Recap: Scaling design thinking in the enterprise

4 min read
Claire Karjalainen
  •  Jun 8, 2017
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Today, many companies recognize the transformative power of design to build better products and become more customer-centric. From startups to enterprises, leaders are tackling the challenge of how to become a design-driven organization.

We recently gathered a panel of design leaders navigating the challenges of scaling design in the enterprise:

Before a crowd of designers, executives, and industry luminaries at San Francisco’s rustic and industrial HERE Collective, our panel discussed:

  • Executive buy-in
  • How to spread design thinking
  • Innovating at scale
  • The business angle for design
  • Processes for scaling with consistency
  • How to build and organize teams for scale
  • And more

Want to experience the whole panel? Watch here:

What does “scaling design” mean?

Scaling design can encompass everything from creating uniformity through systems to spreading design thinking practices throughout the organization—and beyond.

Not everyone is on the same page when a company first approaches scaling. As Joni Saylor, Design Principal at IBM, recounted, “One of the first things we had to do was help people understand the difference between design and design thinking.”

At GE, said VP of Design David Cronin, scaling is about “economies of scale” and the challenge of designing in the enterprise. “It’s complex when you do business in 180 countries with a lot of diverse industries and regulations. We always try to balance between coming up with broad horizontal ideas and making them adaptable for a situation in another part of the world you can’t even imagine.”

“One of the first things we had to do was help people understand the difference between design and design thinking.” —Joni Saylor, Design Principal, IBM

Scaling design is about scaling outcomesTwitter Logo,” IBM’s Saylor added. “It’s difficult enough to build momentum with successful projects, but we’re thinking about scaling practices and scaling systems across an organization to get to better outcomes in the market.”

Getting executive buy-in to scale design

Panelists and moderator Bob Baxley emphasized the importance of executive buy-in to gain the investment necessary to scale design.

Sam Yen, Chief Design Officer at SAP, agreed. He traced the “renaissance” of design thinking at SAP to founder Hasso Plattner reading a 2004 cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek about design thinking.

“When [Plattner] read the article he got excited, because it reminded him of what the founders were doing in 1972 when they started SAP,” Yen said. “We’d lost our way. We’d lost our customer-centricity. We had it in our DNA originally, but we kind of lost it, and it took our founder to drive it back into the company.”

Walmart VP of Design Dan Makoski also agreed on the need for executive buy-in. He recounted his experience at Google ATAP when Project Ara lost its executive champion, contributing to the project’s failure.

“Often, design at scale can only come when you have an executive champion who’s opening up space for these conversations,” said Makoski. “I’d like to think that we can just have a scrappy, startup, bottoms-up approach to get scale to happen, but often, you need both.”

“Often, design at scale can only come when you have an executive champion who’s opening up space for these conversations.” —Dan Makoski, VP Design, Walmart

And what about designers who have no executive champion? Tracy Barmore, UX Design Lead at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, offered a few ways to justify ROI.

As part of Grommet, HPE’s open-source design system, the design organization tracks internal and external metrics. These include everything from rate of growth and adoption within the company, to pull requests, contributors, and downloads from the open-source community.

Related: 3 ways changed the game at Hewlett Packard Enterprise

We’re trying to put more design leaders in executive rolesTwitter Logo and improve our ROI in general,” Barmore said. “These specific things we’ve pinpointed as metrics for our success help us say, ‘Invest in us more as a design team.’”

Spreading design thinking

Panelists had a lot to say about how to spread design thinking internally. Overall, most agreed that designers need to educate as many people as possible about how to use design thinking.

Saylor spoke of IBM’s enormous investment to educating and activating IBM product teams beyond the design studio. “Everyone can be a design thinkerTwitter Logo and everyone in our company ought to be thinking like a designer,” she said. “Everybody’s playing a role in bringing a better experience to market.”

For Yen and SAP, the tipping point came from selling the design thinking approach to their biggest customers. “That’s how we really broke through and got buy-in from the entire organization,” he said. “It wasn’t top-down or bottom-up or from the middle. It was getting our top customers to talk about the value of [design thinking] to the organization.”

Innovation at scale

Encouraging innovation while balancing other business needs is one particular challenge of scaling design.
GE Digital’s Cronin brought up the issue of innovating for a market that doesn’t exist yet. “At GE, we invented a lot of things for a future that hadn’t come yetTwitter Logo,” he said. “It’s not just about having a good idea and having the insights about user needs, but about timing the wave so someone’s there to catch it.”

Walmart’s Makoski felt that more organizations needed to democratize innovation, rather than reserving it for special moonshot teams like Google X.

The real question leaders need to answer, he said, is: “How do we get our organizations to a place where we’re using design to unlock innovation at every cellular level of the organization?”

For SAP CDO Yen, there’s an equation that captures the essence of innovation: Innovation = Creativity x ExecutionTwitter Logo. “You can’t just have big ideas and not get them to the marketplace,” he said. “And you can’t just optimize your execution without any big ideas. [Innovation is] a function of both.”

The business of design

Our panelists also talked about the importance of connecting design to business objectives.
Said SAP’s Yen, “If you really want to scale design in an enterprise organization, you need design people who are business savvyTwitter Logo and able to understand what drives a company to invest in something.”

“If you really want to scale design in an enterprise organization, you need design people who are business savvy.” —Sam Yen, Chief Design Officer, SAP

Related: The economics of design

GE’s Cronin observed that GE Digital has a design team aligned to the commercial organization. “We don’t want to show up with a catalog,” he said. “We want to show up with questions and understand the core underlying needs we’re trying to address. Design thinking is a critical part of how we engage with customers.Twitter Logo

Hiring and organizing for scale

For scaling companies hiring large numbers of designers, knowing what to look for in a designer can make or break the design culture.

“We need team players. We also believe in picking someone with more passion for what we’re doing and their future over someone with just raw talent.” —Tracy Barmore, UX Design Lead, HPE

At HPE, Barmore’s team looks for T-shaped employees—designers with broad knowledge but specialized expertise or passion. “When we hire them, we can put them in whatever role is open at the time,” she explained. “But when we do have something that fits their interest, passion, or expertise, we can put them there.”

“The ability to think through and clearly express a problem is the sign of the ability to do great design.” —David Cronin, VP Design, GE Digital

In Cronin’s experience at GE and beyond, there’s a simple key to understanding someone’s potential. “The ability to think through and clearly express a problem is the sign of the ability to do great design,” he said. “That to me is the core of design.”

The ongoing conversation of scale

At the event conclusion, moderator and design executive Bob Baxley reminded the panel and the audience that design practitioners should be proud of the progress we’ve made.

7 or 8 years ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation about how to scale designTwitter Logo,” he said. “We’d be talking about how to bring design into an organization.”

Interested in more insightful panels? Check out some of our past Design+ events:

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