Doug Powell on Creating the Conditions for Designers to Do Great Work (ex IBM, Expedia, AIGA)

Doug: If we go into that relationship with
the attitude that we know more than they

do, there's pretty, pretty good chance
that relationship's not going to go well.

Being self aware and having
humility and coming in and

saying, you know more than I do.

I know some things that can
inform this but, but please tell

me what, what you need to do.

Having that genuine curiosity then
to say, tell me about yourself.

What are you accountable for?

What pressures do you feel in your job?

How can I help you succeed in your job?

And if you succeed, then we all succeed.

Christian: The discipline of design
is now key to building great products.

More and more companies are making
space for it at the higher levels.

More people than ever
want to become designers.

And most of us who

Doug: already do the job

Christian: wants to find ways to have just
a little bit more impact in our teams.

Welcome to design meets business.

I'm Christian Vasile and on this
podcast, I bring you world class

product and design leaders who found
ways to shape products, companies and

entire industries, and who are now
sharing what they know with you and me.

My hope is that we all get to learn
from the experiences, ideas, and

stories shared on this podcast.

I'll see you next time.

In the process.

become better designers.

Today I'm chatting with Doug
Powell, who's a design leader I've

looked up to for a very long time.

Doug was VP of design at IBM for many
years, and we talk a lot about that

today, as well as about what's important
for you to do as a design leader, what

role coaching and feedback play into
your career growth, and what he thinks

about the famous quote from Phil Gilbert.

"The business doesn't care about
design thinking, the business

just cares about outcomes."

With no further ado, Doug Powell.

Doug, it's an honor to have you on today.

Welcome to Design Meets Business.

There's a lot of ground
that I'd like to cover.

You've had a lot of impact on the
design world, whether that was by

teaching or chairing the board of AIGA
or leading design at IBM or being part

of the Expedia group more recently.

You've got this, this is a
prototype podcast as well.

You're doing a lot.

So it must be thrilling to be you.

It must be busy to be you.

What was your journey like to
get to where you are right now?

Doug: Thanks, Christian.

Thanks for inviting me to be
a part of the discussion here.

I'm honored to be on the show.

So I've been a designer, a
practicing designer in various

ways for over 30 years.

And so, uh, I kind of look
at that, so those 30 years in

three chapters, if you will.

The first chapter I entered the
field of design as a graphic

designer, a visual designer.

The first 10 years or so of my career
was really about learning how to

do that work how to deliver, how to
work fast, how to listen carefully

to the needs of clients and partners.

And to build relationships with those
clients and partners, how to run a small

business and just how to do, again, to
just do the work, which sounds obvious,

but it's actually really important.

Moving forward then into the second
chapter of my career say late 90s, early

2000s, and there was a lot happening.

This was just post internet, post digital
media transfer, initial transformation.

So the practice of design was
changing dramatically in those years.

The way that we design the methods
of design the whole idea of

user experience design was just
coming into focus in those years.

And so I had a great opportunity then to
learn how to do design and in a different

way to learn how to understand the needs
of real people and to point my designs

toward those needs in a very explicit way.

Again, might sound obvious as we sit
here, but these were ideas that were

not really codified or not really
shaped or formed yet in those years.

The third chapter is really about scale.

And this goes back to about 10
years ago in 2013 when I joined IBM.

The big mission there was to
create a sustainable culture of

design and design thinking at IBM.

The way that we did that was to scale
the practice and program of design at

a level that really hadn't been done
before it also, I don't want to claim

that we were the only ones doing it
because in fact it was being done at other

big companies in those years as well.

But the key aspect was
nobody had done it before.

We were talking about hiring and
integrating a thousand or more

designers into that company.

And those were numbers and those, that was
an idea that just hadn't been done before.

And so we had to figure out how to
do that without a playbook, without

a template, without a user manual.

And Um, and so once again, I was
in a situation where I had to learn

something on the job, learn it, figure
it out every day along with a bunch

of really talented people around me.

So a couple of themes that sort of
stretch across those chapters continuously

learning and evolving my practice of
design and my practice of leadership.

Scaling, growing and expanding the
lens of design and also creating the

conditions for designers to do great work.

And that's really what's
at the core of my.

I guess my personal mission as a
designer and a leader is creating the

conditions for designers to do great work.

That's really what drives me
and what I'm passionate about.

Christian: There are a lot of threads
I could pull on here, so I have to,

I think we're going to pull on, we're
going to come back to this introduction

and we're going to probably base
everything we're going to discuss today

on this, but let's go straight to the
beginning to what you said earlier.

In the first chapter of your career,
I find interesting that you said in

these 10 years or so, I focused on
learning to do the work, delivering

fast, listening carefully, and
then building relationships.

And those were sort of the foundation
of your design career later on.

How have these important aspects of
being a designer, especially delivering

work, listening carefully and building
relationships, these three, how have

you seen them change or the requirements
around them change over the years?

Or have they changed at all?

