31: Sustaining yourself as a design executive (ft. Katrina Alcorn, GM IBM Design)

In this episode, Katrina Alcorn, General Manager for IBM Design, joins Peter and Jesse to uncover various aspects of being a design executive, including where to spend your time and energy, how to maintain culture and cohesion at scale, and the importance of showing compassion for yourself.


Peter: I’m Peter Merholz.

Jesse: And I’m Jesse James Garrett,

Together: And we’re finding our way…

Peter: …navigating the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership.

Jesse: On today’s show, What’s it like to lead design for IBM? Katrina Alcorn knows. She’ll share with us a bit of the view from the top of one of the world’s largest design organizations. We’ll also talk about the role of design leader as organizational change maker, how to keep reserving space for creativity and play and avoiding burnout along the way.

Defining “Design Executive”

Peter: Hi, Katrina. The reason Jesse and I wanted to talk to you is we’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a true, a true design executive.

I think there’s a lot of design leaders who are being. Given executive-ish titles, but aren’t true executives. And so we’re interested in what it means to be a true design executive. And when we thought about who we knew who qualified, you were pretty much at the top of that call sheet. Looking at LinkedIn, your title is general manager of design at IBM. What is that role? And is it as grand as that title suggests it is?

Katrina: I, I know everyone, no one’s ever heard of a general manager. You know, I work now for one of the biggest companies in the world and one of the oldest ones. So this, I think, I guess, was the title we had in the fifties and we have it at IBM, but it’s very meaningful. So, so the way maybe, maybe it helps if I explain a little about the hierarchy at our company.

So the, the way we’re structured is obviously we have a CEO, Arvin, and then the CEO staff, you know, he has an operation staff and then he’s got these senior vice presidents. So there’s the SVP layer that, that run the different parts of the business: software, consulting. We have a huge consulting arm. Infrastructure. We still make mainframes. We’re now making this really cool thing called quantum computers. That’s an infrastructure.

And so then so you’ve got the SVPs and then you have general managers and the general managers run the different business units. So I happen to, I have a weird role because I happen to sit in software, but I play two roles and I, it probably helps if I explain this, even though I, it doesn’t, it probably doesn’t apply to other companies.

So my peers, where I sit in the company run, you know, multibillion dollar businesses in automation, in data and artificial intelligence in security software, things like that. I’m unique and special because I run design. So when I took the role, when I accepted the role last year, originally, it was positioned as general manager of design.

There’s only one at IBM. It’s, you know, it was positioned to me as the most senior design role in the company, which it is, very exciting. And I was meant to basically be the steward for the design practice for IBM. So the design system, all the accessibility, tooling, all of the work we do around design career paths, which maybe we can get into.

It’s very interesting and very well thought through at IBM. So that’s cross company, but right before I took the role, there was a little reorg and they moved all of the product design onto my team. So I find myself in this really interesting place where, on one hand, I’m sort of leading a, you know, a smallish team of about 70 folks who do this cross company, really what I think you mean when you say design executive, is how design is gonna work at this company, is about how design will help transform this company to be more innovative and be a leader in, in our field, in hybrid, cloud, and AI. But then I also have this job where I lead through authority because I have all of this software designers on my team.

And so, that’s a different type of design executive where, you know, you’re, you’re kind of getting sometimes to get into the nitty gritty of the products and how, kind of, how, how are you optimizing design to ensure that we are making the progress we need to make specifically within our software business. So, so that was a lot of words in summary. I get confused sometimes by my two roles. One is leading design as a practice for the whole company and I have a team that does that. And then I have a much bigger team where we’re, we’re just actually doing the design work for all of software. And that’s about 700 designers.

Peter: You, you mentioned you had peers, like literally, I’m assuming other general managers who are running multi-billion dollar businesses.

Katrina: Yeah…

Peter: And that leads me to wonder, what are you accountable for? Do you have a P and L? Are you, you know, how, how does that work?

Katrina: You know, I’m still figuring that out, honestly. It’s— I am different. My role is different than the other GMs. You know, they’re, they are on the hook for P and L. They have to make money and they get to spend money. I have a, I have one budget for our design practice that, you know, is a, a fraction of my team, but the rest of the funding for our group comes from those other GMs.

Funding models for Design

Katrina: So I’ve talked with my peers at other companies because I haven’t decided if this is the right way. If this is the right funding model, I don’t think there’s one right funding model.

So, so the pros and cons of how we do it now. I get funding from all the GMs to fund our, our designers. And, you know, we do a lot of puts and takes, and I have vice presidents of design representing those different businesses who are in the day-to-day on those leadership teams kind of negotiating.

The good and bad of that is that when we get funding from the businesses to expand design it’s because they are bought in, they are a hundred percent invested in what we’re doing. The downside is it’s a lot of negotiation. it’s a lot of tin cupping. And it’s, you know, I… there’s a reason I’m no longer a documentary filmmaker.

I don’t like doing fundraising so, you know, I, I don’t wanna be spending, I don’t think it’s the best use of, of me and, and my role. The flip side is, you know, the other extreme would be, there’s some kind of tax where we say “design is part of the cost of doing business.” And I haven’t figured out what that perfect formula would be, but I believe there, you could come up with a magic formula that says, you know, if design to development ratio is this, this is what the percentage of the budget should be.

And as the businesses expand, design expands, and as they contract, design contracts, and then we are in charge of figuring out how to best deploy our design resources and work with the businesses on that. The downside is in my, my peers who run teams this way, they say the businesses, when they pay that tax, they feel like they paid.

” I paid for design.” So if there’s a need to invest more in design, it’s like, well, why should I do that? I already paid, I paid my tax. So as much as I don’t like fundraising, I– I’m really starting to value the, the hard work that goes into getting people on board with paying for design.

Jesse: Katrina, how long have you been in this role at IBM?

Katrina: A year, a, a year and a month. Yeah.

Jesse: Yeah. Yeah. So 13 months into it, I’m curious about what that experience was like for you stepping into this situation, having this shift in your mandate, and then, obviously, getting to know a whole bunch of players very quickly, to be able to start having those conversations about budget and stuff.

