of resilience in those early days for sure because, as I said before, nobody was rolling out the red carpet for us.
Gerry: You started to train those people and you started to roll out a program of capability uplift, how long did that take? Is it still going? Where are you at in that journey?
Doug: It’s absolutely still going. It will probably always be ongoing.
Gerry: The Goldengate Bridge, the guy paints the Goldengate Bridge.
Doug: Right. A few things have happened, as I’ve described, in those early days, it was very hands-on. The transformation, the education of IBMers who are not formally trained as designers, to give them some experience with what design is all about, first of all, how they can use design thinking as a non-designer, to replicate some of the methods that designers use. Then how they can bring a focus on the user to their everyday work. We did that early on in a very hands-on way. Since then, we’ve found ways to scale that. We need it, in such a big company, we need to go from touching a couple of dozen people at a time, to touching hundreds and thousands of people with this transformative experience.
Gerry: Yes, I read somewhere, you use design badges and stuff, presumably, that education has been rolled out digitally?
Doug: Right. To be clear, that’s our design thinking educational platform. We’re very clear about the difference between design, which is practiced by formally trained designers, who have a deep craft and a deep training and design thinking, which is a collaborative method which can be practiced by designers and non-designers. In fact, requires non-designers to participate in it in order for it to be effective at all.
Gerry: See, you’ve got that culture and that capability. That culture is the design thinking and the capability is a different breed all together. Staying on that topic a little bit longer, training non-designers to become design thinkers and moving the design literacy of IBM, it’s obviously been a very good thing, but what have you seen around that being disempowering for designers, as regards non-designers becoming design-thinkers. It can be a difficult thing. How do you encourage non-designers to think and behave independently, while also maintaining some kind of design status quo?
Doug: Yes, we’re just very clear about what we’re talking about when we talk about design thinking. Before that non-designer, that IBMer from wherever they might be from and they’re across our business, before they have an experience with design thinking, or at the very beginning of that experience, we’re explaining, hey, we’re not training you to be a designer, there are many designers formally trained designers in this company who do a very specific and play a highly valued role. That’s not you.
But we can help you through design thinking to gleam some of the approaches that a designer will use, a focus on the user, divergent thinking, prototyping, iteration, all of these basic behaviours of design thinking. Those can be used and can benefit anyone. We want to draw that distinction there, with that non-designer, so that they aren’t leaving a design thinking training session thinking, “Hey, I don’t need a designer, I know how to do this now.” They certainly don’t.
Gerry: Yes, but that’s great. I’ve seen in other places where people have been trained in design thinking and then they go, “Well, actually, you know, we don’t need a UX person on the team because we’ve done our two-week design thinking course, and now we’re suddenly equal.” You’re like a peer.
Doug: Yes, I think it’s been quite the opposite here. I think our emphasis on design thinking has elevated the appreciation for and the need for the formally trained designers. Typically, a cross-disciplinary team will leave our design thinking training sessions and they’ll go back to their home team and their first reaction is, how do we get more designers on our team because we just had our eyes opened at how this can transform out business and we’ve got to get better at it.
Gerry: Yes, well, there are no problems with designers from what I can see. You’ve got 1,500 designers in your remit at the moment. You’re obviously looking to scale that again?
Doug: Well, at this point, the scaling is happening from the business, it’s the demand of the business. It’s not like I have a number or our leadership team here in the designer program office that we have some number of X thousands of designers that we need to reach. It’s really, at this point, up to the individual businesses across IBM, and there are now more than 20 fairly autonomous vertical businesses that are employing designers. That it’s their call. For the most part, the trend and the trajectory is that those individual businesses are saying, “We need more designers.”
Gerry: What are your thoughts on long-serving designers in large organisations, and how do you prevent them from becoming institutionalised and losing their cutting-edge and fresh perspectives?
