Part One: The Designer as a Consultant — How we helped a company with 28,000 employees start thinking about culture change

Lavanya Kumar
9 min readApr 6, 2020


Co-written by Ann Niou.

This article is the first in a series about the designer as a consultant.

At the IBM Garage, we help customers build experiences at speed and scale leveraging the Garage Methodology. While many of our projects are centered around delivering production-ready applications on the IBM Cloud platform, our method is also integral in bringing about culture change and transformation within an organization. We want to share our learnings from a particular client project as we partnered with them to help rethink how they approached everyday business problems.

Stay tuned for future articles on Client Workshops and Bootcamps, Customer Intake and Design Strategy, and Documentation!

Sketchnotes by IBM Garage Designer Krissi Xenakis on client design strategy and use case.

Culture change doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s difficult to implement a “universal” method that may have worked well for a single client. It’s important to empathize with each team’s varying circumstances to make any significant and lasting impact. We want to tell the story of how we approached changing the culture of one of the largest energy companies on the East Coast by kickstarting their design practice. Our efforts began with the organization’s innovation team; an interdisciplinary group of ten who had a range of skills from design to development to project management. We took time to understand the team (both in and out of the workplace) note team dynamics, instill a strong working agreement, and encourage documentation while pivoting and correcting mistakes made along the way. This established a culture and process the growing team used to market themselves to the rest of the organization.

As one of our after-work, culture enhancing activities, we went go-karting :)

1. Empathize. It’s important to meet the client where they are.

As with any problem, the first step to crafting a solution is to gain a clear understanding of existing blockers, their context, and any associated user pain points. We kicked off engagements through complete immersion in the company’s day to day to observe and empathize with their current method of working. What are their biggest challenges and barriers? How is this inhibiting innovation internally? In addition to observing, we conducted design thinking activities such as Empathy, Stakeholder, and As-Is Scenario Maps to create a shared understanding of their setbacks. This achieved two things: trust and a relationship within the organization and a new way of tackling problems for the team. By instilling a co-creation mindset, the team tended to agree with our suggestions for their practice as well as approach us with any questions.

“[The first thing we created] was a stakeholder map which was super helpful. Not only did it start establishing the people we would need to involve and how/who they interacted with, but also who ALL of the stakeholders were likely to be when starting to build a new department.”

Chris Brause, UX Designer at Cedrus (New York)

During one of these sprints with an internal team, we learned that business-driven product development and communication barriers were enhanced due to siloed work. However, after observing our process of collecting data through empathy co-creation, this team now puts its end users first, redefining their dynamic and that of the company’s. We gained valuable insights by working directly with this group which allowed us to simultaneously craft a unique strategy and adoption plan to help the client’s innovation team bring about change.

Brainstorming and converging on the high-level needs and goals of the Innovation Team.

2. Define. “A problem well-stated is half solved.”

-Chris Kettering (Head of Research, GM)

After gaining a clear understanding of their challenges, we then reframed the problem from a design and user-centric viewpoint to define specific goals. Having a defined vision and mission is important to align everyone in the organization and gain buy-in from stakeholders and leadership.

“We had a lot more problems when people were hearing conflicting messages from top leadership vs mid-level leadership… Success came from alignment. When everyone was able to point to a common goal, and top leadership advocated for that goal at every major event, it helped smaller, individual teams to understand its value.”

Lexi Malouta, UX Designer at Cedrus (New York)

We leveraged the IBM Garage methodology to define a vision statement — the innovation team’s north star. This conveys the why behind the what, who, and how and answers their questions: what is our ultimate goal and purpose and what is our role within the larger organization?

As an [innovation team] at an energy company, we want to promote culture change by working with internal customer teams to help solve business challenges using a user-centric approach so that our company is viewed as innovative, there are fewer inefficiencies (duplicative work, communication barriers, etc), and our team is seen as a single source to enable and assist others with Innovation Projects.

This was the first step or Minimum Viable Product toward our ultimate goal of culture change within the company. It also helped us define assumptions and risks we needed to first validate as well as paved the way for the exact artifacts necessary to reach our goal.

Try and focus on the Why or motivations behind the actions and behaviors of the team when defining a problem statement.

3. Document. Documentation is a deliverable.

The clients’ goals and needs were defined, and we found producing clear documentation necessary to align the team. We don’t just mean typing up a note and emailing it out to everyone. If resources allow, printing any process flows or key values and practices that have been defined on a large plotter and hanging them in a central location is key.