And I’m curious what that experience was like for you and how you approached getting to know a whole bunch of new people all at once and starting to build those bridges.

The trajectory of design at IBM

Katrina: Yeah, I, I did this massive listening tour when I took on the role. And so I joined IBM in July of last year. And there was a week where we were starting to open up from the pandemic, and suddenly planes were flying again and they had people on them. And this was right before the Delta variant hit.

And so I spent my first week on the job in Austin, Texas. It’s probably the most exhausting week I’ve ever had because our flagship studio is in Austin. So we have designers all over the world, but we have the most designers concentrated in one place in Austin. And, the designers put on this incredible pageant for me, I, you know, all day long, I felt like I was sitting through one TED talk after another of all the amazing things that our design teams were doing around sustainability and artificial intelligence and, you know, really deep technical stuff and, and some really cool purpose-driven stuff. We have this racial equity in design program.

So all just getting my head full of these things. And then I went back home and the Delta variant hit, and I didn’t see anyone for months and months and months. But I, it was very helpful, I think to get that infusion of facetime. I then spent the next few months doing a virtual listening tour where I think I did one-on-ones with more than a hundred people, not just in design, but of course our cross-functional partners and our senior executives around the company, just listening for: Where’s the opportunity? What, what are we doing well? And where is the room to improve? You know, what, what should my mandate be?

And I should, at some point I should probably explain the trajectory we’ve been on. ‘Cause it’s really interesting. I mean, IBM had almost no design happening in the c— I mean, no designers in the company, 10 years ago, we had this rich history of design from the sixties, then that fell away, no designers.

And then we had this new CEO 10 years ago, who said, let’s, let’s do this again. Design is gonna be the thing that, you know, helps us differentiate. And so Phil Gilbert was anointed as general manager and he built the practice from a few dozen people to 3000 and he built all the, you know, he and his team put all the foundation in place for design.

So when I came in, Phil’s retiring, he brought me in. I’m listening for, okay, we, we did all these things, right? I mean, that’s what I saw. Like we hired the designers, we put them in all the right places throughout the whole business, not just in software. We had all these amazing programs running, but I’m also looking for, What’s not working, you know, where can we move the needle or where did we maybe take a wrong turn, where we can course-correct.

And it took probably four or five months to really have a, a pretty clear informed point of view about that. And then I worked with my team on articulating that into a vision and that was a really fun and exciting process. So that was the first six months. And then the next six months was about socializing the vision and starting to put it into practice.

And, and creating real programs and, and having real measurable, you know, goals around making these improvements.

Peter: Can, can you share what this vision is? Is there a public face to it at least?

Katrina: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I’ve been blogging about it actually, so, and I’ve never worked this way before, you know, in previous jobs. I don’t know. It was always more internal, but I think because the IBM Design program is so external-facing it’s, it’s really well known. And I decided to just start blogging about what I was learning and getting feedback both from our designers in the company, but also folks outside of design.

So I’ll, I’ll try not to go into my total stump speech cause I’ve done this a hundred times, but here’s the big ideas. Okay. So we had almost no designers at the company 10 years ago. Phil Gilbert, who is a legend, the, the former GM, led this incredible revolution to reinvigorate design at IBM. And when he was recruiting me for the role, I asked him, “How are we doing? How are we doing with design?”

And, you know, he told me about all the cool stuff. And I was like, “Yeah, but how are we really doing, how’s it transforming the business?” And he said, “Well, we have pockets of excellence, but we don’t yet have pervasive excellence.” And I, he said that, right, even before I took the job and it was, I had this ideas list of every time I talked with someone, I would like hear an idea between the lines and then I would capture on the list.

And that was one of the first things I captured. And it was the thing I kept going back to because I really think that’s the job now for all of us is how do we take this incredible foundation that’s been laid, this investment and kind of supercharge it so that we’re scaling excellence that is happening pervasively across the company.

After many, many, many conversations and roundtables and all the, all the things we do as designers to learn what, where we landed was on three areas. And I, in my head, I have a multi-year roadmap around these three areas, but we’re, we’re going agile. So , we’re taking ’em off one piece at a time.

So the three areas are around customer insights. I think there is a lot of opportunity for us to do for, you know, user research, design research, what we’ve already done for the core discipline of design. So a lot of things happening there.

The next area is around teams. And you know, you you’ve talked with other design leaders about this. I’ve listened to your podcast and we, we can’t be successful in design when it’s just design. To really, really be successful, you know, whether you believe in the statement of everyone as a designer, everyone has to care, they have to care about the people they’re serving and really be thinking critically about what that means. What can we do from our perch in design to ignite that and make sure we have strong cross-functional relationships. So there’s a whole body of work we’re doing around that.

And then the last piece is around learning. And one of the things that is so exciting to me about this role at IBM is we operate at scale. So, you know, Peter, when you and I first met 20 years ago you all were running Adaptive Path. I was working at a rival agency that was about the same size. You know, we, neither of us had more than a hundred employees, and designer education for us then was you send your designer to a conference once a year or, or you sent them to go speak at one, and then you don’t have to pay for it.

That was pretty much the extent of it. So now, you know, we’ve got 3000 designers and they’re actually thought leaders in the type of, you know, work that IBM is trying to do around things like artificial intelligence. So we’re really trying to unlock that learning to create this, these kind of training programs inside our company to kind of harness that knowledge and help our developers or help our designers kind of grow from each other.

Where to focus time, effort, and energy

Peter: I’m wondering, particularly in these last six months, and as you look forward to maybe your next year, one of the questions that I get a lot, one of, one of the challenges that I think a lot of design executives have is knowing where, and how, and with whom to spend their time, because time is a finite resource. Time is the only finite resource.

And it would be very easy for someone in your position to just work 120 hours a week, because there’s enough stuff to do that you could do that, but I, you, you would burn out you’ve in fact, written a book about burning out. We can get into that. You have a life outside of work. You recognize the value, even if you weren’t a working parent, even if you weren’t any of those things, you would also just recognize, like, there’s a, there’s a, there’s a point at which you, you just can’t give anymore and it’s not healthy to, to keep working.