Doug: That’s a good question. It will be interesting to observe that over time. I don’t think now six years into our program, I don’t think we’re at that point yet where we really have a lot of people, a lot of designers who are in that situation. I think there is a risk there. I guess one parallel to pay attention to is on the engineering side. A parallel for us, a parallel technical career path that we can observe. That’s certainly been established here at IBM for much longer than design has.
When we look at our engineer peers, you look at an engineer who’s been working in the same IBM business or in the same domain space, say, they’re in our cyber security business and they’ve been there for 20 years or more, is that a good thing or is that a bad thing for the business and for that person?
Gerry: What are your thoughts on that?
Doug: You can pro and con it. On one hand, they have outrageously deep domain expertise. On the other hand, yes, they get institutionalised and they lose their edge and everything. They’ve got tremendous blinders put up as a result of that. One of the great things that we see and that we try to enable for designers at IBM is the ability to move around the business fairly fluidly. In other words, a designer can be working, as I said, in our cyber security business for two or three or four years, can have a great experience there, develop a ton of domain expertise and do some great work.
Then feel like, “Hey, I’m ready for a change. I love IBM. I don’t want to leave the company, but I need a new challenge.” They can transfer to our cloud division or our hardware systems division and do something that’s very different, still within the same company. That’s one of the things that we’re trying to build when we scale our program is that sort of fluid career experience.
Gerry: What’s your biggest challenge at the moment?
Doug: I think our biggest challenge is evaluating the output of our scaled teams. Getting the level of craft to a world-class level across the board. We’ve certainly got some great examples of teams that are far ahead of the pack, doing amazing world-class work, but we’ve also got some teams that aren’t quite there yet. Whereas, the focus in the first three to five years was really getting to scale, getting to the right number and ratio of designers across the business. Now, we need to turn to getting those designers and those design teams to deliver the best possible experience they possibly can.
Gerry: I’ve got a question here from the Slack channel, from Brenda Lucina, who’s in Utrecht in the Netherlands. She says, “I’m curious about Doug’s opinion on the differences of implementing a design culture (and training people) comparing a comparing a company with engineering roots like IBM and a company more marketing driven like most of the consumer goods companies. I’ve seen this work for J&J, so it would be great to hear his point of view on that.”
Doug: Yes, we are an enterprise business to business company. That’s our explicit focus. We’re not a consumer company. I think that we’re in an era now where user experience has flooded the consumer businesses. There isn’t a consumer business out there that isn’t paying attention to user experience. Now, we’re in an era where design and user experience are being valued at a much higher level by enterprise companies, like IBM. How do we measure the value of our work? We’ve talked about this for decades in the business. It’s an impossible – there’s no single number. There’s no single measurement or metric.
I don’t think there ever will be because design never happens in isolation. It’s always in the context of countless other factors. What we are trying to do is micro measure as many things as we can, to string them together into – and create a narrative that includes multiple individual measurements, but when you step back and you take them as a whole, then they begin to give you clarity into the performance of that design team and the value that they’re bringing.
We’re looking at – think of things that we can measure. We can measure how many designers there are in your business. We can measure how many other disciplines. How many engineers there are? Then we have a ratio to play with there. We can begin to make some moves based on what we think the healthy ratio is to get to a higher performance.
Gerry: What is the ratio at the moment?
Doug: We’ve got a target ratio of one designer to eight coding developers. That’s a very blunt number. It’s sort of an average number for us. There are some IBM businesses that will have a lower developer number, some that will have a higher one. This is the starting point of a discussion that gets us into a range that we can begin discussing with our business leaders.
Gerry: Okay. We’re coming towards the end of the conversation. I’m going to tap into a little bit more of Doug Powell’s wisdom. That is what I’m calling this. What advice would you give to organisations globally who are starting out in this journey right now?
Doug: Well, as I said earlier, I would pay attention to that mission, I would start small. If you peel back the backstory of our program, we started with seven projects originally in 2013, that gave us a chance to see how they went, to get them staffed right, to work through a complete work cycle and release cycle with those projects, and then to evaluate them. We could never have done that had we tried to overscale right out of the gate. Starting small is important.
