Design Thinking at Scale

I recently came across a Wired article about how IBM is applying design thinking to change the way its 400,000 employees work, and I was hooked. Design thinking, or human-centered design, is a dynamic and flexible process for quick problem-solving from the perspective of the user, or the recipient of the solution. How might IBM use it to change its operations?

Well, IBM has adapted design thinking for its own uses, coming up with a process called The Loop. The Loop consists of an infinity symbol, which contains three green dots and a yellow dot, all four forming a square. The loop represents infinite, or what they call “restless” innovation, while the green dots represent multidisciplinary teams, and the yellow dot represents the user. The three principles are to constantly innovate, focus on the user, and use multiple perspectives through their teams.

How does this giant company build in agility? After all, it’s a complex working environment and design thinking is designed to craft clarity, albeit typically for small groups. The mantra IBM has adopted is: everything is a prototype.

It’s difficult not to love this approach. The rule for prototyping in design thinking is to fail early and often, before many resources become invested in a project or idea. To view everything as a prototype, to me, encompasses several wonderful principles, including the following:

  1. Detachment: if it’s a prototype, you won’t too attached to it as a final product, which means you’ll be open to other ideas, AND you’ll constantly be thinking of ways to improve on them. Score.
  2. Mindfulness: chances are you’ll stay in the moment, and cultivate a process-oriented mindset, focusing on the prototype and its current evolution instead of jumping to conclusions or implementation.
  3. Iteration: since you’re prototyping, you can follow a different angle or start over with little grief if something fails (i.e. doesn’t meet the criteria for user satisfaction).

Of course, it’s also necessary to implement, finish and deliver a polished product or service. However, once that’s done, the product can still be viewed as a prototype with an eye to improvement. A work environment where everyone is always learning builds in engagement, constructive feedback, and productivity, and leverages unpredictability, while banishing negative judgment, drudgery and routine. This way of working also flattens company hierarchy and with it, removes barriers to communication and cooperation.

IBM is following through on its commitment to mainstreaming design thinking: the ratio of designers to coders has gone from 1:80 to 1:20, and the target is 1:15. Also, the company has put 10,000 employees through its design bootcamp to date – while this is only 2.5% of employees, 100 products have also emerged from their design thinking processes. It will be interesting to see how IBM continues this journey of integrating design thinking into its entire operations.


Design Thinking is a systematic process for creativity - IBM is mainstreaming it into its operations.

Design Thinking is a systematic process for creativity – IBM is mainstreaming it into its operations. This is one of the brainstorming sessions from a design thinking session at a recent Alchemus Prime retreat.


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