The 7 Myths of Design Transformation

Many companies from the smallest startups to the largest enterprises in the world now recognize the need to infuse design into their organizations. Many are investing heavily in design but are often using a silver bullet approach, making the assumption that one specific change will be the right one. I've spent time over the past few years working directly with many of these companies and meeting others at conferences. I've also worked with leaders of academic programs preparing business, design, and engineering students for this new world. I regularly encounter the following seven myths which I think hamper success in transforming companies. Of course, all seven of the myths aren't held by all organizations and not all organizations hold these myths. However, sufficient numbers hold some of these myths to warrant this post. I summarize the myths and provide some insight based on our experience at IBM to help dispel them.   

1. You just need to hire designers

Clearly, properly trained designers are critically important to a design transformation program. They are necessarily but not sufficient. Many companies think that they can simply hire designers right out of design school and then wait for the magic to happen. They are learning painfully that simply hiring designers isn't sufficient. Mike Monteiro gave a talk recently with the title, "This is the golden age of design! ... and we're screwed". He outlines well the opportunities and challenges. He also points out that one company in particular is doing a good job in this space. That company is IBM.

When we hire designers at IBM straight out of design school, we put them through a three month bootcamp to ready them to take on the responsibilities of being a designer at IBM. We don't rely solely on college hires either, we also have professional hires who have significant experience in industry. They too go through a bootcamp, albeit less than three months. We also make sure to hire the right balance of design specializations including visual design, user experience design, user research, and front end development. Even after having done all of that, we don't rely on designers to be solely responsible for the client experience. We believe that design is a team sport and that business, engineering, and design need to work together using what we refer to as radical collaboration. IBM Design Thinking provides the framework and methods for that collaboration.  

2. You just need open workspaces

Workspaces are clearly important. Putting people in offices or cubicles is the fastest way to suck collaboration and creativity out of them. Open workspaces encourage collaboration and create the conditions for greater creativity. However, building out open space facilities isn't enough. In our experience at IBM, the employees who work in those open spaces need to be allowed or even encouraged to make the space their own. They need to put design assets on walls, be able to draw on any wall, have sufficient movable whiteboards in order to collaborate visually, and, most importantly, customize the space for their team's needs. In our studios, that means that any piece of furniture should be able to be moved by the team and often is. I often visit our main studio in Austin, Texas, and see a completely different arrangement of desks, whiteboards, sofas and TVs each time. We now have some 26 studios worldwide. So, are beautiful, open workspaces important? Yes, but how they're designed and operated makes a difference. And, of course, just like hiring designers is necessary but not sufficient, so is having open workspaces.  

3. You need to quantify everything first

There are two types of thinking in business, analytical thinking and design thinking. Both are important. Analytical thinking is best for things like making businesses efficient, optimizing supply chains, target marketing, and driving down defect rates. Analytical thinking is best applied when a product and/or business is well established. However, analytical thinking is incapable of driving innovation. That's where design thinking has it's strength. Many established companies are reinforced every day for their use of analytical thinking so they often mistakenly think that they can use it to innovate or they look to use design thinking but expect to apply analytical thinking parameters. Design Thinking needs to be allowed the time to flourish and to create innovations that at first won't yield quantifiable benefits. Over time, of course, analytical thinking can again be applied. Many business leaders received their training in MBA programs and to date, many of those programs focused exclusively on analytical thinking. However, there are now innovative business education programs being developed that incorporate design thinking and analytical think. I'm helping to develop such a curriculum with the DeGroote School of Business Executive MBA program.   

4. You just need to code MVPs quickly and iterate

Many companies, particularly, startups, believe that you just need to get a brilliant idea, code the minimal viable product, release it, and then iterate. I was on a panel in silicon valley on which all the other panelists were from startups. Some of them argued for this approach. However, I pointed out that they were the successful ones, the 10 percent of startups that are successful. I pointed out that the company I work for needs better odds than that. The 90 percent of startups that fail, often do so because they didn't understand the market or users and didn't have the right skills or approach.  

5. You first need to visualize the "art of the possible" 

The designer's version of myth number 4 is to start work by ideating with colleagues and then creating high fidelity mockups of what is often referred to as the "art of the possible". The coding MVPs and the art of the possible visualizations feel good because everyone sees results really quickly that actually run, in the case of the MVP, and are beautifully creative, in the case of the art of the possible visualizations. The problem with both of these approaches is that they leave out a critically important step, understanding what the problem is that they're solving. Our IBM Design Thinking framework reinforces the need to first do user research to understand the intended user, what they do, think, say, and feel, what their current experience is, and what pain points are most important to them to address. Once we have that information, we're ready to ideate many different possible solutions to those pain points and quickly and cheaply prototyping those using pencil and paper to get feedback on them prior to choosing the optimal designs to start to code and then iterate on.  

6. You should make small changes to what you do today

Many companies believe they're already doing most of what they need to do and thus simply need to tweak things a bit. That's what IBM did for years, with less than optimal results. It was only when the company took stock, decided to launch a full new program, and provided the requisite investment that dramatic transformation happened

The new program we put in place at IBM focused on addressing each of the myths discussed here. The formula we used was simply: people plus places plus practices equals outcomes. These three Ps of transformation all need to be addressed. People includes hiring designers from design schools and from industry, educating and activating them through bootcamps, creating open workspace design studios that they can and should customize, adopting an enhanced design thinking framework optimized for business and linking it directly with agile development, educating business, engineering, and design leaders in the most important projects on the framework, and then tracking progress and holding regular pivot meetings to rapidly make changes. Further information on our approach can be found in a recent New York Times article as well as in a Forrester Research report as well.   

7. Transformation is easy and shouldn't take too long

Lastly, many believe that a design transformation of an organization should be pretty straight forward and that it shouldn't take too long. However, it's important to understand the extend of what needs to change in most companies. Very few companies have a culture of design excellence and the myths outlined here illustrate the types of attitudes and practices that need to change. Although there are clearly differences between organizations but most companies should set an expectation of years rather than weeks or months to make a dramatic transformation in becoming design led.  

Design transformation is difficult. While we don't have all the answers, we've learned a lot in transforming IBM. And, we're working with other companies everyday to share what we've learned and to help them realize the benefits of a design led company.