So what have you, particularly now that you’re operating at this even newer scale, right? Your last job at Autodesk, you probably had a couple hundred people in your team. Now you’ve got 700 that you’re kind of directly responsible for in another 3000 that you’re somehow responsible for. , how are you, how are you figuring out where to focus your effort and energy?

Katrina: Yeah. It, well, first of all, yes, we, none of us can do everything. And there’s never enough time in the day. And one thing I’ve learned about work is work will take every ounce of energy you are willing to give it and then some. So we all have to draw these boundaries no matter what kind of personal life we have, no matter what kind of job we have.

It helps by the way to know there’s been a lot of research on this. I, I read a lot of the research on just, like, how much work is too much. And in fact, I think IBM even sponsored some of these studies in the fifties and what they found with knowledge workers was, you know, there’s diminishing returns when people become chronically overworked and that the limit seems to be about 40 hours a week.

So not only do, do you become less productive at a certain point when you cross that threshold continually week after week, but you start to create new problems at work because you’re not thinking clearly you’re not making good decisions. So I, I try to remember that and I try to remind my teams that because I think sometimes people feel guilty about trying to set boundaries, but actually your company needs you to set some boundaries.

So where do, where do I spend my time? There, there is not a one size fits all formula from what I’ve seen. And I, Peter, I think you’ve, I feel like I saw a talk you gave or blog post or something about like time you know, your pie chart of where you should…

Peter: You orient your relationships and as you get more senior, you tend to orient differently. Yes.

Katrina: That’s right. And in general, I agree with that, that said. You’re also a parent, you know, that sometimes there’s a crisis your kid is going through and that week it’s all about your kid. And you know, sometimes your kid is fine and you spend more on work.

And it’s sort of the same, even at work where I find there are weeks when I just need to be heads down with the designers. And, you know, at my level, a lot of people don’t do that, but I kind of respond to where, where I think I can add the most value or where the most, the biggest need is. And then there are other times of course, where I kind of have to actively pull back, ’cause it, it is very easy to work with designers. We think alike and they’re really fun but what I, what I keep telling design teams, ’cause people were disappointed, when I took the role, I didn’t move to Austin, which is where Phil was. I actually moved to New York, but the point of me moving to New York, and Phil was part of this decision, was this is where, this is where the senior executives are at IBM. And one of the most valuable things I can do is have really strong trusting relationships with those folks, because those are the people who will set design up for success in their parts of the business.

Jesse: One of the challenges that I hear about from people in my coaching practice is they realize that their priorities need to shift, but everybody around them has their own opinions about what their priorities ought to be. And claiming that sort of autonomous authority to set your own priorities is often a challenge for people.

How do you manage the expectations of other people when you realize that your priorities need to shift and you need to shift your focus, the way that you’re describing?

Katrina: That’s so interesting because I don’t, I don’t think I’m running into that problem. I want you to, I, I would love to hear an example of that.

Peter: Have you run into that problem in the past? I mean, you’ve worked so GE and Autodesk before IBM, big corporations, where there would be a lot of potential for politics and people telling you how to do your job.

Katrina: Well, there, the politics is, politics is real and that’s at every company and we can talk about that. But in terms of people telling me where I should spend my time, I maybe I’ve been lucky that I’ve, I’ve mostly worked for people who, who respected my authori-tay, you know, they gave me my autonomy and, and the challenge I’ve had is I’ve, I see the need everywhere. And I, I want to be part of a solution, but you can’t be involved in everything.

Jesse: I think that, you know, it’s not, it’s not so much do you have somebody micromanaging your time as it is, you have peers who are noticing where your focus and your attention lie, and often they feel like the top of your priority list ought to be whatever’s at the top of their priority list.

And I… sounds like the arrangement that you have at IBM allows you more flexibility than that.

Katrina: Yeah. I, and again, I, I may just be lucky in this role at this company, the, the, you know, in terms of getting invited to lead initiatives, or, I mean, there’s too much of that. So. I think as, as I’ve moved up in my career, I’ve had to develop kind of a black belt in different ways to say no, or deflect, or say not yet.

And I think we all need that. It’s you know, that whole thing of what you say… You can’t say yes, unless you can say no. If you say yes to everything, nothing gets done.

Jesse: mm-hmm

Peter: I hear, I hear from design leaders that they are, like literally unable to say no,

Katrina: Yeah.

Peter: In many of the contexts that they operate in and I, I try to get them to “no” for the, for these reasons, but I think a lot of design leaders, and it sounds like you’ve been fortunate not to have the situation, a lot of design leaders feel subject to forces, kind of, outside of their control, and don’t quite know how to, how to overcome them, right? They, the, the wave is crashing on them as opposed to them riding the wave.

Katrina: Yeah. Yeah. And I, and I’m not, I’m not trying to say that doesn’t happen. It certainly happens. I think just my experience of it is more the, the need for design and design leadership is everywhere, but it’s less about someone saying I expected you to focus on this and it, to me, it’s more about, well, if I turn my attention away from that thing, I’m afraid it’s gonna fall flat, but there’s only so many things I, or my team can do at once.

Um, there’s a lot of, you know, this is something Phil Gilbert said to me a while back, he said, you have to know which balls are rubber and which our glass. And I’d like to think I’ve figured out the difference. So we’re all juggling , but some things can drop and they won’t break and some things will break and it’s gonna be bad.

So get really honing our instinct around that is important.

Jesse: There are a couple of other factors that come into play when leaders feel like they can’t set those boundaries and they can’t say no to keep their focus on the glass balls and let the rubber ones bounce. One of them being that sometimes organizations just don’t have a culture of saying no, you know, they’re just, throughout the organization, outside of design, there’s just this sort of thing that we are all going to listen to the priorities of the people above us.

