IBM Is Making Its Design Thinking Available to Clients, Says Its Design Chief

IBM's design general manager, Phil GIlbert, talks at the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Mar. 7, 2018. Stefen Chow/Fortune

IBM has been an industry leader in pursuing great design for decades: the company’s trailblazing CEO Thomas Watson Jr., famously declared that “good design is good business,” and today, IBM employees some 1600 designers in 20 countries around the world. Now IBM is extending the full depth of its design philosophy to its clients, design general manager Phil Gilbert announced at the Fortune, Time, and Wallpaper* Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Wednesday.

IBM’s new Enterprise Design Thinking services, available online, will allow clients to harness the power of IBM’s process and includes many of the features of IBM’s own innovative Design Thinking framework. It incorporates a digital badge accreditation program to measure progress while also allowing users to make direct progress on their own projects.

“I’m a big believer that you don’t train people in design thinking. It’s a doing thing,” Gilbert told Fortune deputy editor Brian O’Keefe. “A lot of it is common sense. But you put a framework, a language around it so you can scale out.”

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In late 1980’s, Gilbert recognized that “the nature of work was changing pretty fundamentally.” His “aha” moment came when he “stumbled” into trained designers whose work could distinguish his products from that of his competitors by offering a better and more efficient user experience. “From that moment on, design has been a way to scale the probability of excellent outcomes,” Gilbert said.

After his start-up was acquired by IBM, Gilbert said he observed early setbacks: projects were taking too long to reach the market, and missing the mark once they did. “If we didn’t have a ‘no’ culture, we had a culture that was certainly resistant to change,” he said. Design offered an elegant and powerful solution, “a single lever” that shifted IBM’s performance in the market, increased team productivity, and changed the company.

“A lot of the people who bought us didn’t know it was design or design thinking that was the underpinning principles,” Gilbert said, “but whatever we did, they wanted it.”

To institute strategic design thinking at a $143 billion company like IBM, Gilbert added an unprecedented number of trained designers to cross-disciplinary teams. All of IBM’s 388,000 employees, whether they’re working on artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, or consumer electronics, are encouraged to apply design thinking to concrete objectives with the help of a three-part feedback loop that reinforces a “notion of constant iteration” and experimentation: Observe Reflect, Make.

“People get hung up on the process,” he told Brainstorm Design. “But when we changed our visualization and the language around it, it changed everything about our teams and their ability to consume it.” A related initiative, IBM Design Language, provides a visual toolbox to helps designers communicate with engineers and developers to create products with a consistent look and identity.

The system pays dividends that are “off the hook,” Gilbert said: speeding up design and execution by 75%, saving an average of $20.6 million, and boosting return on investment of 300% over three years, according to a Forrester Total Economic Impact Study published last month. Those results reveal that design principles lead to “more efficient and faster deliverables” that “hit the marketplace better,” making employees “happier and more engaged,” Gilbert said.

That is the competitive advantage now being made available to all of IBM’s clients

“The world now has a specific framework, a quantifiable framework, of how we can articulate the value of design thinking process,” Gilbert said.

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