Photo by David Avila

Covert DesignOps

Jeff Neely
IBM Design
9 min readAug 7, 2020


How design can transform your organization behind its back

Jeff Neely, Design Partner & Ben Landrum, Design Principal at IBM Services

Going by my LinkedIn feed, you’d think the “business value of design” battle was over, and the designers had won. There’s been so much evidence of the positive impact of incorporating human-centric design practices into every aspect of business, that it’s hard to believe some organizations still don’t get it. It’s much easier to believe, however, if you’re embedded in one of those orgs and forced to work in more…archaic ways. Executing based on executive whims. Ignoring user research or not bothering to do it at all. Enlisting designers to “make things pretty” instead of leaning on them to solve your most gnarly problems.

Part of the problem is that for a few years now, design and design thinking have been such a dominant part of the business cultural narrative that some people — particularly those who haven’t had a chance to experience it first-hand — have had enough. They’re ready for a new shiny object to emerge that they can tout as the new best thing ever. Design thinking was cool last year…remember that workshop? But enough with the Post-its. Let’s just knock this out. It’s like the client who gets sick of their new branding when they’re still in the process of approving the launch deliverables.

Perhaps we need a new approach to drive adoption of design practices in organizations that are still stuck in the last century. We know that transforming your organization is really about transforming your people. But people are notoriously resistant to change. And when those people are sick of hearing about “design,” you’ve got to adjust your tactics. Adapt to the needs of your users. Where have I heard that before?

Welcome to Covert DesignOps.

Want to transform an organization in the face of apathy and skepticism? Then don’t use the word “design” at all.

IBM Design has long pursued the mission of creating a sustainable culture of design at IBM, with notable success. Under that umbrella, our GBS Design team serves the IBM Services division and works to incorporate design thinking into how our consultants go to market and guide their clients’ digital transformations. Our efforts, while successful on many levels, had yet to truly impact the entire 100K-person business unit. Then we recognized an opportunity to help transform the IBM Services organization on an even larger scale. Thanks to the vagaries of corporate reorganizations, we were pulled into an effort to evolve from a consulting business that delivered 80 percent custom solutions to one that leveraged proven solutions to bring clients best-in-class business transformation without reinventing the wheel every time. These new “offerings” would each need to deliver $100M to $1B in revenue and become the backbone of a strategy to bring together IBM’s business insight and ability to deliver. That’s a business model change and an org change at a massive scale — both in setting up a practice to develop these offerings, and in teaching our consultants how to sell them.

The initial ask for the design team was to simply facilitate the meetings of the Subject Matter Experts involved in the building of these new scaled offerings. After doing so and observing the process for a week, we recognized a much larger opportunity, and the covert ops began. In the end, the design approach was pivotal to the success of this effort — and a lot of people learned about a whole new way of working in the process.

Trial by fire

At IBM, when Enterprise Design Thinking is introduced to a new organization, a common misconception is that it’s just a workshop to get everyone to consider the end-user’s perspective and align on a path forward. Once that’s done, it’s back to business as usual. Rather than try to directly dispel this incorrect assumption, we charted a different path.

The Enterprise Design Thinking Loop

As teams came together to work on their offerings in a program of guided eight-week sprints, we didn’t start with a workshop, or even an announcement that we’d be utilizing design thinking practices in the program. We chose to empower them without fanfare. We just identified the right steps along the way to weave our practices in. IBM defines design thinking with the Loop, in which you are always at one of three steps: observe, reflect or make. Do we need to learn more about our users? Do we need to pull insights from the data we already have? Or do we need to prototype something to get in front of some users and see how they react?

This simple approach allowed us to get to outcomes quickly, hitting scheduled milestones that verified the efficacy of the approach. At each Friday check-in, the teams who had considered the perspective of their users were consistently further along and required less do-overs. Very quickly, the key leaders in each group adopted the practices naturally. They might not have called what they were doing design, but they were practicing empathy. They were collaborating with a diverse team. And yes, they were covering walls with Post-its. It was a massive improvement from the beginning, when they would all stare at a projected PowerPoint slide and edit it as a team in real-time. (Please shoot me now.)

In situations where a design thinking workshop is appropriate, our mantra is always “trust the process.” We know we’ll get to a place where all those strange exercises spawn something magical. That mantra rang true in this instance as well. We know you’ll get better outcomes with design — even if you don’t realize that’s what you’re doing.