Or is it exactly the same thing
expected today of an individual

contributor that was expected of you
in your beginning of your career?

Doug: Well, They've changed, to
your point, they've changed a lot

and they haven't changed at all.

They've changed a lot because what
I was doing back then, we were

doing design in an analog world.

Primarily, I mean, we had the early
Mac workstations in our studio.

But we were also doing traditional paste
up design with key lines there was a lot

of paper, there was a lot of film and
a lot of working with photographers

and typesetters and printers, most
of what we did was ink on paper.

As it actually came out into the world.

So that's changed, of course,
that's changed dramatically.

Hardly there's very little of what
I do or what I'm involved in anymore

has that sort of manifestation.

It's almost entirely digital.

So that part of it has changed a lot.

What hasn't changed is that we as
designers need to know, as I said, and

as you emphasized, we need to know how
to understand the needs of a business

and of the people who are relying
on that business to do something.

Whether it's shopping in a store
or managing their finances or

doing their very complicated job.

tHey are depending on this business,
this company, this service to do that.

So we need to understand them.

And then we need to turn that
understanding into solutions that

make their life better in some way.

And we need to be able
to execute that solution.

And that's where the doing of the design
that I learned in those early years of my

career is so important that Regardless of
whether it's ink on paper key line that

you're handing to a printer or pixels
on a screen an app on a digital device,

it doesn't, that's almost irrelevant.

What's important is that you need to get
from idea to execution and you need to be

able to do that repeatedly, consistently.

You need to do it efficiently and
increasingly now, and I'm sure we'll

talk about this, we need to understand
the success or measure the value of

those things that we are delivering.

That's another aspect that has changed
for sure uh, because we've gotten a lot

better at understanding whether what
we're creating is good, successful or not.

Christian: Part of being able Execute
really well, especially when you work

in companies bigger than just yourself
is building relationships is something

I talk about all the time as a designer
I think you're often as a sort of

a pivot in the middle of different
other cross functional partners.

And I'm wondering if we could talk
a little bit about this idea of

building relationships and how do you
do that as a designer, joining just

a new company, nobody knows who you
are, you don't know who they are.

How do you start?

What's a good relationship with your
cross functional partners looking like?

There's a lot of questions in here,
but just around the, this idea of

building relationships, how do you do
that as a, an individual contributor?

Doug: Yeah.

First of all I'd say even if you're
a designer working on your own as a

freelancer, you are still absolutely,
maybe even more important that you are

able to build strong relationships.

Design never ever happens in isolation.

It always happens in interaction
With other stakeholders.

It just can't, it can't
happen without that.

So how do we do that?

How do we build those important
relationships and how do we

nurture them and grow them?

I think that one of the the core
qualities of being a designer for me are

curiosity, humility, and empathy, and
that you might think what about craft?

And what about execution and what
about detail and what about aesthetics?

All of those are important, but
those are the ways that we work, the

core qualities of us as a designer,
curiosity, humility, and empathy.

So take, for instance, humility.

I think that's really important as we
build relationships with especially

cross functional stakeholders
that we're working with every day.

If we go into that relationship with
the attitude that we know more than they

do there's pretty, pretty good chance
that relationship's not going to go well.

tHat's, and that's I see that too often.

I see too many designers coming in
with an attitude that they have the

answer and that they, that they know
more than everyone else on the team.

Being self aware and having
humility and coming in and saying

you, you know more than I do.

I know some things that can inform
this but please tell me what you need

to do having that genuine curiosity
then to say, tell me about yourself.

What are you accountable for?

What pressures do you feel in your job?

How can I help you succeed in your job?

And if you succeed, then we all succeed.

So there's a humility there that we
are initiating that relationship with.

It's very important.

There are lots of other things
then that go on from there, but

that's an important starting point.

Start with humility.

Christian: I think I'm also
hearing a bit of curiosity

there, not just humility, right?

Because if you say I want to
know what's important to you.

I want to know what
you're accountable for.

I want to hear more about this piece of
feedback that you've given the design

that just presented that you don't like.

Why don't you like it?

What's exactly triggering
these these opinions?

I think that also goes back
into the other stuff that you

said, which is curiosity, right?

It's not all, not necessarily presenting
solutions and saying this is it.

But uh, when someone pushes back or has
a different opinion, also being curious

is to understand why that is, right?

Doug: And the empathy is trying to
understand, again what what's driving

this person, what pressures are
they under, everyone in business is

accountable for something, and if they
don't achieve that, then they aren't

successful, and if you can tap into that,
and then that can usually Inform how

you conduct yourself with that person.

Christian: You also said earlier
that a big part of your career is

throughout all of these chapters is,
allowing designers to do great work

or rather creating the conditions
so that they could do great work.

What do those conditions look like?

Doug: They're different
in every environment.

At IBM, for instance we needed
to get to a point where we had

enough designers that we could
make a difference in that company.

We thought that number was a thousand
designers as quickly as we could get to.

