Phil Gilbert on IBM's Design Thinking

  • May 2, 2013
  • Scott

Context and History

Phil’s speaking engagements at Impact have been one of the highlights of the show for me since Impact 2010.  This year he had a change of pace – instead of talking about BPM, or BPM and ODM, on the main stage, he was speaking to a smaller crowd on the topic of IBM Design – the new group that Phil now runs for IBM.

No surprises, Phil had a great vision for this group and its effect on design.  And as always he is able to put that vision in the context of history, and of IBM’s heritage as well, such that IBM Design isn’t so much a departure as it is a return to some of IBM’s roots, with a greater focus on software.

Dating back to 1973, Thomas Watson, Jr. had a famous quote – roughly that “Good design is good business”.  In the 1960’s – when the Selectric came out, it redefined the typewriter category.  No other typewriter was good enough after that (And, I can attest that my own father aspired to own one, as he used to write all of his books and journal articles at the typewriter). Phil took us down memory lane for IBM’s industrial design – an aspect of IBM that I would assume most of us are actually unfamiliar with, as it just hasn’t been part of IBM’s branding and DNA lately, as far as the outside world can tell. I didn’t even know about “the Egg” from the world’s fair but the tie-in to the Selectric typewriter’s design is obvious and impressive.

Then Phil took us back to present-day:  the work on the Think Wall, the new Mainframe design (that looks like the Batmobile version of a mainframe, while having improved airflow and baffling), and an updated Epcot exhibit.

Next, Phil aligned the Design group with IBM’s characteristics of Smarter Computing:

  • Open and Collaborative
  • Defined for Big Data
  • Defined by Software

It’s the third part that is really complicated – because IBM has about 3000 software products.  As Phil put it, we need to factor for the future, but collectively in the software business, we’re largely factored for the past.

As an example, almost a test-bed of this new design-thinking within IBM software, Phil talked about his journey in the BPM portfolio.  Reducing 40 products:


Down to just FOUR products:


And of course you can’t do this by just turning them off, you have to rationalize these products and features into cohesive product offerings.

So why the IBM Design Group?

First, there just aren’t enough designers at IBM.  So Phil’s team is setting about to hire 60+ new designers out of college and industry, and put them into a design lab in Austin, TX.  Of course my ears perked up when he mentioned going to Stanford’s to recruit, but IBM is also going to great design schools all over the country.

Second, design at IBM isn’t repeatable.  The designers don’t have a set of tools and techniques that help them have repeatable successes and scale the operation.  Each design effort is a fresh discovery.  There will be a big investment in creating scalable practices, tools, and techniques.

This is a long-term journey, 5-10 years, which will cost $10’s of Millions of Dollars per year.

The goal is to make “Products that Work for Me” for IBM’s customers.

Next, Phil showed us the physical layout of the new Design space – where the teams would roughly be located – while the entirety of the design team sits on one floor (at least this year! )

The strategy is to take on Signature Projects – demonstrating the impact on products when Design Thinking is introduced – and proving out the practices and techniques that IBM is attempting to scale when they get beyond the signature projects. The Signature projects (that I’m aware of) so far are:  BPM, Watson, DevWorks, ODM, Pure Data, MQ.  The idea, I think, is to get everyone in the habit of divergent thinking in the design process, followed by convergent thinking once the general direction is set.  Classic design terminology.

The one that Phil called special attention to was devWorks.  Because, if IBM can make a significant improvement in engagement with the development community that will have a very scalable impact on IBM’s business, and on its customers’ and partners’ businesses.  Really interesting insight there – looking forward to see what comes of it.

Phil had a fun example of a group that didn’t think they needed design help – an API-driven product (MQ) – surely this doesn’t need Design.  Yes, but maybe it needs “Design Thinking” – because it informs MQ’s API to support mobile devices, and to support use cases and style that might not otherwise be supported.

The design process was described as practices that everyone can adapt:

  • Clear Conceptual Models
  • Decisions, not Process
  • Peer-Reviewed Artifacts

You can have a dictated consistent UI – like Windows Phone in 2006.  Or you can have a well-designed UI – like the iPhone circa 2007.  Consistency is not the same as design.

And you can’t dictate good UI, so you have to have a notion of commander’s intent – working together to share the philosophy so that the individuals can carry about the mission in a way that is consistent with the philosophy.  We need to marry up Agile development with real objectives and goals for Agile to organize around.  As Phil put it:

We need a framework for “freedom to act”

Phil closed on a few positive notes – that the goal is to be the best Design Studio, and likely the biggest, by 2020.

There were questions around what makes IBM different compared to, say, Infor or some other company.  Phil responded without directly comparing to Infor – just that the emphasis at IBM is cultural change across 430,000 employees.  This requires alignment – which IBM has, all the way to the Board and the CEO.  The scale is just so much bigger than any other design firm he’s aware of.

Another question concerned release cost – how much would it affect the cost of a product release?  From the tone of the question, it seemed clear that the expectation was that it would increase cost.  But Phil responded that it reduces cost because it reduces wasted effort, etc.  He also noted the easier sales, increased customer retention, and reduced support costs of well-designed software – a savings that would accrue for years.  I would have responded with this:  that the biggest cost to any release is implementing the wrong requirements and failing to implement the correct ones.  What Design Thinking is attempting to do is to reduce or eliminate the developer hours that go into work that simply doesn’t matter.  If you could eliminate that waste from your development effort, a company the size of IBM could probably save Billions over time.

Great session – no surprise.  As I looked around the room there were a whole lot of Lombardi alumni and Lombardi customers in the room.  We know where the good talks are going to be!


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