Land and expand

Our covert ops strategy was working at a tactical level. The leadership of the Offering Management organization recognized the impact of these design practices and became our allies, extending our influence further. More and more teams were adopting design practices — teams from every corner of the business who were invited to the offering sprints. Meanwhile, our design team was engaged with what we do best: uncovering genuine human needs and solving for them with delightful experiences. Our team started iterating on the offering development process itself, observing, reflecting and making on a full-time basis. We quickly realized our primary mission wasn’t to just create offerings, it was to create offering leaders — mini-CEOs capable of driving a new business model within a mature organization. Ideally, they’d also be deep-cover design agents who were empowered to cut through the complexity of the organization to accomplish their goals. Agents who practiced what we preached because they knew it worked. So we designed the program for that purpose, creating a service blueprint to orchestrate every experience these individuals and their teams would have. In doing so, we planted the seeds for an army of design advocates.

Build a Coalition

It’s a standard practice in Enterprise Design Thinking to recruit “Sponsor Users” for every project. These are real or potential users that bring their experience and expertise to the team. They aren’t passive subjects — they’re active participants who work directly alongside the design team and are invested in the outcome. We knew that was a meaningful practice to adopt in this effort. It just required a slightly different approach than how it’s applied in software development.

Photo by Jeff Neely

We searched for key individuals — at every experience level and rank within the company — who we took into confidence and asked to share our mission. It was a simple matter to map the user ecosystem of the organization and identify likely candidates. We made them our allies. We worked hard to make THEM look good. When a big presentation was looming, we shared it with them early, gathering useful feedback and ensuring alignment before we ever fired up the video conference. We weren’t asking people to take risky leaps. Every potential action was backed by data. Real data, from real research.

These advocates understood our process, understood our thinking, and had a sense of ownership of our conclusions and suggestions. It empowered them to take a more active role in key decisions — and gave us allies whose motivations weren’t immediately suspect since they weren’t part of the actual design team.

Boots on the Ground

Things really began to take root as we got more and more designers engaged on ongoing projects. It highlighted the flaw in our team’s early efforts to encourage adoption of design practices by training a large volume of people in the basics via workshops. We had set out to create an army of design thinkers across the company, people who lived and breathed empathy no matter their background or job role. It seemed a worthy goal, but in practice it was missing a key ingredient: real, actual designers. There’s no substitute for a team of trained, professional designers working together side-by-side to solve problems. Visual, UX, research, developers — a diverse team that doesn’t work in a vacuum. It partners with those from the business side and represents the voice of the user in every engagement.

There’s no one-size-fits-all design team. The size and the mix of specialties will evolve based on the problem at hand. But the common element is their specific ways of working. You want to transform your organization to put users first and create better experiences? Don’t create a design practice and set it up on a hill as an example, or worse yet, a vendor. Add designers to your teams. Get them in the mix, give them huge, complex challenges. Treat design as a critical business function, no more or less important than the other functions. Give them a seat at the leadership table and shared ownership of team success metrics. That’s a critical point — the design team can’t be seen as a separate entity with its own set of KPIs. We win or lose as a team, so the team’s metrics are the designers’ metrics. Create that structure and then watch how quickly things change.

Photo by David Avila


Recognize the recurring theme here? It’s the focus on people. Why do so many organization transformations fail? Because we tend to focus on systems and processes and not on people. “Sustained change is always driven by people,” says Lee Colan in his article 10 Reasons Change Efforts Fail. “Even implementing new software successfully is more about the people who will use is, install it, train it, and support it than it is about the system itself.”

Get the right people on board—designers. Recruit key allies. And get your entire organization laser-focused on the only people who matter: your users. Call them customers, consumers, clients, whatever — but if you truly want better outcomes, you eventually need everyone in your org talking about them all day, every day. You need to understand their motivations and their goals and what they are trying to accomplish at the most fundamental level. Most importantly, when you do introduce design, don’t treat design as special or precious. It’s no longer a competitive advantage — it’s just necessary. Frame it as the cost of doing business rather than a mythical pot sweetener.

Our work in IBM Services is ongoing. We continue to iterate on the offering development process and the enablement of the consultants who take them to our clients. We stopped selling design and we started focusing on how designers, and a design mindset, could help the business grow. After two years, the results speak for themselves. The Offering Development program boasts a +82 NPS score, and most importantly, the offerings in our program’s portfolio are growing 3x faster on average than the broader offering set. The awareness of design’s impact is growing, which is fantastic, but it’s a byproduct of a renewed focus on the humans that represent our clients and ultimately their clients. That’s led to literally hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, directly impacted by a team of less than ten designers — designers with a secret agenda to change an organization whether they want it or not.

Jeff Neely is a Design Partner & Ben Landrum is a Design Principal at IBM Services based in Austin, Texas. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.