We ended up adding more than three
thousand designers to the company

in the time that I was there.

Getting to the right number is important.

The teaming of the
designers was important.

One of the core principles of that
program as we built it was no designer

should be on an island by themselves.

What we found was that in talking about
creating the conditions for designers

to do their best work, they needed to
be in an environment where there were

other designers and researchers around
them that understood them that were

practicing a similar practice of design.

If they were out there on their
own in the business without that

support system around them, then
they almost always did not succeed.

So that was another thing
that was important there.

We needed to codify the actual design
practices, the way that design was

being done, the methods, the approaches
the hands on doing of design.

That hadn't been done at the
company to that point, we needed

to create a career architecture.

That, again, we're talking about the
conditions for designers to do great work.

Designers need to see opportunity for
themselves, to grow as a professional,

to advance in their career, to
acquire new skills along the way.

We needed to build the infrastructure
for that to happen at that company.

Because it didn't exist before
that . Another condition was that

when I joined the company in 2013,
there were no workspaces where

designers could do their work.

There were no design studios.

It was mostly either, computer labs
or cubicles where the, the typical

types of workspaces at the company.

So we needed to change that
and we created a network of

design studios around the world.

we built out 50 design studios where
designers were doing their work,

where design and design thinking
were being practiced every day.

So those are a few examples of the, when
I talk about creating the conditions,

some of them are very obvious.

Some of them are fun and interesting,
like creating workspaces for designers.

That's cool.

Some of it is really not
sexy, like creating a career

architecture is hard work.

That's like doing the plumbing.

You have to crawl under the house
of the business and get, you roll up

your sleeves, and you get all messy,
and it's hard, and you're sweating.

And then you think you've got it,
and then, water's all over the place.

That's hard work.

It takes a long time to do that work.

And it's oftentimes not fun.

It takes, resiliency to move
the needle on that kind of work.

Christian: I think it's interesting to
hear this because the work of a design

leader sometimes feels a bit opaque.

It's very hard sometimes to
understand what do they really do?

Because they're not in Figma all day.

They might be at design
reviews every now and again.

But what do they actually do?

And I think this is a great example of
what they do is they fix the plumbing

, if you will, of the organization.

You said something earlier there,
you said you didn't want any designer

to be on an island by themselves.

You wanted them to have
the support system.

Can we talk a little bit more about that?

Why was that support system so important?

Doug: Design and designers
were new to the company at IBM.

There were some designers at the
company, maybe a hundred or so that

were scattered around the company.

Most of them were working in
isolation, and they didn't have

a connection with each other.

And some of them were doing great work.

Some of them were doing
Good work at that time.

I don't think there was great work
being done by designers in those years

What we found and we were
hiring a lot of designers at

the early Part of their career.

So these were designers
who hadn't many of them.

It was their first career design job,
so they hadn't been in a a professional

setting doing design and they needed
to have a support system close by That

was their family, the people who spoke
the same language, who worked in the

same way, who you know had the same
interests and there needed to be sort of

a cultural connection for the designers
there in order for them to thrive.

And certainly when the going got tough and
the going got tough a lot in that company

in those years, it was a hard place to do
good work as many big companies are to

be able to, look at that person next to
you and say, Hey, this is really hard.

I just got out of a really tough
meeting and to have, some support

there to have somebody who, had
your back, that was super important.

There was lots of cultural strength
to that program as we built it.

I don't claim credit for much of it.

A lot of it really grew out of the
community of designers themselves

finding each other, connecting with each
other, creating bonds with each other.

But that was really important.

And over time, I don't think we saw
how important it was right away.

But over time, it became just one of
the key sort of differentiators of

that company and that, that program.

Christian: So this support,
it's so important to have.

This support system, what does that
say about designers who perhaps are

working solo in a company and they
don't have that support system.

Are they limited in how much they
can grow or should, are they able to

go and find that support somewhere
else outside of the company?

If someone out there listening sits as
the one designer in a company, it doesn't

feel they have this support system.

What would you tell them?

Doug: Yeah.

I think, the good news is there are
lots of ways to connect with other

designers in the world we live in
and work in now that's uh, you know,

there are so many communities out
there, so many platforms and forums

to connect with other designers.

You need to be intentional about that.

If you are in a situation where you're the
only designer in a small company , other

designers aren't going to come find you
and say, Hey, do you want to be my friend?

Probably not.

But I guarantee you there are designers
and designers all over the world who

would be eager to build a good connection
with you, but you have to put yourself

out there and you have to be intentional
about it and you have to go and maybe

go to a conference or put yourself out
there on LinkedIn, for instance for,

I, I believe that's how you initially
reached out to me, Christian, right?

So that's an example of there's a platform
that we all have access to where designers

are active and engaged every day.

And go find your people.

Christian: mean, This is probably not
different than moving to a city and

kind of a new city and being on your
own and then you have to put yourself

out there to find some friends.