But there’s also the thing where I think a lot of leaders, especially as this level of design executive leadership is relatively new in a lot of organizations. They still feel like they have something to prove to the organization, to prove that design belongs there. And that leads them to kind of be more willing to give, more willing to say yes to, to everybody else’s priorities in order to try to kind of prove themselves.

Katrina: I think that what you just outlined Jesse is absolutely real. I think a lot of us in this type of role, see the opportunity in front of us. You know, design is still maturing. We’ve come a long way since the three of us started practicing design, but there are still many people who think, you know, and senior executives who think design are the people who put the pretty colors in at the end.

And we all know it so much more than that. So I think we all have this great responsibility to constantly be up-leveling the practice and, and seizing the opportunities as they come before us. And, and when you’re really looking for those opportunities at a big, big organization, there’s, there’s actually a lot of them.

You know, I, what would be an example for my life right now? I mean, one, so one of the things my team is working on right now, we have the design thinking program, which is core to how we kind of try to teach a design-centered or a human-centered mindset to the rest of the company. It’s less about the designers. It’s more about anyone who works with designers. And, we made a decision. You know, after we kind of started unveiling the, the vision, to have one of our first pieces of work be to revamp our training for executives. And it’s very intentional that we’re doing this.

So these are not design executives. These are other general managers and even SVPs of different parts of the IBM businesses. Well guess what, we were successful with, get- getting people to start signing up and now we have to deliver on that. And so, so to me that is one of the glass balls where, and my team knows this, that, that, that one is so important because it’s so high profile and it unlocks opportunities for our whole design practice if we get it right.

So some other things may need to get put on the back burner while we make sure we really nail it on this one. But yeah, I, I, I hear what you’re saying. A lot of the job of being a design leader at a company like this is not in the job description. It’s, it’s the seizing the opportunity.

It’s the listening in between the lines for what what’s really being said and the kind of proactively going after that and being a change agent, and you could do that all day and all night never sleep.

Jesse: Yeah. You mentioned being a change agent, and that is something you’ve mentioned a couple of times about design and its potential to transform the business. And this is something that Peter and I have talked a little bit about, about how much do you see being a change agent as a necessary part of that unwritten job description of the design executive.

Katrina: Well, I think if design was fully understood and recognized and invested in and respected, the way for example development is…

Jesse: mm-hmm

Katrina: we would not need to be change agents. We would need to be good stewards. You know, we would need to do the, the main part of our job description, which…

Jesse: mm-hmm

Katrina: You know, drive human-centered processes, that’s, you know, collaboratively solve complex problems and solve them well and that went in the market.

Jesse: Yeah.

Katrina: I think we’re change agents because all of us doing this are still part of a movement to kind of change how businesses work, how they run.

Jesse: Mm-hmm.

How are Design executives different from other executives?

Peter: I was just having a conversation today with head of design. He’s got a team of about 70 and he, he was thinking about getting an executive coach and, and there’s value in getting executive coaches, but his challenge was, he sees, and, and this is something I’m hearing from a lot of design leaders that being a design executive is, is different than being other flavors of executive. Not to say that we’re special, but we’re at this, we’re still at an evolving stage in our evolution of what it means for design to play at this level. And what, what might work for any executive won’t necessarily work for us. And I’m wondering kind of, ’cause I believe you’ve gotten, I’m sure you’ve gotten executive coaching, Katrina and, and that kind of wisdom, and I’m, I’m wondering how you, apart from maybe being a change agent, what are those qualities of being a design executive that are interestingly distinct from being just any other, any old executive .

Katrina: Yeah. I think a lot, it is a really good question. So what, what is required of a design executive, that’s different from a business executive?

Jesse: Mm.

Katrina: A few things come to mind. You know, the, obviously what we’ve just talked about, about being a change agent. You know, being a general manager of a software business, where you have a P and L and you know, certain client relationships you have to lead and certain numbers you have to hit, that is very well understood at most companies.

Whereas what, you know, even how you measure success as a design leader is not as well understood. And maybe we don’t even all agree on, on what that means. So I do think there’s just some, something about being, you know, I think we have to be incredibly creative, resourceful people to work in environments where, where we’re constantly educating folks on what’s possible when it’s, it, when it’s unexpected and not necessarily even wanted, if that makes sense.

That said, I think being a successful design executive actually does have a lot in common with being a successful business executive in that we need to learn how, how to think and talk like the other business executives we work with. But we always do that knowing where we come from and what, what kind of change we’re trying to drive? I think the mistake I’ve seen with a lot of design leaders is they kind of dig their heels in on being a design leader. It’s the, the diva design leader and that just never plays well. You know, I, I…

Jesse: yeah.

Katrina: … we talk a lot about relationships as executives, whether you’re a design executive or someone else. Our relationships are so important. And if you’re taking the stance of like, I know things you don’t know, and I’m gonna be smug about it, and there’s no way you could possibly be as smart as me about it, well, guess what? You’re probably not gonna be very successful there.

Jesse: Right.

Katrina: Yeah.

From Designer to Design Leader

Jesse: Yeah. I think that one thing that happens with these design leaders is that their identity as designers has been so important to them throughout their careers, that they don’t necessarily recognize that they’ve gotten to the place where that identity needs to shift. to start thinking themselves as a design leader, as something distinct from being a designer.

And it has different implications and a different skill set that’s associated with it. I’m curious about, like, when was it for you that you kind of shifted your mindset and started shifting your, your sense of who you were and kind of letting go of the nuts and bolts of design and starting to pivot toward developing these other skill sets.

Katrina: Well, I, I have a confession for you. I never felt like I belonged as a, you know, I always felt like I was an outsider in the design community. Even though I worked in the center of, you know, the design mecca in the world, even though I was friends with folks like you, Peter, I, I always, my identity came from my first career, which was journalism.

So I always felt like I was code switching from, from, you know, being a newspaper reporter and a documentary filmmaker, and then working with all these designers who, you know, went to RISD and had all these fancy degrees and knew the whole canon of amazing designers. And so I, maybe that’s just something I haven’t had, I haven’t had to shed that baggage because I never had it to begin with. Yeah,

Jesse: Yeah.