For example, we hung up large scale print outs of our team’s calendar and engagement lifecycle which served as a great way to cultivate team culture and bring awareness to the rest of the organization of the team’s work. Even the act of using post-its completely transformed their space; what was once a regular office space turned into a colorful collage of ideation as teams kept the results of their brainstorming sessions hung in their spaces.

The next question we asked ourselves was, “What do we even begin to document?” After reflecting on our practice and researching other successful innovation teams, we curated an initial list of items:

  • roles and responsibilities of the “innovation team”
  • intake process (how do you decide what kinds of work to take on? How do you prioritize that work?)
  • communication best practices
  • use cases from completed workshops
  • engagement lifecycle (what is the end-to-end process of a typical engagement with our team?)

“A lot of it doesn’t need to be original. You can start from somewhere that’s pretty founded, and there are so many great resources already… to think you need to be completely from scratch isn’t right. Think about what you can adapt for your company. Try it and make it your MVP [Minimum Viable Product]. “

Colin Budd, UX Designer IBM Garage (Austin)

One of the artifacts we created was  documented strategy for designers looking to see their career trajectory at Duke Energy.
One of the created artifacts was a documented strategy for designers looking to see their career trajectory.

4. Mistakes. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

-Kelly Clarkson (Just kidding, it was Friedrich Nietzsche)

Failure is part of the process. Doing and showing is an important part of teaching design thinking, but it doesn’t become effective until people can put learnings into practice and make a few mistakes along the way.

“On my first “transformation” engagement, we did a lot of co-creation and co-facilitation on events. I was so used to doing design thinking that my natural tendency was to jump in and save them whenever I saw things turning in the wrong direction. I needed to learn to hold back on doing for them and let them “fail fast and learn faster.” The small “failures” are better seen as teaching moments that will lead to greater long term understanding.”

Ann Niou, UX Designer at the IBM Garage (Austin)

With some basic foundation, the teams were learning a lot more on the ground. However, growing to this point of autonomy took several steps. We first had to demonstrate the general structure of a workshop as well as best practices while facilitating. Next, an IBMer would lead a workshop while our client team would support, a role just as critical to master as the lead facilitator. The following stage involved a role reversal; the client would lead the sessions while we supported them. This proved to be one of the most difficult tasks for us as we allowed our “trainees” to face difficult situations in workshops head-on, pivot, and recover from them without any assistance.

Ultimately we measured success by comparing where we had started to the final workshop with the team. The first one conducted in their space was facilitated by two IBMers and by the final workshop, we acted as participants while our trained design thinkers were running the show.

Another way we supported the client team was through a week-long Design Thinking bootcamp where they could practice facilitating activities with their coworkers.

5. Change. It takes time.

As with most things, transforming an organization’s culture is a process that takes time. It’s easy to lose motivation when you are not able to see immediate change or benefits from the effort. It can be tempting to take on short term quick wins where outcomes are more tangible than to invest in long term culture change, and we definitely noticed this happening during our engagement. There was a general abatement of enthusiasm from the team a few months after the initial excitement of a new venture had settled.

As a way to combat this, we established learning objectives and metrics to track. This proved to be a helpful way to have quantifiable milestones that proved progress towards the larger vision of the team. Bootcamps and workshops were an effective way to enable but also help them work toward a common goal. This was motivated by IBM’s Design Thinking badge system.

“ “…more than 90,000 IBMers have already earned their “practitioner” badges by completing an online course, and another 21,000 have done extra work to earn at least one of three advanced badges. The ultimate aim of such programs, says [Phil] Gilbert, is to help IBM to better serve customers — with a goal of winning. “Businesses don’t care about design thinking, per se,” he says. “Businesses care about outcomes.” ”

How IBM is Training its Workforce to think like Designers, Fortune 2018

A decal in the company’s innovation space.

In summary, our five takeaways when helping a large organization create change in their culture were…

  1. Empathize with the client situation and their needs
  2. Clearly define their challenges and goals
  3. Establish and document a working agreement to achieve team goals (we’ll dive deeper into specific documentation artifacts in a future article!)
  4. Learn by doing! Acknowledge team strengths and weaknesses and learn from them.
  5. Change takes time; it’s important to celebrate the incremental wins along the way that contribute to the team’s long term vision.

We hope you enjoyed Part One! We’d love to hear your experiences and feedback related to culture change at both large and small organizations. As always, we hope to iterate on what we’ve learned from this experience. Feel free to leave any comments or questions and stay tuned for more articles!

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