Otherwise, you're gonna
be on your own every day.

So I guess it's not very
different than that, is it?

You um, we're talking about this idea of
making it a good place to work, right?

And I think that Very much falls under
the responsibility of a design leader, but

there, I think there's something else that
for falls under that responsibility, which

we've been briefly talking about just
before we hit record, which is coaching.

So I think it'll be interesting to talk
a little bit about coaching first of all,

perhaps how coaching played a role in your
career and then looking into how have you

then taken that experience and help coach
others as a design leader, as yourself?

Doug: Yeah, I think it is important.

And when we look at all of the moments
in our careers when we face a challenge

of some kind or another turn in the road,
a new job opportunity or a promotion

you thought you were going to get but
it didn't happen, a performance review

that didn't go as well as you'd hoped and
getting through some of these moments.

I think it's important to have a network
of support around you that you can

turn to in the, in, in those moments.

I've certainly had some of that,
although, I'm at an age and a point

in my career where a lot of the jobs
that I've had, really all of the jobs

that I've had in the last, say, 10 or
12 years of my career, I've been the

first person to have that job ever.

And so, so the idea of having some,
finding somebody who's done the thing

before I can ask questions about directly
has not been quite possible in that way.

I'Ve had to find that guidance in
other ways, find other people who've

done other things that are kind of
like what I'm doing and lean on them.

And I think a lot of us who are who've
been in, in the design profession and

are now at leadership levels or executive
levels of some of these programs.

Many of us could say the same thing
that I just said about our recent

history in the profession that we're
the first person to do the job.

So who are you going to ask?

So we need to be a little creative about
that and we need to find that elsewhere.

I, in my case now I'm hosting a podcast
called this is a prototype and really

. That's, that's my secret reason for
the podcast is to be able to go out

there to some of the people who I
admire, who I've seen do interesting

and important work as design leaders.

And to ask them, a bunch of
questions about their experience.

Christian: That sounds oddly
familiar, what you're saying.


I don't know why, but it sounds familiar.

Doug: I think earlier, early in your
career, for those of your listeners

who are earlier in their career, you
have perhaps a lot more opportunity

now because the profession in the last
decade, especially has grown so much that,

there are a lot more people out there
whose steps you are able to follow in.

And so whether that is a coaching
relationship or mentoring relationship

or simply, going out there and
however you consume information,

listening to podcasts, reading books
or medium articles, following key

people on LinkedIn or whatever social
channels you're on, they're all of

these ways that you can be accessing
that guidance and a direct coaching

relationship is one of those ways.

And there are other ways
that that you can do it.

You need to be intentional about it.

Back to the other point that we
were making about, designers in

isolation, finding their community,
finding their people you need

to be intentional about it.

Christian: So if there's someone out
there listening as a relatively fresh

design leader, perhaps a lead designer,
a principal or a design manager for the

first time, and they buy into this idea
of coaching, they think I need to do it.

I need to get better at it.

I need to coach others.

Where would they start?

Coaching is that there's no book.

Is there a book on coaching?

How you can learn to do it?

Or is it as a country experience?

Or where would you start if you have
never coached someone before and now

you find yourself in charge of a team?

Or perhaps someone just comes to
you and asks for some mentorship,

where do you start and how do
you get better at coaching?

Doug: Yeah we're talking about
two different things here.

We're talking about coaching,
which might be sort of an informal

relationship where you are sharing
your own experiences and in a way that

might enlighten somebody who's going
through a similar path that you have.

Being a manager, a people manager, it
has some of that, but it also has some

very, important very formal aspects to it.

You have someone's career in
your hands in a way, right?

And there are a lot of rules
and parameters to how you conduct

yourself in that relationship.

one recommendation that I'll make, I love
that I think is really just zeroes in

on this moment that you're describing,
Christian of I've just gone from being

a doer, Being a maker, having my hands
on the work, to now I'm managing or

leading this team and all of a sudden
I'm spending almost all of my time

doing something that's very different
from making and doing and creating.

So the book is The Making of a Manager
and it's by Julie Zhou, who was the

head of design at Facebook and now
she's doing other interesting things.

But she talks very intimately.

I see you nodding your head, so you're
probably familiar with this book.

She talks very intimately and candidly
about how unprepared she was for

that transition of Going from hands
on design to suddenly, Leading other

designers and and how challenging
that was for her and how many

lessons she learned along the way.

I love the book.

It's written really well.

It's written, it's very
accessible and it's very readable.

It's not dense and jargony.

It's really just heartfelt
and very personal.

Christian: She's a great writer.

Anyway, before she wrote the book, she
used to write some very, I think she had

this challenge every week for a year to
write some posts on Medium and 90 percent

of them were just so insightful that uh,
yeah, yeah, it's a pretty great book.

I can also recommend that.

So if you are managing someone,
again, we made the differentiation

between coaching and managing, but
let's move a little bit into managing.

If you're managing someone, when do you
know when a person is ready to step up?