Peter: I mean, that’s something Jesse and I have talked about. So Jesse also started in journalism. My one, my one degree is in anthropology. And I think there’s the, the fact that we might not have identified as designers, or as part of that… kind of, taken on that identity has given us a perspective that has allowed for whatever success we have had because we weren’t as caught up in, in, in the identity game of, of being a designer.

And I’m wondering if that’s something you’ve, you believe to be true, if you found to be true. I mean, there’s clearly people with design backgrounds who’ve become successful design leaders, but how, how has not being as wedded to the identity of design, how, how has that affected your path?

Katrina: Yeah. Yeah. That’s so interesting. We’re all, we all look like insiders. Who’ve all, all felt like we don’t belong.

Peter: We’re lizard people, right? We, we

Katrina: Right, right. This…

Peter: right?

Katrina: That’s so funny. So how’s that affected my path. I think, I, I’m guessing, but, and my guess is this is true of all of us. I would think that that’s perhaps made us a little more open-minded about, you know, where creative solutions come from or what good ideas really look like?

One thing I found with some design leaders who get kind of hung up on their identity as designers is there’s this, I, I have a pet peeve about people using the word craft and design. I think that word has been weaponized. So I, I think that there’s a way that, I’m not saying everyone, I’m not saying can never use the word, but I think that sometimes the design community over-indexes on what is called craft, what it really means is, I like how this looks and I think it’s great for my portfolio.

And what gets lost is, What’s the problem you’re solving? Who are you solving it for? You know, I, an analogy would be from architecture. You know, there’s some modern architects who you know, may, I don’t know if you’re gonna follow this analogy, maybe I should skip this one. It’s too, it’s too far afield, but it’s this idea where you can get so insular in your discipline that you kind of lose sight of what it’s for.

And I think those of us who maybe, our whole identity is not hanging on the idea of being the best designer. We’re maybe a little more open to what is it we’re really trying to do. And maybe it’s not all about me.

Jesse: mm-hmm.

Peter: You mentioned earlier Phil’s comment around pockets of excellence, but not pervasive excellence. And when I’ve worked with design leaders who were in a similar situation to you leading very large teams, and they’ve often seen something similar, their, a way that they are addressing it is actually through craft.

And by which I mean, one of their– something as part of their assessment, what they see is a lack of craft in many of these locations. And there’s a responsibility to try to bring the craft up. And I’m wondering if you’ve seen that, if that’s been an experience you’ve had, or if you think maybe there’s, there’s something else going on and craft is, is an easy solution to identify, but not, not actually the real problem.

I’m wondering how, if, if you’ve ever had that kind of experience,

Katrina: There, yeah, so there’s definitely design quality. I will call it that. You know, there’s, we, we all know them. There are certain heuristics and rules and, and you know, you, you know, those of us who’ve been practicing design for a while, can pretty quickly see when something has not been, well, when it’s breaking those rules and it’s just not gonna work, right. I’m, I’m not discounting that.

What I’m talking about is, I’m not gonna name the company, but I’ll give you an example. So I have worked with, you know, I was in consulting, so I’ve worked with a lot of different kinds of companies. And I have seen companies where you’ve got this centralized design team and a team of designers who are, you know, thrilled and very self-congratulatory, frankly, about their craft and what they put together looks great.

I’m not gonna argue about that. And it follows a grid and it’s a system and, but no one can use it because they’re too disconnected from the problem they’re solving. And you know, when I, I work in a space, we’re not making cat videos. We’re, we’re not making ads. We’re making really complex software and workflows and machines that have a very specific and sophisticated context and, it’s… doing great design is gonna have to go way beyond, you know, something we learned in a class at RISD, and it’s gonna be much more about how is this thing gonna be used, and what really matters to people and what are the constraints we’re working in. And then how will we work with that? Now you might say that that’s craft, but I, that’s not how I see a lot of designers use that term.

Peter: Yeah, I think, I mean, there’s, there’s a, there can be a tendency, I think, for the word craft to be kind of like a tribal indicator. Are you in or out of my club because of your fealty to this concept of craft?

Katrina: That’s right.

When “Design Thinking” succeeds

Peter: Well and that, so that ties to another thing I was thinking about earlier, you were mentioning the design thinking practice at IBM, which is I mean, established 10 years ago with IBM Design.

It was always, I think part of the, the plan. It’s not for designers so much as it’s for the non-designers who can work with, not just work with your designers, but work with your customers and clients.

A lot of companies have tried design thinking and most have failed in creating any lasting design thinking program or impact. IBM has succeeded. And I’m wondering to what you attribute that success for bringing kind of design practices to non-designers and bringing non-designers into, yeah, design work. Why, why, IBM has succeeded, where in, in so many companies, they can’t even say design thinking ’cause it was a failed kind of attempt at like, it was a failed management fad from five years ago, that a lot of people ran through some week-long of training and, you know, we’d spent a lot of money and nothing happened.

What, what was different or what have you seen are, are the conditions ’cause I think you’ve seen success with bringing design thinking to other environments. What are the conditions that actually allow that kind of engagement or initiative to succeed?

Katrina: Yeah. Yeah. I, and by the way, I completely get why there’s been a backlash against design thinking because you know, it’s like design thinking is just a, a mindset and a methodology. And it’s a set of tools that that we use to collaboratively solve really hard problems that usually can’t be solved by just one person.

So design thinking gives us very specific frameworks and ways of working together on complex things that often lead to better, more creative solutions. And they get us there faster and I’ve seen over and over and over the power of that.

But I think in some companies, design thinking has turned into this superficial thing. You know, it’s like seeing a great painting and saying, well, see, you just need these paints. And it’s like, well, yeah, okay. You need the methods, but ,you need not know how to use them. Right? You need the mindset behind the methods. It’s not a check the box activity. It requires a lot of critical thinking.

I think it’s been, so far, successful at IBM in part because it gave everyone a common language. And at a company like IBM, I cannot overstate how important that is. You know, 300,000 employees are, I, I don’t know exactly what our employee count is after the spinoff of Kyndryl, but it’s a whole lot of people who have to work together and act and behave like one company.

And so if everyone has a different idea of what it means to innovate or to, you know, to solve problems, just kind of getting, getting started is this enormous overwhelming challenge. So what enterprise design thinking, EDT, our program gave us is not only the methodology, but just the words around the methodology.

So, and hats off to, you know, the, the team that was, I, I don’t get any credit for this, unfortunately, ’cause this was built before I came in, but the team, many of who are now on my team, you know, came up with the IBM loop, and the, the way we talk about observe, reflect, make, and just, these aren’t, it’s not rocket science, but it’s giving words that a lot of people in the company now understand way beyond just the designers.

So you’ll hear product managers talk about their Hills and you know, this is a way we talk about at IBM, what challenge you’re trying, what problem you’re trying to solve. Now, I’ve worked at other companies where all kinds of projects fail. And when you do the diagnostic afterwards, you find out, well, no one agreed on what problem they were solving.

So the idea that we can have a starting point here, everyone understands what hill is. They understand they need to have a hill. They need to agree on what that hill is. That gets us a great starting point. I, that said, I think we have a lot of work to do even at IBM, even with the success of this program, to make sure that it’s continually infusing our work, and that, that we’re using it in the right ways.

So, you know, like I mentioned before, right now, we’re in the process of kind of reinvigorating the program. And we started with our executive, senior executive training. And my hope is that, you know, we’re really successful with that piece. And then it starts to, then we start to kind of move down the chain so that I don’t know, so that we, we continue to have a common understanding of how to do this work.

Maintaining culture and cohesion at scale

Jesse: I’m curious about some of the, some of the issues along those lines that come into play. When you start dealing with scale at the scale that you’re talking about, where, you know, you’ve got, you’re at the top of this pyramid of design that has, you know, these layers and layers to it, of people in pockets here and there.

And it’s very easy for an organization like that to feel very disconnected and, and for it to just kind of dissolve into a bunch of little islands of design. How do you create a sense of unity for a group that big? How do you create a sense of common culture for a group that big?

Katrina: I’m so lucky to be stepping into this role because I don’t know any other company that’s in this situation that we’re in. So, you know, there are very few companies with this many designers. The ones that have those designers kind of hired them over time and it happened organically.

And then organically people form their little fiefdoms and I’ve seen it in a million different ways in different companies. What’s unique about our experience at IBM is we only had a few dozen designers 10 years ago. So, you know, three, these 3000 designers in our practice kind of came up together at IBM.

They, they, a lot of them were core in developing the program that is now become ubiquitous at the company. And so initially they were hired in a centralized group. But then we dispersed that group because you know, Phil really believed, and I agree with this, that to make design sustainable, the businesses have to invest in design.

We need to have people embedded all around the company, but those people embedded have this core DNA from those early years in the program, they helped create the program. So my challenge now coming into this is how do I keep that alive?

Because people are quitting, new people are getting hired. They don’t know the history. And one of the things that I’ve done as a newcomer to IBM is I keep reiterating the legend of IBM Design. I, you know, and in a lot of the town halls and the talks that I give I’m often referencing, or even retelling that ten-year history story, because I do think it’s so important that people kind of understand how we got to where we are, and that they feel connected to that.

And then there’s a bunch of other things I do. Like, I made a bunch of hires and promotions and executive changes when I came in. And one of the things I really looked at was making sure we were bringing designers together from different parts of the business that there’s like a cross pollination that’s happening. So for example Joni Saylor is now really running the design program office on my team. And she’s amazing, shout out to Joni, but she she’s a long time IBMer, she worked in infrastructure and she also worked in consulting. And then she also had roots in the, she had spent time with the design program earlier in her career.

So she’s got these connections with design leaders in different parts of the business that I think are really important for people to just feel that connection to the program that is really meant to serve everyone.

Peter: Do you have a song? Doesn’t, doesn’t IBM use songs anymore to try to encourage, uh, culture

Katrina: Do you know about…

Peter: and spirit? Does design have a song?

Katrina: You’re uh, not that I know of, but I, I can’t tell if you’re joking or not, but the truth is when I was researching IBM, before I came on board and actually my mom was, this is so funny. My mom was researching IBM. She used to teach some management courses and she was like, you know, this company has a rich history, you should read about it.

And she sent me this story that… It was about like going way back to the early days of IBM, that Thomas Watson Sr., and then Thomas Watson Jr. Who ran the company, between the son and the dad, between them for, I don’t know, 40 years or something, they were social engineers and they, they had a hymn book. IBM employees would get together in the twenties or thirties and sing songs together.

They had, I think there was like a Muppet involvement at one point. And, if you, if you do some deep link. Yeah. It’s really interesting. But no, that’s, that’s a good idea. We should work on our songbook again.

Peter: Uh, Jim Henson, I believe did do, I dunno if it was Muppets, but Jim Henson was involved in a, in a, some corporate film around the concept of “THINK” when that was the IBM kind of, mantra of THINK um,

Katrina: Yeah.

Peter: People think, uh computers don’t ,and how do we like, yeah. That was a detour…

Katrina: Yeah. Unexpected. I didn’t know I was gonna go there.

Peter: I’m well, let, let, let me lean into that a little bit.

‘Cause we were just being silly, and design benefits from silliness and play and you, Katrina, have worked at engineering-driven corporations like GE, Autodesk, and now IBM, which are not known for and play. They’re serious. They’re reductive, they’re analytical. They’re quantitative. They’re very, they don’t like uncertainty. They, they want to, like, know how things are gonna work out 20 years from now to the nth decimal point.

You’re coming in as a, you’ve been a design leader. You’re now coming into IBM as a design leader. And, and you recognize the value of play and weirdness, and creating a space for generativity and creativity that runs contrary to these corporate cultures, at least kind of the dominant aspects of the corporate cultures.

How do you, how do you make that space? How do you protect that space? What, what are some of the strategies or, and, or tactics that you’ve employed to enable designers to be designers in the context of a dominant culture that might not be so forgiving of, of that kind of behavior?

Katrina: Yeah, yeah. I’m, it’s a good question. And honestly, I feel like with the pandemic it’s been extra hard. You know, it was, it was easier to make that space when we had physical spaces and when I was able to visit offices and, you know, when I getting together in person just feels so different than being on a screen all day.

That said, quick detour, but there’s some interesting things we did when I was at Autodesk, when the pandemic first hit, to try to keep that connection and play and creativity going. And one of my favorites was my team, you know, all these creative designers, right, came up with this idea.

We, so I, I spontaneously, when we first went into lockdown, I had posted a selfie on Slack to all the designers. And I said, you know, I miss you guys. None of us realized we weren’t gonna see each other for a while. This is me in my new office. I’d love to, I miss your faces. If you feel like it, send, you know, add a picture. And all these people posted these photos of them working at home. And, you know, some of them had babies in the background and cats, and it was kind of this sweet little moment.

And then one of our designers, when it was holiday time and we were still in lockdown, she worked with my design ops, one of my design ops folks to create this calendar that we mailed to everyone. And it was, she was a great illustrator, and she basically took these little details from those photos that people had posted in the beginning of the pandemic and somehow worked it into this like group photo.

So it was, it gives me goosebumps, actually, telling you this story, but it was like such a lovely thing. It was like, we’re separate, but we’re together. And so I, I do think there’s things like that, that we can do. One thing, you know, I will say it’s a little different in my role at IBM because I’m not working day-to-day with the, on-the-ground designers.

I’ve got a team of extremely senior design executives reporting to me and they’re running a lot of these programs for their teams and we talk about it and share. I feel like there’s an element of play missing in that group that, you know, I, I haven’t figured out how to unlock that yet. I mean, in an ideal world, we, I would just take everyone out for a great offsite and, you know, we’re all in different places and we just need that time together and we haven’t been able to get it.

One thing that I think we have been really successful at keeping going is our design jams. So different groups in design, like design sprints, I think Google calls it a design sprint. We call it a design jam, but you know, it’s like a design hackathon where we’ll structure a problem, we’ll frame a problem. The most recent one we did was around sustainability and then we kind of create the space for people to come up with really creative ideas to solve this problem. And then those get showcased to leadership and there’s prize and it’s, you know, it’s very, it’s, it’s a nice break from, you know, some folks working day to day on problems that maybe they’re not as excited about.

We try to make those opportunities where, Hey, this is a problem that affects everyone, many of us care deeply about it. And we’re just gonna carve out a little space to come up with some stuff and even get you some visibility in front of senior leaders. If you come up with a great idea, now, sometimes these ideas turn into products at IBM.

So when you talk about how do you get permission to do this? Well, sometimes they’re money-making ideas and you know, that’s a good win.

Peter: Right, right, right. Demonstrate, you know, small, it, it’s kind of classic change management, right? Small, small effort, quick win, demonstrate some success, kind of, can, can lead to permission for the next thing. And, and the next thing.

Katrina: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Burnout, and Katrina’s book

Jesse: I think that a lot of people, even other heads of design, would see you as being in something of an enviable position, given the setup that you have and, and the circumstances that you’re in. But it’s also clear that there’s no way you could manage this without the skills that you’ve developed in avoiding burnout personally, and the experiences you’ve, you’ve come through with that.

And I’m curious about what you would share with your fellow heads of design, about how to manage and avoid burnout themselves.

Katrina: Yeah.

Jesse: You say the, the role will eat you alive.

Katrina: Yeah, if you let it. So I’ll, I’ll give the quick, the two minute backstory, ’cause a lot of folks probably don’t know. I have three kids. My youngest is 15. Before he was born, I was really proud of myself for being, you know, the supermom working full time. Husband worked full time. My job was growing, my family was growing, and then I had a, another kid and long story short, it fell apart.

I mean, the truth is there really is a limit on how much energy we can put out in the world. And whether you’re adding another direct report or another kid in your family or what, whatever the thing is at a certain point, it breaks. And you know, I was younger. I was in my thirties and I was still naive enough to think that hard work would get me where I needed to go.

And it turned out that hard work just ran me into the ground. So long story short, I stopped working for a year. And I, actually, because I can’t just stop, I, I wrote the book in that year and then it took a few more years to edit it and get it published and eventually it was published and that was really exciting.

But what I learned from this, well, it’s funny, ’cause I, when I was, when the first book first came out in 2013, I did a ton of book publicity and I did a ton of interviews and some of them were really big, you know, like I did this MSNBC live-by-satellite and I, you know, I did stuff like that. And what was always funny to me is I was treated like the expert and you know, so what should moms do or what should women do?

And I was like, dude, did you read the book? I just told you what not to do. You know, like I, basically, my, my message was, my message was, this is not just on the individual. We have a system that is set up for people to fail. And so I’m gonna specifically talk about working parents, but I know this is not only working parents, however, working parents, caregivers, are on the front lines, because the expectation today, is you’re supposed to do your job, as if you don’t have a family. On the other hand, you’re supposed to raise your family as if you don’t have a job.

So parents today, women today spend more time with their kids than they did in the sixties when most women didn’t work. Right? So that, that is just a recipe for insanity. And what made me crazy is people would say, what should people do? And I was like, this is not just an individual problem. Can we be system thinkers for a moment?

This is societal problem. It’s a cultural problem. This is not on women. Women are doing too much. Let’s get everyone else to chip in, start valuing caregiving, start accommodating people, having other responsibilities in the workplace. You know, there’s a lot of things we could talk about. Okay. So that, so I just got that outta my system.

I, that’s all still true and it’s even more true now than it was then because the pandemic and we’re seeing it in the workforce. For the first time we saw women’s, you know, for several decades, we were seeing the number of women going up, up, up in terms of women in the labor force. And then we saw this dip for the first time in the pandemic.

And now there’s all this concern that we’re losing ground. And in some ways I think we are, so what are women supposed to do? What are parents supposed to do? What is anyone supposed to do when your job can just eat up your life? And, you know, there’s all kinds of self-help advice out there. The truth is what I’ve learned is it’s not just about saying no to things.

It’s not just about having boundaries. Really. I think the biggest thing I’ve had to learn is about having compassion for myself, which is a mindset. And that’s different from having rules about like, I only work these hours and I only do these things. That, that’s an output of a mindset, the mindset that I was missing when I was 37 and I burned out. The mindset that I’m still struggling to cultivate ’cause I’m still the person I always was.

So this is, I’m a people pleaser. The mindset is I have to have compassion for myself, just as much as I have for my team, for my kids, for, you know, for everyone else in my life. I need to matter in my life. And that would be my advice for anyone who’s struggling with burnout. What does it look like to start mattering in your own life? How does that change your behavior? How does it change your relationships? How does that change what you say yes and no to? How does that change about how you feel? Because sometimes there is too much to do and it has to get done and I’ve been there, but when we put guilt on top of the stress, because we think we’re failing, that’s where, you know, that’s where a lot of people get in trouble. So what would it look like to just have compassion?

Peter: Interesting. Yeah. It’s resonant with the conversation we had with Abby Covert, who wrote a blog post called “I choose me,” in talking about her journey where she left working in companies and became independent and focused on writing and teaching ’cause that’s what mattered to her, instead of playing a part that she felt like others were expecting of her, but wasn’t necessarily what, what she was about. And, and it’s hard because one, it can feel selfish, right? To… Compassion for yourself. Oh, you’re a struggling middle aged white lady with a remarkable executive job.

Katrina: Oh, Boohoo. Yes. Your life is so hard. It turns out that all kinds of people can suffer. So there’s no contest. No one needs to enter it.

Peter: Totally, totally. But, but I could see that, I could see you having that challenge for yourself, like who am I to warrant this compassion when there’s people with real struggles in the world, et cetera…

Katrina: That’s right.

Peter: But, but she made the, you know, she used the analogy, you gotta put your mask on before you put the mask on the others, you know, when the, when the plane is going down, like you gotta, you can’t take care of others if you’re not taking care of yourself, right? And, and I think that’s kind of at the heart of this. But I’m wondering though, because you’re right. It is a systemic problem. And it’s a problem that we have working in the United States, in an environment that doesn’t take care of caregivers, that doesn’t take care of women, that lauds a kind of rapacious capitalism that also, that, that feeds this, this hamster wheel as well. And I’m wondering then if you, if you are aware of systemic interventions that like, if someone were wanting to, to spend some of this energy in a systemically productive way, do you have suggestions or pointers for, for ways to do that, that might actually have a broader impact.

Katrina: Yeah. So, so there’s two ways I could take that question. So one is changing the systems that, you know, kind of oppress workers, right? And what, what do we do there? Like how do we

Peter: I am so happy. We’re getting an IBMer to talk Marxist.

Katrina: That’s okay. My book was already out when they hired me, they know who they got. But then, but then there’s, then there’s, I don’t hide from it, but then there’s well, so, well, let me put it this way. So when I was writing the end of my book, I was thinking about, okay, so everyone’s gonna say, what’s your advice for women? ‘Cause that’s what they always ask. And I, so I’m like, well, how do I answer that question? ‘Cause at the end of the day, it’s a big thorny problem, but you gotta do something.

And so I, I have this chapter at the end where I just structure like 10 things you can do. And it’s, it’s a concentric circle. So it starts with personal things you can do in your own life. And it starts with things like self-compassion, but then it moves out to, What can you do in the workplace? And that’s where we really start to get into systemic stuff. There’s a lot that we can do in the workplace around everything from just as, you know, as people leaders, creating an environment where people really do feel like they can bring up some of these issues and, and come up with better solutions with their, with their manager, instead of feeling like they have to pretend everything’s fine. To actually structuring the work week differently, which I’m really excited every time I hear about four, four-day work weeks as like a structural thing, I think there’s a lot to talk about there.

But then even moving beyond that to government policies. And I mean, if we just focus on the US for a moment, it’s such an embarrassment, we are one of the most hostile countries for working parents. We are, you know, one of, I think three countries, the number keeps changing, but very few that do not guarantee paid parental leave for mothers, let alone fathers. And I’m a strong proponent in having both. We are one of the only countries that does not protect sick time for workers. And I believe that’s still true, even with everything we’ve gone through with the pandemic.

So, I mean, just those two things, just changing that would change so many millions of people’s lives. But also there would be a signal about what we value and what we care about. So there are, so I, I don’t know that I really answered your question, Peter, but there are organizations that are working on those policies.

Moms Rising is one. I donated a bunch of profits from my book to Moms Rising. Momsrising.org. They’re still doing this work. These are the people who co-founded moveon.org during the Clinton years. And, and then one of those co-founders pivoted and started leading this movement. So they do a lot of lobbying for these types of policies.

But then also, you know, I, there’s a lot of people leaders who listen to your podcasts, and I think that there’s things we can do around how we, you know, how we structure the work week, how we structure our HR processes, how we lead as humans in the workplace that can at least make a difference in, in, in this impossible bind that so many people find themselves in that can actually acknowledge and accommodate people having real lives outside of work.

Jesse: I love that vision.

Katrina, thank you so much. For those who are interested in following your journey, as it continues to unfold, is there anywhere they can find you in the world on the webs?

Katrina: Yeah. Yeah. I’m a kind of a lame tweeter, but I am on @kalcorn on Twitter. And I’ve been blogging about the IBM design journey. So maybe that’s the best place, is to go to Medium IBM design all, all the blogs that I’ve written about this process are there.

Jesse: Fantastic. Thank you so much.

This’s been great.

Peter: Yeah. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for sharing your, your wisdom and, and experience. This has been great.

Katrina: I enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.

Jesse: Of course the conversation doesn’t end here. Reach out to us. We’d love to hear your feedback. You can find both of us, