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Smarter Teams, Better Ideas, Happier Users – an Interview with Richard Berkman on IBM Design Thinking

State Street

November 02,2017

Richard Berkman is a Partner in Financial Services at IBM Interactive Experience (IBM iX).

His team works with clients to deliver exemplary experiences using IBM Design Thinking and Agile frameworks.

What was your first experience with design thinking?

My first experience was when IBM acquired a company called Lombardi. We bought them because they were competing with a lot of our products, but were providing a better customer experience, ergo winning business. Their President, Phil Gilbert brought with him the design thinking framework that he had been using. As he discussed that framework with our senior leadership it eventually grew into a new initiative for which he is the GM – IBM Design.

With IBM Design, the mantra was "People + Practices + Places = Great Outcomes." I bought into it immediately. At the time, I was leading our design team in financial services. While we had done similar design thinking practices, it wasn't unified or codified into our company-wide approach. I specifically wanted to help build a client-facing organization that brought a unified design thinking framework to our clients globally.

I made a pitch to our global IBM iX leadership that I would lead the adoption of our new IBM Design Thinking framework, globally, and eventually deploy the framework with all our clients. We would standup experts and teams around the world so we could educate everyone on IBM Design Thinking. We started 4 years ago with a pilot in EMEA and now we have more people trained on design thinking than any other company in the world. We practice it at scale.

How is IBM Design Thinking different from other frameworks?

Design thinking has been around 30+ years – it's not new. We practice design thinking almost like everyone else, but as we were developing our framework we recognized a few things.

First off, industrial design thinking was too linear and felt more aligned to a waterfall product development process. That framework is generally used on small, finite projects and there it works great. We wanted to use it at scale, to drive speed, to integrate with agile so it could be useful for the modern enterprise today. Often, we are helping clients solve big complex problems that yield data-driven, cognitive experiences. We are helping them move from legacy tech to modern systems that allow them to better compete with fintechs and disruptors that are skimming off non-regulated services and challenging enterprise companies that can’t move as fast.

Design thinking ensures you are focused on the right problem and opportunity.

Secondly, we have added management practices to scale for modern thinking and distributed teams. We call them our "keys;" Hills, Playbacks and Sponsor Users. It really starts with the sponsor user and a return to deeply understanding them. You need to have the real users engaged with product, or service design and development. That's where you get the insight and magic, rather than proxy-ing for users and assuming you know what they want.

The market has shifted. Customers are more in control than ever. All tech being equal, the last mile is the customer experience and you have to deliver what your clients want and need, not what you think they want and need.

What is a common misconception about design thinking?

It depends. Some people resist because they are worried management won’t support it. Some people resist because they think they've done design thinking and don't need it anymore. Others say, "This isn’t for me because I’m not a designer."

There were skeptics along the way. Sometimes the biggest were the non-design community: the development teams, the agile leads. Some senior executives thought it was just the flavor of the month. But by the time we are in our third exercise, they are vocal champions. It works because you come out the other side of the session and think "We've done more in two hours than we would in two weeks." It's because design thinking uses a framework to drive a common alignment and understanding. We are giving people the tools to collaborate. We are promoting ideas. And we are prioritizing our actions to come out with clear direction focused on outcomes.

At its root, design thinking is a behavioral model. We are using this new way of working to change the behavior of how people execute and design with a focus on user and market outcomes. We have an almost maniacal focus on users, we are putting together uncommon skills and teams and we believe in restless reinvention. Everything is a prototype and we can constantly course correct. It’s a loop, not a grid. Even what you think is your final product is not your final product. We live in a world of evolution. Be unsatisfied. There is no done. Evolve.

You did it with IBM, so how do big companies with legacy systems and processes really embrace design thinking from top to bottom?

It’s not an easy task, but it starts with executive sponsorship.

First, you have to look at your organization itself and ask, "Do we have the right talent to do this?”"At IBM we discovered that we had on average, 33 coding engineers on projects to every 1 designer. That ratio was way out of whack. We needed to change that dynamic, we needed to get to 8:1. So we decided we would set out to increase our designer community to 1500-1600 designers over a 3 year period. Now we are actually closer to 1600-1700.

Then you need to look at  retraining people who may not have the right backgrounds in design, facilitation or agile so they can participate in the approach.

It's important to remember you can't boil the ocean, so where do you start? We launched the Hallmark Program. It is designed to enhance product and service delivery by looking at the most strategic projects and initiatives across IBM. Then we created the feel of a membership program for those projects so they could staff, fund, execute and deliver differently. It goes back to our mantra - the right people, using the right practices and putting them in the right places to succeed.

So why should a company embrace design thinking?

Think about it this way - would you rather have a meeting where you just talk at each other, or collaborate and actually get to an outcome? It works across just about any problem because the common root is you are trying to bring people together to solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity. Design thinking ensures you are focused on the right problem and opportunity.

Now it's not the panacea for everything. You can try and apply design thinking, but it's not a checklist. It’s not saying "here is your process." That's not what it's about. When you understand it, you use the activities that you have learned in context and applying the right activities to drive towards the right outcome.

Say you can't do a full two-day exercise, you only have two hours. Select a few activities and just use those to get everyone thinking about what you want to accomplish. It fosters a discussion around what was important to everyone. Instead of a leader dictating the roadmap, the team puts everything on the table.

Personally, I'd much rather get people out of their comfort zone. Go big or go home.


Topics: Advanced Technology

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