Creativity Is A Craft & Mindset, Says IBM iX Global Chief Creative Officer

IBM’s deep design legacy has manifested itself in an enterprise design program that is one of the largest of its kind.

Creativity Is A Craft & Mindset, Says IBM iX Global Chief Creative Officer

by Stephanie Overby

Posted on 10-04-2019

IBM was oneof the first U.S. companies to recognize the business value of design when, in1956, then-CEO Thomas Watson Jr. hired architect and industrial designer EliotNoyes to create a corporate design program. 

“Good design is good business,” Watson Jr. later declared in a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

These days, IBM’s deep design legacy has manifested itself in an enterprise design program that is one of the largest of its kind. One of its chief cheerleaders is Billy Seabrook, who joined the company’s business design agency IBM iX in August 2017 as global chief creative officer.

Seabrook spends much of his time at the company on designer enablement: ensuring education, mentorship, and opportunities for 1,500 creatives in 60 studios around the globe. He also advocates for the role of creativity in his business development and client management work.

Amid all that, Seabrook also took the time to talk to CMO by Adobe about the role of design in driving customer experiences, the value of a sustainable design culture, creativity as a competitive advantage, the democratizing effect of design thinking, and how artificial intelligence (AI) can increase the humanity of solutions.

Is the role of design growing in importance in many organizations?

Every company is at a different stage of the maturity curve of how they think about design. A lot of companies have formed a design department, driving more experience design and product development.

Here at IBM, we have an amazing design story. In the 1950s and 1960s we had so many design luminaries in the company, like Eliot Noyes, Ray and Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Paul Rand. Our design community thrived. But by the end of the millennium, the program faded. In 2013, we embarked on a journey to re-create a sustainable culture of design here. We hired 1,000 designers to get the practitioner skill back into our development and product teams. We then introduced the practice of enterprise design thinking and scaled that across the company to over 200,000 people.

Our goal was to get everyone thinking about design much earlier in the process. We also built our studio network so we could bring people together to collaborate. It’s been a radical shift in culture to focus on human-centered design.

Has that elevation of design had tangible business benefits?

Yes. We doubled our design and execution speed, reduced development and testing time by a third, and cut design time by 75%. We saw a 300% return on our design program investment, and now we consult with other companies on how to do something similar. There’s a huge appetite for that in the market because people are realizing that design thinking can really improve culture.

The benefit of design thinking is that it democratizes the act of designing across a much larger organization. You get more original thinking because of the diversity of people in the room and the diversity of thought. You inherently eliminate bias when you open it up to a larger population. You actually deliver faster outcomes because you have a lot of brainpower working on a challenge.

At the end of the day, the real benefit is it’s a forced mechanism to get people to think about the end user. Not only does it drive better business outcomes, ultimately it solves the problem for the user better. It also improves the culture of the organization by codifying best practices on how to unlock big ideas in a way that allows everyone to play along.

Does creativity have business value in and of itself? Or is it simply an enabler of other things?

How you define creativity is important. I think of it as both the craft and the mindset. You need to have people who can create the work and material, but you also need to adopt a mindset of curiosity, agility, adaptability, and collaboration.

As business performance becomes dependent upon having a good customer experience, organizations are realizing that design is critical to that. That kind of creative spirit becomes a competitive differentiator. It can really drive business outcomes.

Are designers born or made?

A lot of it can be learned if you create the right environment and encourage those types of behaviors. That has certainly happened here. Everyone has a kind of shared enthusiasm and that’s contagious—as long as you have the right kind of infrastructure in place to enable that.

IBM iX identified customer experience as an important future trend nearly two decades ago. Today, most organizations say customer experience is a top priority, yet they struggle with it. What are the biggest challenges you see, and what is creative’s role in overcoming them?

Everyone recognizes that they need a great customer experience, but actually activating that customer experience is really the hard part. The key is focusing on the employee experience first. Designing a great employee experience and enterprise experience will unlock the great customer experience.

That’s where it starts to get more complicated—especially with larger, incumbent companies that have built-up behaviors and routines that aren’t nimble or adaptable to today’s customer demands for speed, personalization, shared purpose, and consistency across touch points. So they realize they have to refactor themselves.

The visionary companies—the ones that do it well—have some things in common. They tie their purpose to the customer experience and make it very clear. They embed their brand vision into operations, incentive structures, and policies. They even extend these principles and shared goals for customer-centricity with their partners and suppliers. They create a large ecosystem working together so that every touch point—from the call center to marketing to product design—is aligned. That’s hard to do, but creativity is a huge enabler of that.

What can the average organization do to enable that alignment?

First, they can drive that culture of customer-centricity. It’s a popular thing to say but easier said than done. That might mean adopting human-centered design practices through enterprise design thinking, bringing the customer into the walls of the organization with better user research and analytics, or breaking down organizational silos so you can be more agile. The key is creating that psychological safety in the workspace so people are comfortable trying and designing new things.

Secondly, organizations can enable employees with the equipment, tools, assets, and information they need to be successful. That might mean designing an enterprise design system, mobile solutions, better dashboards for call centers, or using augmented reality for field service technicians. These are all areas where design can help.

Finally, they can just get people started in more agile ways of working, constantly listening and getting analytics back from the experiences they’re creating, and iterating on them.

What impact do you think AI is having on creativity?

AI can address human needs in a much faster, more automated way—and that’s a huge benefit. AI can actually drive more humanity in a way. We’ve used it to deliver more creative experiences.

We worked with Delta Air Lines to use AI during flights to predict weather events and turbulence an hour out. Being able to provide that kind of predictive analytics, thanks to AI, has a huge impact on customer experience. Who wants to be on a plane during turbulence? There are a lot of other benefits, too: It prevents injuries to flight attendants, reduces strain on the plane, saves fuels, and increases on-time performance.

AI is also behind our Sugar IQ digital diabetes app, which uses pattern recognition to predict blood glucose levels and help individuals stay within a healthy range. That’s life-changing.

That’s empowering from a creative standpoint: to be able to scrub all the data out there in the world, make sense of it, and orient it to meet a human need. How you unlock that value is where it gets tricky from an organizational standpoint. How do you actually bake in that way of thinking? That’s why we created some new educational assets within our design department that offers very specific techniques for how to think about AI in the creative process. Using the foundation of enterprise design thinking, the goal is to democratize that way of thinking because we want more people designing with AI and making sure that human needs are being met by using AI in a responsible way.

Topics: Insights & Inspiration, Artificial Intelligence, Tends & Research, Experience Cloud, Digital Transformation, Future of Work, Marketing, CMO by Adobe

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