This year I worked for nine months inside a startup at IBM called the Bluemix Garage. It’s a global team of people in strategy, sales, product design, systems architecture, and engineering, and together with its clients, the Garage solves problems for startups and enterprise businesses alike using IBM’s Design Thinking.
You might be asking yourself (like I initially did), How is it that IBM can have a startup? How is IBM’s version of design thinking different from anyone else’s? What do those terms mean, and what do you actually do? These are important questions about place, product, and people – and I’m glad you asked!
Garages, culturally, are the near-mythical origin spaces where prototypes are made. Factually, it’s where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard banded $538 together to make HP’s first product. As a child, it’s where I assembled my seventh grade science class foam diorama of a cell; it’s where my Dad kept his gardening tools, and where my brother and I kept our muddy boots. It’s a place where you can get dirty without too much impact on your cleaner surroundings, where it’s okay if raw materials drip onto the floor.
This was the baseline at the Garage: rolling up your sleeves is routine, experimentation is unexceptional, and the pressure of getting it right is released. In that context, there was no failure – just endless opportunities to tinker, revise, learn, and improve.
And it’s why client engagements started with a workshop: everybody does the work together, and everyone worked on the same thing at the same time. The doing the work part was sometimes new for C-suite clients, since it’s different from delegating the work. Agendas are tight, time is short, and there’s a lot packed in.
Bluemix is the result of IBM applying its own design thinking tools to its product suite. (I tip my hat to the naming steward who drew a branded parallel between the B and M of Business Machines with that of blue [IBM’s corporate color] and mix [the ability for the product to be reconfigurable].) Bluemix a cloud-based computing platform-as-a-service: customers use only the apps and services they need, with instant access to an enormous library of features and functions; the entire platform has tremendous capacity, particularly for scalability.
With Bluemix, any size business can harness enterprise-level computing power – much in the same way design workshops democratize participation from all levels of an organization. When I left the Garage, there were plans to scale from six locations to eight, and we were only two years in.
In order to yield maximum throughput of workshops, some mental preparation was necessary. While at the Garage, I developed these ground rules, shared with clients in advance of getting together in person:
- Take off your judgy pants; put on your partici-pants. Everyone’s ideas are welcomed and heard; everyone contributes to the workshop equally. There are no bad ideas, no silly questions. The stance is yes, and – to keep opening and exploring – rather than no, but.
- Conversation is critical. We explore, unpack, ideate, diverge, and converge – all using conversation. Come prepared to have an engaging dialogue, with active listening & participation.
- Focus for flow. With 100% attention (laptops closed, phones away), together we can achieve the state of flow – full immersion in co-creation. This is magic. And to me, it’s the most special, irreproducible aspect of the workshop experience.
- Quantity > quality. The path to genius is ten thousand unused ideas. Be open to exploration, embrace all possibility – even something that feels absurd. Remember, this is about opening.
- Simple tools focus thoughts. Thick Sharpie markers and 3" Post-Its aren’t for detail. That’s intentional, to focus thoughts on only the most essential facets of an idea.
- Switch it up. Often our clients came to us. A new working environment helps give a new context to what’s possible, and begins to open up mental pathways to creativity.
- Working with people. Working for people. People are at the center of everything. It’s empathy for the user, and for each other. We both value and model cognitive diversity, to yield the most relevant results.
- “Good design is good business.” –Thomas J. Watson, Jr., 1973. All of the Garage tools, including IBM Design Thinking, had one purpose: to help move business forward.
Although these ground rules were portable – that is, they worked anyplace the work was done – we found that a change in context and environment afforded our clients the most release from their everyday thinking, which in turn engages the garage-like mentality. Any idea that’s outside of business as usual stands to benefit most from being explored outside of business as usual.
I found that the people part of my work at the Garage was the one that required the most concentration. From balancing the energy in the room to facilitating conversation with each style of speaker, ensuring all voices are supported and heard, and integrating decision-making (or decision-makers) when necessary, people are the constant.
For 106 years, IBM has reinvented itself, its culture, and its products, in order to keep pace with progress. Just as they no longer manufacture Selectric II typewriters (which I learned to type on), and they no longer develop any products which exclude consideration of the end user, I’m confident there’ll be a future for IBM – if there’s ever a future beyond design thinking. Not many companies practicing design thinking today can claim this longevity.