Gerry: That’s a good one. With those projects, were they intersecting, was there was clear delineation between the verticals?
Doug: For the most part, they were drawn from all over the business, so there was not a lot of intersection among them. We worked closely with the sponsoring executives on those projects, made sure that they were fully committed to what we were doing. A lot of conditions needed to be in place for us to actually select a project. That needs to be part of the process too, is to be very selective and very clear about what you’re choosing.
Gerry: All right. Where do you see patterns or design trends emerge over the next 12 to 18 months in terms of skills and industry and so forth?
Doug: I think we’re starting to get the first wave of design leaders who have grown up in the profession, who are rising to real legitimate positions of leadership in big complex companies and organisations. That’s exciting to me. Previously, and until now, we’ve been importing leaders, borrowing leaders from different disciplines or different backgrounds. Now, we’re actually seeing designers who’ve been in user experience organisations for ten/twelve/fifteen years who are now getting to a point in their career where they’re leading businesses, they’re really in an elevated level of influence in big companies. I think then we’re going to see more and more of that in the next five years.
Gerry: Yes, great. Doug, I always ask three questions to my guests, and you’re no different. I’m going to ask you the first question, what’s the one thing you wish you were able to banish from the industry? I love the laugh.
Doug: What is the one thing I – could we come back to that? Could we do that at the end?
Gerry: Okay, we’ll come back to it. I’ll ask you the second one. It might be a little bit easier. What’s the one professional skill you wish you were better at? Maybe not, actually, when I say it.
Doug: I wish I was… you know, I don’t come from a technical background and I’m working in a very technical company where your technical knowledge is valued and it’s part of the cred in our company. I don’t have a deep technical background, so I wish I was better at that.
Gerry: That could be your superpower, though, as well, couldn’t it?
Doug: Yes, that’s a generous way to turn it around. I certainly, yes, I certainly wish for a little bit more than I have.
Gerry: Well, the next time you’re asked about your technical knowledge, just go, “Well, Gerry said it was a superpower.” “Who’s Gerry?”
Doug: He’s got this podcast.
Gerry: All right, and the last one, and I’m going to go back to the first one, what is the advice that you give to emerging design talent for the future?
Doug: I advise them to have humility and to approach non-designers with a great deal of empathy and with the interest of building trust. It’s something. We’ve hired so many designers here, with whom this experience at IBM is their first job, their first real career job. They need to go to work with an engineer who’s been working in the company for 25 years, who knows everything about everything. How do you do that? We really work closely with those young designers to just have humility, have respect, and to build trust with those non-designers.
Gerry: Yes, there’s a great case study I saw in one of your designer ops with Carol Burnette, and I was chatting to you before how Carl Brunette is going to be one of my superheroes and my reference points. I’m going to nick that video. I’ll find it. It’s a fantastic case study of how you change a cynic into, I don’t know what the phrase is, but someone who’s a champion of design. I’ll include that in the show notes, as well. Let’s go back, you’re not getting off that lightly. I want to go back to the first question. What would you banish from the industry? Come on, Doug, be brutal.
Doug: I’ll tell you what I would banish, is power cords for all of my devices. I’m sitting here as we’re talking, looking at the battery percent on my laptop going progressively down into the danger zone. I carry, or I travel a lot, so I’m always carrying around batteries and cables, and adapters. It’s ridiculous. It’s a stupid user experience. It must be changed.
Gerry: Doug, I’ll let you off with that one, but I’ll get you next time on what you really want to banish from the industry.
Gerry: It’s been great chatting to you. Thanks so much.
Doug: You too, Gerry, thank you.
Gerry: There you have it, thanks for listening to Bringing Design Closer. If you want to learn more about the other shows on the This is HCD Network, feel free to visit: thisishcd.com, where you can also sign up to our newsletter or join our Slack channel where you can connect with other human-centred design practitioners around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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