Why All The Hype Around Building a Design Culture in Your Organization Might Be Misguided

Over the last few years, you would be lucky to scan through your favorite business publication or media platform without running into a piece about how customer experience has become the next big competitive battleground. In article after article, post after post, authors make the (legitimate) case that experience has become the new strategic differentiator for customers, and therefore, for companies looking to serve such customers.

The significant relevance of experience has, of course, existed in the consumer world for some time; experience definitely matters when it comes to the choices we as consumers make. This has become particularly pronounced in relation to goods and services like high-tech personal gadgets, mobile applications, financial services, and retail services.

But in recent years, the consumerization of IT has pushed this focus on experience into the enterprise (B2B) world. Millions of us, employees of organizations, have tolerated poorly designed applications required for our professional work for a long time. But now, because the consumer side of our lives — from our phones, to our household products, to our music services, to our entertainment choices — have advanced so far in terms of experience, we just will no longer put up with the experience gap we might have have tolerated previously.

Furthermore, this relevance of experience has been amplified in both the consumer and enterprise worlds as both worlds have shifted to subscription-based business models. Why? Simply put, when any person or organization pays for another company’s services via subscription (vs. a big chunk of money upfront), it’s a lot easier to switch services if a better one shows up…particularly a better one with an equivalent set of capabilities but offering a better customer experience.

As you might imagine, executives at large technology companies and leading consulting firms have been paying attention to this shift in the marketplace. They see it as both an opportunity (for those who can get ahead and lead through experience) and a risk (for those who don’t act fast enough). And they have responded by pulling out their checkbooks. Since 2004, forward-thinking organizations have collectively gobbled up over 70 previously independent design consultancies. The principal acquirers have been those who recognize they must deliver world class experiences to their customers in order to maintain their market position (Google, Adobe, Salesforce, and IBM, among others) or those who wish to help the next wave of global enterprises appreciate and internalize this shift towards experience leadership (McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Accenture, Deloitte, and PWC, among others).

Yes, building a robust Experience Design (XD) capability is important for your organization

Such acquisitions afford these companies a jumpstart in capability-building for their organization. The business capability they need to establish or strengthen is that of Experience Design, or XD. XD has been around for years under various names, but the trends described above have elevated its importance to the strategic business agenda. Core elements of a robust XD organizational capability include:

  • talent management (key roles that need to be defined and filled with the right people, often from the outside);
  • design system development (the thoughtful creation of a design system which can be scaled across an often broad portfolio of offerings); and
  • operationalization (a structure and work model for how the XD effort integrates with the product or service efforts already in place, often through Agile work processes).

That said, however critical these nuts and bolts elements of XD are, they can only be successful to a limited degree within an organization and team unless there is a simultaneous shift in the organization’s culture. That shift requires a very significant orientation around the customers being served, and it is something that must be driven from the very top of the company. It’s because of this realization of the critical role of culture that we have witnessed so much interest in building and cultivating “design-centric” cultures. The basic argument is a two-fold idea: (1) a company cannot start to differentiate itself through design until it has a robust XD capability, and (2) that XD capability cannot truly thrive unless it operates within a design-centric culture that spans all functional areas of the organization.

Speaking from experience, I definitely subscribe to this thinking. But the argument also falls short of hitting on what is possibly an even more significant outcome of building a design-centric culture. Stated simply, the idea of cultivating a culture of design so that today’s customer experience efforts can succeed is necessary, but it is insufficiently enlightened. Why?

The idea of cultivating a culture of design so that today’s customer experience efforts can succeed is necessary, but it is insufficiently enlightened. Why?

Just don’t miss the bigger picture regarding what a shift towards a design culture can offer — the means to re-make your company in the face of disruption

This entire shift in the external environment towards design as a strategic differentiator is mostly an argument for the substance of better design: professional designers, doing better customer research, embedding in cross-functional scrum teams, and helping to deliver better, more compelling, and more user-centered experiences to customers for the mutual success of customers and the company serving those customers. To be sure, this focus on substance is tangible and valuable, and it will deliver better outcomes for all of us.

The important nuance, however, is that in pursuit of design as substance we risk missing the form benefits associated with becoming design-centric…which is how being design-centric — how developing design muscles throughout the organization — can help the organization adapt to change and mitigate disruption. In other words, it provides the means for how an organization can remain viable and competitive over time.

For example, at Autodesk, for the last few years, we have been talking about what we call the Future of Making Things, or FoMT. The FoMT is our shorthand for describing how the advancement — and convergence — of multiple technologies is upending major industries and sectors of our global economy, such as manufacturing and construction. We share and develop this POV with our customers, and we work directly with them to figure out the implications. There are implications for our company in terms of evolving how we operate, develop products, and engage with our customers. Likewise, there are massive implications for our customers…up to and including the nature of the value they deliver to their customers, how they offer that value up to their customers, and even how they identify themselves.

Let’s be clear, this degree of disruption is scary for any team going through it. It’s scary to organizations who employ tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of employees based on a certain value proposition and way of working today…which has changed little in 50 years but could change dramatically in the next 5–10 years. It’s also scary to our society, as we try to contemplate what these shifts means for our labor markets and our economies, and how rapidly they might advance upon us.

But this is where the form of design comes in, and helps take the scary away. Elevated design is not just about a resulting customer experience. It’s more than that. It’s about a way of working….seeing every challenge as a design problem. Designers have a rich set of tools and methods at their disposal to work through problems. They recognize the greatest insights and the most impactful outcomes come from collaborative problem-solving with diverse groups of individuals representing a range of backgrounds, points of view, and areas of expertise. Designers are not afraid of complex problems; they approach every problem with a “How Might We” mentality, knowing that no matter how wicked the problem, we can — without question and despite constraints — change our current state to an improved state through disciplined effort.

Elevated design is not just about a resulting customer experience. It’s more than that. It’s about a way of working….seeing every challenge as a design problem.

This application of design methods to a broad spectrum of ostensibly “non-design” problems is essentially what the awkward term “Design Thinking” represents. But to give it a label, and have that label restricted to “only” improving the current customer experience, dramatically undervalues its potential in application.

At Autodesk, our evolution has been successful, in part, because we have had two leaders partnering up to simultaneously represent these dual streams around form and substance. My colleague, Joanna Cook, is a professional designer who runs a large design organization, and she plays a leading role in improving the substance of design…delivering better experiences for customers of our products and services. I, as Chief of Staff for the product development organization, spend the majority of my time on strategic, financial, and operational efforts designed to shape our ~3,000 person product organization. But, crucially, I am also a passionate advocate, instructor, and facilitator of Human Centered Design, and I bring those skills to the interactions of our leadership team as we work to transform the organization. Joanna and I perform different kinds of work in different domains, but we are both relentless about viewing the challenges in front of us and our teams as design problems. And by working in partnership with one another, threading our efforts together, we help ensure our joint success.


In sum, the substance of design helps organizations deliver better experiences to their customers, but the form of design can help organizations face imminent industry disruption head-on, re-make themselves, and remain thriving entities over time. The former helps improve the experiences of today, the latter provides the means to remain vibrant, relevant, and adaptable over time. Both streams are important, and the confluence of the two is what truly allows an organization to maximize the value of being more design-centric.

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