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Lee Duncan, Designing for Meaning within the Enterprise

The following excerpt is transcribed from the Zoom event that took place on 10 September 2020.

Key points

  • We need to think differently about the problems of today by holistically contemplating the state of the world as well as the needs of our users.
  • Through developing a platform for enterprise thinking, IBM has developed clear methods to design thinking that are easy to execute, explain and scale.
  • IBM’s methodology challenges us to think more dynamically about our intent and demonstrates how they design for meaning to solve the complexity of the world’s problems.



Lee Duncan is an Enterprise Design Sprint Leader at IBM. Lee’s 20-year career has given him the opportunity to work on cutting edge technologies as well as reimagining new ways of working. Lee’s most recent work has helped launch an Enterprise Design practice within IBM focused on digital transformation.


(Design) thinking differently

“Designers […] don’t have to search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. Only then will they finally converge upon their proposal. This process is called “Design Thinking”.
Don Norman,Rethinking Design Thinking”, Core 77

Intent and purpose are hot buttons in the world of design and can act as guides for designers. They help to uncover real user value from the early stages of research to the final iteration. Yet intent should go beyond products and services or even increasing shareholder value. We need to start shifting gears and think differently about the problems of today. By holistically contemplating the state of the world and the needs of our users, we should not only ask, ‘What products and services do our users need?’, but also, ‘How are we serving society?’


The IBM methodology: How to design for meaning

Milestone histories like being a company that is over 100 years old and employing more than 300,000 people don’t happen by accident. What has set IBM apart is their rigour coupled with the ability to holistically frame and scale Design Thinking. Through developing a platform for enterprise thinking, IBM has developed clear methods that are easy to execute, explain and scale.

“You cannot solve a problem if you do not understand it, and if you don’t have diverse perspectives, you’re not going to be able to solve it.”
— Lee Duncan

IBM’s principles include a focus on user outcomes. diverse and empowered teams and restless reinvention (a constant loop of observing, reflecting and making). For their organisation, thinking differently goes beyond forming diverse teams made up of well-informed stakeholders and experts. It is also aiming to design for radical inclusion. This is achieved by empowering teams with people from different backgrounds that would approach a challenge from a different perspective. This ensures that when tackling questions like ‘How are we serving society?’, they think clearly, inclusively and independently.

The Keys; core to IBM’s design philosophy

“The Principles guide us, the Loop drives us, the Keys align us.”
— IBM Enterprise Design Thinking

With IBM’s Enterprise Design Thinking, ideas are brought to life and aligned through their three Keys: Hills, Playbacks, and Sponsor Users:

  • Hills – statements are written through the lens of the user and put together to ensure that their goals are being executed. Through thinking about who, what and when questions such as ‘What is the intent?’ and ‘What do we aim to deliver for the user?’ can be converted from ideas to actions.
  • Playbacks – are the constant, open dialogues that enable teams to receive frequent feedback and reveal any misalignment as the project progresses. These conversations ensure that modifications are made before building and that the teams remain aligned in their goals until the end.
  • Sponsor users – are real-world people that the design is for and are active participants in the process. They bring experience and expertise to the table while also filling in the gaps of empathy, so the team doesn’t lose sight of the users’ needs.


How long has it taken for IBM to adopt a culture of Design Thinking as part of their working practice?

LD – I would say between five and seven years is when we started to scale significantly. We have a flagship studio in Austin, Texas. I’ve lost count of the number of design studios we have in the world, but I’m going to guess between 30 and 50. That’s not counting IBM iX which is our external consulting arm. But between five and seven years, is when we have moved from Design Thinking to Enterprise Design Thinking.

What are the building blocks of IBM’s Design Thinking philosophy?

LD – IBM’s Design Thinking philosophy is built around three components: The Hills, Playbacks, and Sponsor Users:

  • The Hills are integral to our Design Thinking philosophy. They consolidate our research and form an intent for the user as well as bring alive a key principle of Design Thinking, empathy. It’s Who, What, and When. There are many times we’ve referred to The When as The Wow. It’s how we break down into specifics, like ‘What is the intent?’ and ‘What do we aim to deliver for the user?’ We write that out, to make sure that we are doing a lot of ‘Design Doing’, and that we’re converting the ideas to action. It’s also a means for us to measure our success.
  • Playbacks are the active conversation with groups, not just always the users, but sometimes with some of the peripheral groups, to allow for us to check our math to make sure that we don’t get in our own heads. It also allows us to ensure that if we need to make modifications of design, we have time to do that. You don’t want to find out you’re wrong once you start building, so a constant and frequent playback allows for that conversation to happen. This is something we instil within groups to happen quite frequently.
  • Then Sponsor Users are the people we’re designing for.

How do you help teams shift their focus and invest efforts in ‘bigger picture’ initiatives?

LD – You have to be careful that the initiatives you choose are highly meaningful and balanced with your ability to act, because these initiatives should not only end up becoming movements, but its leaders also need to be inspirational. This is necessary to constantly motivate and energise people into taking action. If you don’t have the right people leading them with the right level of energy and influence, or if you haven’t created any structure where the goals and purpose are clearly communicated, you’re setting yourself up for problems down the track.

How do you lead or compete against the naysayers?

LD – I treat ideas like a start-up, eg. you’re usually standing alone when you set out on your endeavour to make a difference or to create meaning. However, I am aware that team building is critical to success. My initial reaction is to go by myself, but I’m reminded of the statement, “If you want to go fast, go by yourself; if you want to go far, go with others.” So that coalition building and getting the right sponsor is huge. It’s also important that you’re not going to be fighting an uphill battle with the initiative’s purpose. There are a lot of things that you can hack, such as the growth strategy of your company. You can then use it to help with your purpose-driven initiative to onboard and influence people that may push back. I’d advise people to consider the superpower of their company/entity, and then use those powers to inspire your message.

Further reading

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More about Lee Duncan and IBM Design Thinking

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