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IBM’s Kristin Wisnewski on how to thrive as a design leader in a large organization

4 min read
Sean Blanda  •  Jun 3, 2019
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It’s usually difficult to put numbers to these things, but Kristin Wisnewski knows she had a 33 percent chance of being a designer.

It all started her last year of college. When Kristin was rounding out her final classes, she received a note. One of the classes she selected was no longer available. And because of the timing, she only had three replacements to choose from, a tough beat for a senior.

She explains, “I circled ‘user-centered design’ and thought, ‘Well I’m a user, I guess. I can probably make sense of whatever this is.’’’ And just like that, the would-be child psychologist was introduced to the world of digital product design.

Today, Kristin Wisnewski is the VP of CIO Design for IBM, where she’s spent her entire career.  When she began in 2000, design was an afterthought in most large companies. But 19 years later, Wisnewski is among a generation of designers helping the tech giant rethink design’s role.

“I pretty much grew up here,” she adds.

We read a lot about the designers at startups, but there aren’t many roadmaps for those looking to make an impact within larger, often less glamorous (but high impact) businesses. Big orgs have legacy rules, complicated org charts, and so many lines of business that it can be hard to parse. And that’s why Kristin’s story is instructive.

We asked Kristin for lessons learned in her career and what she would suggest for designers today who operate within a larger structure.

Kristin Wisnewski

Take DesignOps seriously

When you’re working in a larger, established company and creating a design practice you have to remake workflows and processes while still delivering each day. For Kristin and her team, this became apparent as they shifted from a service organization to a strategic one.

[Need to bone up on DesignOps? Read our DesignOps Handbook here.]

“It felt like things were arbitrarily being selected to be worked on. And in turn, if I say no to your project, I’m sort of dooming you for failure,” she says. “It was keeping me up at night, to be honest.”

That’s when her team reinvented the way they worked by:

  1. Dispatching deputies to each peer domain to collect design needs.
  2. Assembling a large list of needs and projects.
  3. Holding a meeting with leadership to prioritize each project.

“It was an early start to what has now become this very clearly defined centralized partnership with a single funnel of work that becomes prioritized with the help of our now product owner who is the CIO,” she says.

That was the simple version. Now her team evaluates potential projects according to four criteria and then communicates with everyone what is selected and why.

The 4 factors the IBM CIO design team uses to prioritize projects.

“You need to look out for the greater good, don’t just look at your shop and do what you want to work on. [And don’t] look at who is your closest advocate and friend and do something for her first,” she says. “I am amazed that design operations are not as mature in the industry as I would’ve thought.”

After that, her team uses InVision to create prototypes to shop the project across different teams. “It’s important that there is visibility into the design prototypes across our design and project teams, as well as an easy hand-off to our engineering partners,” she says. 

Taking a long path to management is an asset

In your career, you will have several chances to hop between being an individual contributor and a manager. Like Facebook’s Julie Zhou once told Inside Design, if you decide the manager path is for you, make it known.

“It’s like marking a spot on the map and saying, ‘Here’s what I like to be,’” Zhou told us. “And now you and your manager can sit down and map together a path to get there.”

For Kristin, her foray into management came only after 14 years as an individual contributor. “[At that point] I knew all the things that can go wrong with a manager,” she said.

In a world where people leapfrog across companies every three-to-five years, her path isn’t traditional. But it’s paid off. And having the design bona-fides makes it easier to be an effective leader.

“I think it would pain me to ever feel like I’m just dishing out orders and then I can’t roll my sleeves up and do it myself,” she says, recalling a recent project where she was making a survey of employee perks which included things like food and snacks.

“And I’m still working at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday searching for snack pictures and playing with the opacity. And my husband saw me and asked, ‘What are you doing? It’s 8:30 on a Friday! Don’t you have people?’”

The decade-plus observing management has also given her plenty of empathy for team members at all levels. One example? How to thank someone for a job well done.

That sweeping, ‘Thank you so much for everything you do!’ Or ‘Thanks for all you do!’ can do more harm than good. Because then the person asks themselves, ‘Does she even know what I did? That’s the thanks I get after slaving away and staying here until 9:30?’”

In a large org, you have to pick your battles

One of the hardest parts of leading any kind of change is knowing the subtle difference between giving up and being patient. Want to fight tooth and nail every time something isn’t right? Be prepared for your rage to eventually fall on deaf ears. But, then again, if you lower your standards as a designer, the quality of work won’t improve.

As a leader, it can be helpful to take the temperature of the room. So take a hypothetical request from the C-suite to change a page from pink to blue:

“You turn to your team and you say, ‘Guys, listen, I know why this thing should be pink. If you want, this can be one of those moments I lay on the tracks for. Or we can store up those credits and we can apply them towards getting you raises and promotions and maybe fighting bigger, different battles. So how passionate are we feeling about this?’”

Designer Cap Watkins as referred to this as “The Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck.” From his post on the approach:

One day, we were going a few rounds over a small detail (I can’t even remember what it was, honestly) when Andy suddenly brought the conversation to a halt:

“Hold on a second. I’m like a two-out-of-ten on this. How strongly do you feel?”

“I’m probably a six-out-of-ten, I replied after a couple moments of consideration.”

“Cool, then let’s do it your way.”

In work, as in life, not all disagreements are created equal.

“I think that was the moment that I realized I don’t have to suit up and put a mask on to be a manager, [I don’t have to] act like I’m a totally different person,” she says.

Educate your manager on design

It’s possible that when you first become a manager, your manager will have more than design to worry about. As a result, you have to take feedback while simultaneously educating your manager on design best practices.

“[CIO] Fletcher Previn started to respect me for that. He started saying, ‘You’re the only one that tells me the truth.’ And then our whole relationship kind of changed and he would start to say, ‘Hey, let me run this by you. What do you think of this?’”

It can be tempting to think otherwise, but remember:

  1. You were hired/promoted for a reason.
  2. Becoming just a “yes man” limits your value (and your growth!)

After that, she says. “[The CIO] started broadening his understanding of design.”

Let the impact be your north star

Remember, though things at a large company can move slowly, the impact is often much greater. Most of Kristin and her team’s work is only seen internally. For a company as large as IBM, though, that means her team still addresses more users than most consumer startups.

“Those people have families and lives and friends,” she says. If they spend most of their waking hours with poorly-designed systems, they’re not living up to their potential. And as anyone who’s worked at a frustrating job can attest to, that negativity can bleed over into other things.

“I’m hopeful that they’re having a better dinner, that they are playing with their kids and they’re not screaming, yelling [when they get home].” She continues. “I feel like that’s our job, and that’s so much bigger than ‘designs.’ That’s what I feel like we’re responsible for at this point, and that’s what it feels like to work at IBM.”