You're ready to make the step towards
a leadership role themselves, right?

Not just step up from
a, a junior designer.

Now you're a product designer.

Now you're a senior.

It's not so much that.

Um, But.

When are you ready to move into
a leadership position yourself?

Doug: Yeah there are a lot of factors
there and this goes back, first of

all, it goes back to what I was talking
about earlier and the importance of

that career framework that we built
at IBM for designers, which had as

part of it, a rubric for measuring the
progress of a designer through their

different stages of their career.

So hopefully the business, the
company that you're working

within has something like that.

If they don't, then you probably
need to find it or make it or, and

then start rolling up the sleeves
and doing some plumbing yourself.

But so there's that.

So you've got the rubric and you can look
at that and say, okay, this designer on

my team has achieved these three things
at this career level, but they haven't

quite gotten to these three things.

So then you've got something to
have a, an important conversation

with that designer to say, you're
doing great in these three things.

And here are the three things
that you need to do in order to

get to that next career level or
in order to position yourself for

that next move in your career.

And so this is where the important part
comes for the manager and I'm going to

do whatever I can in the next, whatever
period of time it is, say the next year.

In the next year, I'm going to put
you in the position so that you can

do those things and prove yourself.

That's where a good manager comes in
and recognizes, Hey, I've got a designer

here who's got a lot of potential.

And If I'm not intentional about
putting them in key positions over the

next year, then we're going to have
the same conversation again next year.

And they're going to say,
what about my promotion?

And I'm going to have to say well,
you know what, you're still doing

these three things really good, but
these other things blah, blah, blah.

So that's where we as managers
need to say, this is the plan.

I'm going to seek out these opportunities
for you so that next year when we have

this conversation, we're talking about
how you performed in those situations.

And hopefully we're then able to
make the case that you're ready

for the next step in your career.

That's a sort of an anecdotal example
of how a manager can handle that.

That also assumes that the
business is able to support

the promotion of that designer.

And that's not always the case.

Promotions are in established companies.

Promotions are hard to come by.

You really need to work hard in order
to promote employees because businesses

are tight with their finances, right?

And they're, it costs more
money to promote an employee.

So that's another challenge there.

Christian: And it's also
not just money, right?

If you want to get promoted
into a higher role.

There's no remit for that role in
that company, then even if you do

a great job, perhaps you're not
going to be promoted because there's

no need for that role in a way.

I think what you said here on paper makes
a lot of sense because you are a seasoned

design leader and you know, you know
what you're doing, but the fact of the

matter is that not everyone is like that.

So in case you are dealing with a
manager who's not as proactive as the

anecdotes that you've laid out, would
you then as an individual contributor

go in and say, Hey here's the rubric, as
you said, here's the career progression

ladder that we have here in the company.

I think here are the three out of seven
things I think I do really well here.

I think I still need some work here.

It's that idea of also
asking for feedback, right?

If the feedback is not being given to
you, then you can ask for it and perhaps

extract that from what's being given to
you if your manager is not as proactive.

Is that the way you would go
by doing it as well or is there

anything else that I'm missing?

Doug: I think that's a, that's
an important part of it.

anyone as a designer moving through
their career, you need to do your

homework on these career frameworks.

You need to understand what the
ex, what you are accountable for,

what you are expected to deliver
and what it will take for you to

take the next step in your career.

I guarantee you that if you go into a
performance review with your manager

and you bang your hand down on the
table and say, I want a promotion, why

am I not getting a promotion and you
haven't done the homework to make the

case for yourself , then the answer is
going to be very disappointing for you.

But if you go in and you say, look, as
you did in your example, Christian, I

feel like I'm pretty good in these areas.

I feel like I need some work here.

Is that what you're seeing as well?

Then you've got a really, I think a
really positive conversation to have

with a manager, even a manager who's
maybe not a great manager, at least

you've engaged them in a conversation
there about what your strengths are,

what your weaknesses are, what you
need to be doing, more of or better at.

I also think that we have a notion
of portfolios and we maybe think of I

need, I only need a portfolio if I'm
applying for a new job or I'm going

out and on a job search or whatever,
but we need to actually be thinking of

how our career narrative is evolving
even when we're in a job that we love.

We need to be documenting our work the
value that we're bringing to a company

how we've been successful and we need
to be creating the portfolio of that

so that when we go into that whatever
cadence of meetings with your manager,

where you're having these important
career conversations, you can say,

look, I've done a lot of important
stuff in the last year, and here's how

I'm organizing it and looking at it.

And that can be another way to frame
that conversation in a positive way.

Christian: One of my former managers told
me something very similar every month

at the end of the month, put a reminder
in your calendar and take 20 minutes to

write down what have you done this month.

And then if you can put numbers or how
have you helped the company move forward?

Not just I've redesigned the website.

That doesn't mean much,
but what have you done?

the company gotten out of that, right?

