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IBM’s Phil Gilbert Discusses Transformative Power of Design

Gilbert’s visit was part of the inaugural Segal Design Leadership Series on February 26

Phil Gilbert shares the insights he's gained transforming IBM using human-centered design and a willingness to relentlessly reinvent.

Being one of the world’s oldest technology companies comes with its perks – and its challenges.

IBM has recognized as much, determining that innovation in today’s world requires a focus on user outcomes, restless reinvention, and diverse, empowered teams.

“And this leads straight into design thinking,” said Phil Gilbert, general manager of IBM Design.

A part of the Segal Design Institute’s inaugural Segal Design Leadership Series, Gilbert delivered an hour-long program that traced design thinking’s transformative effect on the entire IBM enterprise. His talk, “Every Day is a Prototype,” took place Monday, February 26 in front of a capacity crowd in the McCormick Auditorium at the James L. Allen Center.

Rooted in empathy

IBM’s transformation began with genuine curiosity, which Gilbert defined as a blend of humility and ambition. This meant pursuing technological solutions that were technically robust, but also ethically and morally considerate to human lives.

“The only way to be truly bold is to be incredibly humble,” said Gilbert, who has lead IBM’s design program since 2012.

With empathy as the foundation for design, Gilbert said IBMers were empowered to innovate and act. He introduced a concept called “The Loop,” which included observing users, reflecting, and then creating. He also championed “Playbacks,” open sessions in which a team shows an in-progress work to a broader set of stakeholders, and “Sponsor Users,” individuals who bring lived experience and domain expertise to the team.

Getting through “The Loop” frequently helps develop alignment, which Gilbert called vital to speed and success.

“The lack of alignment is the root of dysfunction,” Gilbert said.

Broader applications of design thinking

Today, with more than 1,600 professional designers and 100,000 employees certified in IBM Design Thinking, IBM is the world’s largest design-thinking organization and earnestly promotes design thinking as a means to help humans master their environments.

“If we can get the world of enterprises thinking in this way, we’ll all be better off,” Gilbert said.

Jasmine Kim, a student in the Master of Science in Engineering Design Innovation program, called Gilbert’s talk “super encouraging.”

“He showed how our studies apply in the industry and how design thinking can bring value to our future careers,” Kim said.

That was the intended message, according to Segal Design Institute director Greg Holderfield, and a prominent reason why Segal invited Gilbert to present at its first-ever Leadership Series event.

“Design thinking is a part of IBM’s overall organizational strategy,” Holderfield said. “This talk provided our students and the entire Segal community a bigger picture for design thinking beyond product design.”