Whether it's conversion rates or
anything, any numbers like that,

and you tell them at the end of
each month, you write that down.

And then a year later, as you said, you
will be surprised by how many things

you've done versus when you don't do
this and a year later and your manager

is, or you have to think have I,
what have I done over the past year?

And you barely can remember
because things blend into each

other and you forget details.

And so I can really recommend that write
down end of each month, take 15, 20

minutes, write down what you've done.

It's completely going to change
the way you look at your work.

And it's very interesting once you do it
for at least one year and you are able

to look back and bring that to the table.

What I've noticed is that when you come
prepared to the table one year later and

say, here's what I've done over the last
year, your manager is also most likely

to look positively towards you because
first of all, you've done your homework.

And second of all, most of the
things that people usually forget.

You don't forget because
you've written them down.

So I think that's a very interesting piece
of advice that I've gotten in the past.

Doug: I think that's great
advice and I love that sort of

tactical way to approach it.

I would also add on to that.

I think that it's easy for us as designers
when we're making that list to think Oh,

I'm, I should only focus on the things
that are the formal aspects of my job, but

oftentimes as designers, we are asked to
do things that aren't the Expectation of

our job, for instance, many of us are good
facilitators of workshops, and so we get

asked to come in and run a workshop and
you might think, oh, I did that workshop

for that other part of the company.

I shouldn't add that to my list.

You absolutely should add that
to your list, because you've done

something important for the company.

You've built relationships
back to our relationship point.

You're building relationships with another
part of of the company, another team

that you don't usually interact with.

You're getting to know people.

You're providing value in different ways.

And whether it's that or, oh I did
the graphics for a company event or

something like that, you know, these
things that that we get tapped on the

shoulder to do because we're good at it.

And and we need to be thinking
about those kind of call them

extracurricular activities.

We need to be thinking about those
and documenting them in the same

way that we do on the the product
or service or whatever it is that

we're accountable for every day.

Christian: I want to shift gears a little
bit and talk a bit more into detail

about IBM and the work you've done there
together with hundreds of other designers.

You said in the end, thousands.

And I heard this quote from Phil Gilbert.

He said, the business doesn't
care about design thinking.

The business just cares about outcomes.

And I think by this point, I would hope
that a lot of people understand what

this is, but just in case they don't,
what did Phil Gilbert mean about this

and why was that such an important
part of the work that you've done

in a hundred plus year old company.

Doug: Yeah.

Phil was my boss for
most of my time at IBM.

He was the first general
manager of design.

Interesting about Phil,
he's not a designer himself.

He comes from a product background
and entrepreneurial product

background, software background.

And so he came at design through
a business oriented lens.

The quote that you just recited of
Phil's the business doesn't care

about design or design thinking.

The business cares about outcomes,
that was sobering for me because

I was running his design thinking
activation program at that time.

And we were teaching design thinking to
teams and leaders and the whole company

for, that was what we were focused on.

So we're doing all this hard work
and then Phil saying, no, the company

doesn't really care about that.

But what he was really
holding us to a higher bar.

And he was reminding us that, yeah,
teaching people how to do this stuff.

Yeah, that's all fine and good,
the people we were teaching by and

large, they were, they would love it.

They would get super excited about
doing it but then what, like It doesn't

matter unless it's making, we're in a
business and the business is measured on

business success and business outcomes.

It forced us to think about how
we could measure that success

and that was super challenging.

That was really really challenging.

And one of the important things
that happened as an outcome of that.

Was that Forrester Research, one of
the the big research firms came into

our program to study the effectiveness
of our practice of design thinking

on the business to basically answer
Phil's challenge and to put some

quantifiable data behind it and they
came up with some really surprising

and important research findings there
around, improved alignment around

velocity around return on investment ROI.

Some very positive numbers.

It's a great report.

It's still available out there.

Forrester, if you search Forrester
research IBM design you'll be able

to to get that it's a great read
and it's loaded with some important

business data, business outcome data.

Christian: If someone listening who's
an individual contributor, here's

this conversation, here's this quote,
business doesn't care about design

thinking the business just cares
about outcomes and thinks what can

I do with this at work right now?

Like, why can I take, how
is this productive for me?

How, what can they take that and do with
it let's say that a sole designer or two

people in a company that perhaps doesn't
have a culture of design, perhaps IBM was,

at the beginning of this program, right?

What can they do with this?

Doug: I think it's inspiring and I think
it gets back to the importance of those

relationships with our cross functional
peers and stakeholders in the business.

Even if you're a designer at one or
two or five in a small team, in a

smaller company you you that's where
that relationship comes into play.

Chances are you are working with some
product leaders, some technical leaders

maybe marketing or data science, that's
where you, you need to go to those cross

functional peers and say, we need to work
together in order to figure out how to

understand when we're actually having
a positive impact on this business.

Chances are there are other people asking
the same question and again, as soon as

that goes from being a design question
to being a team question and it's about

the shared impact that we all have it's
a more interesting and important idea.

And then you're really actually talking
about outcomes to the business, because

if you're only measuring what one or two
or five people have on that business,

that's going to be really challenging.

But when you can say, Hey, we, as a
cross functional, team of X number then

you've got an interesting idea there.

Christian: Let me play back.

What you're saying is focus more
on understanding what the goals are

for the entire team and figuring
out how you as a designer or

as a design team fit into that.

And perhaps don't talk so much about
you and your function as a designer,

what design can do on all of this,
you're saying focus more on the

higher goal of the whole team, build
those relationships, and then have

design retrofit in a way into that.

Am I?

And understanding it correctly.

Doug: Yeah, I don't like the idea
of retrofitting but I think that

absolutely looking at it as a complex
organism rather than a single cell,

instantly makes it more meaningful.

We were always at IBM, we were always
thinking that we call them complex

teams, that sort of multifaceted,
multidisciplinary, multifunctional, cross

functional, complex team, it almost always
had design, engineering, and product, but

sometimes it had marketing and data and
business analytics and, some other thing

that, you know, was unique to whatever
industry they were working within.

That was the unit that we were
studying and that we were trying

to accelerate and elevate.

Christian: I'm going
to change gears again.

Let's talk about something that we
don't often get to talk about on

podcast, which is the role of ethics.

What is the role of ethics in designs?

It's not something we're
discussing a lot nowadays.

It's more about the latest tooling
and the latest interpretation of

this method or that method or the
ethics is not the subject that

every design table shouldn't be?

Doug: I think it should always
be in the field of vision.

And increasingly as, we're all now working
more deeply with AI and machine learning

and different ways to generate not only
The content that we are designing for,

but increasingly design itself, we
need to be sharpening our understanding

of what of the sort of the ethical
concerns that we are working within.


I think that, designers are the champion
of the user, of the customer, of the The

patient the audience member, whoever that
is that we're designing for, we are the

person, They are our primary concern.

And so we need to be, when we talk
about how ethics matters to a designer

it's primarily going to matter in how
responsible we are to that person and

oftentimes we are in a position because
we are, we have the sharpest or the most

direct relationship with that person,
that we see something that the business

is about to do or the business has done
that is not in that person's best interest

or not being honorable to that person in
some way, that violates and maybe even

violates that person and in ways and we
need to be vocal about that and we need to

be clear about when that line is crossed.

So yeah, a huge concern there for
designers and I um, I, I don't think it.

It gets enough air time.

And yeah, I appreciate you bringing it up.

Christian: It's also hard sometimes, as a
designer, when that line is about to get

crossed, but then you have to convince
other stakeholders in the business

that that line is about to get crossed.

And that's really comes down to
perhaps being able to influence,

being able to storytell, being able
to bring examples from how people

actually use your product and what
this small change that might cross

the line might do to their experience.

How would you go about doing that?

We're about to do something here that
I'm not entirely comfortable doing.

Obviously you would say that, but is there
any way where you can pursue stakeholders

further if they're kind of set on this
direction that you don't agree with?

Doug: Yeah.

I think, I think good sound user
research is our most powerful

and storytelling to your point.

Those are our most powerful tools in
that process the, the one most consistent

way that I saw after years of working
with teams at IBM that even the most

resistant and calcified business leader
who didn't, you didn't ever think would

change their mind if you if our teams
could come to them and with the voice

of the user and present a clear case for
a change in direction, the voice of the

user is so powerful, it's irrefutable,
and if we can present that and tell

the story of that and place that in
context for those business leaders and

those other technical leaders, that's
where we're using our superpower and

our purpose of being the champion of
the user to a really important end.

And again, if we go in there huffing and
puffing and yelling and screaming that's

probably not going to go very well.

But if we go in there with clear
research, and we go in there with a

compelling story, then, oftentimes
we start to move the needle.

Christian: I've spoken numerous
times and given numerous stories on

this podcast in the past about how
involving different senior, very senior

stakeholders in some sort of research
has completely changed their minds

because Most senior stakeholders who
are not designers or product people

at least don't have a connection
to the end user on a daily basis.

And sometimes when you actually not
force them, but make it easier for them

to get involved or, sending a couple
of clips to them from someone from a

testing session or from an interview
or whatever you get to kind of humanize

the end user in their minds as well.

And I think that sometimes changes can
happen just because they just weren't

aware that these things are happening
out there and now that they've seen it

they're much more likely to back down
if there's something to or to change

their tune or whatever it may be.

And I think storytelling also plays
really well into this because again,

if you come in with a great story
with artifacts, whether that's an

interview or something like that.

That in itself can be
a very powerful story.

Doug: I think you're getting at something
important here and we, this is an insight

of the program as we built it at IBM
and that was the idea of inviting other,

these cross functional stakeholders into
the design process quite literally, I

talked about those design studios, those
workspaces that we created and built.

Those were built for cross
functional collaboration that

we're talking about here.

so When we invited those, sometimes
resistant business leaders into that

environment, got their hands on it, got
them into the doing of it with a team.

You're absolutely right.

That's a transformative
experience for many of them.

And we had great success with that.


Christian: One more

Doug: uh,

Christian: subject I
want to touch upon is.

Design in the age of AI, not so much
design, but rather what do you see as

very important skills for designers to
retain or upskill on to be able to still

stay relevant in this world that, first
of all, we don't really know how it's

going to change, but it looks like it's
changing very fast, whichever direction

it's going, it's changing very fast.

What are skills that you think over
the next, five to 10 years still

going to be relevant, are still going
to be very important for designers

to either pick up or get better at?

Doug: Well, I,

Christian: I

Doug: Think first, we need to be sharp
in our understanding of the tech.

We need to know what AI is, how it works,
what it can do and what it can't do.

What happens behind the magic,
behind the glass, to make it work.

Because there are some very important
aspects to that that will inform how we

think about it and how we work with it.

And this is challenging because this
requires us to either educate ourselves

or find that information or somehow
get support from kind of the company

or the team that we're working for with
to to do some professional development

or some, some uh, continuous learning.

That means that we as managers and
leaders need to be making the time

and the space for our designers to
be able to sharpen their skills and

advance their skills in those areas.

So that's important.

Then we need to be, going back
to what we do best, and that

is understanding our users and
creating great experiences for them.

We need to keep in mind that
AI is not an experience.

AI is technology.

And so what is the experience
of interacting with That.

I think that's a very wide open space.

We've got some examples.

I can go to chat GPT, I can type in a
provocation and I can push the button and

it will give me something back, but that's
I don't know what the comparison is, but

that's kind of like, AOL, that's like a,
that's like a big old cell phone that,

is the size of a brick, in as a metaphor.

I think in five years or 10 years we're
going to have invented and designed

those experiences and those paradigms and
those sort of core fundamental ways of

interacting those interaction models that
haven't been invented and designed yet.

So there is a lot of important and
great and really cool work to be done by

designers in that space that we haven't
even scratched the surface of yet.

Christian: I have a little tradition
at the end of the podcast, I asked the

same two questions to all guests and
the first one is what is one action

that you think that led to your success
that perhaps in one way or another

separated you from some of your peers?

Doug: It's a good question.

I think well, it depends
on what you mean by peers.

The reason that I came to design to
begin with was that I could draw.

When I was a kid, I could draw pictures.

that looked like something
that I was trying to draw.

And, uh, and, and that's, that's, That
was what was originally interesting

about getting into a career at first as
a graphic designer, as I said earlier.

And that core skill has stuck with me.

And so when I am trying to make
sense of something, I visualize

it and I sketch it out and I
draw a diagram of it or whatever.

It's almost always when I
come to a complex thing that

I can't quite understand.

I make a picture of it, and
then it helps me understand and

so I don't know whether that's
differentiated me from other designers.

I think a lot of designers think
and work that way but it's certainly

has differentiated me in the
broader sort of business world.

Christian: And the last one is,
what are we not talking about

enough when it comes to design?

Doug: I don't think we're talking
about the experience of leaders enough.

We've talked about it a little bit in
this conversation that's an obsession

that I have, but I think we're at a very
interesting point where, again, like

me, most of the the leaders that I look
at for inspiration have had to learn

how to be a leader without a rule book,
without any sort of guidance, they've

just had to figure it out on along the
way and so, uh, you know, I'm trying to

talk more about how challenging that is
And to give more of a forum for sharing

experiences so that designers as they
go through their careers have, have uh,

the benefit of these stories and these
experiences that Many of us haven't had.

Christian: Doug, if people want to
follow you or get in touch with you

or figure out what you're up to,
where could they go about it do that?

Doug: Um, I'm very active on LinkedIn,
so you can always reach out to me.

Just DM me on connect with me on LinkedIn
and DM me there and they can also follow

the podcast, this is a prototype, the
Design Leadership podcast that's available

on all the places where you get podcasts.

Those are a couple of ways and I also have
a training and coaching practice myself.

And so if anyone is interested
in in that, I'm always happy

to talk about that as well.

Christian: I will make all of these very
easy to access in uh, the show notes.

Doug, thank you very much for being on.

You've been an inspiration for me and
many other designers over the years,

and I'm actually so chuffed that that
you've agreed to come on the podcast.

So thank you very much.

Once again, this has been
such a great conversation.

Doug: Thank you, Christian.

It's been great.

Christian: If you've
listened this far, thank you.

I appreciate you.

And I hope you've learned
something that makes you just a

little bit better than yesterday.

You can check out the show
notes on designmidsbusiness.


If this has taught you anything,
please consider leaving a review

and sharing the episode with someone
else who could learn from it.

And I'll catch you in the next one.

Doug Powell on Creating the Conditions for Designers to Do Great Work (ex IBM, Expedia, AIGA)
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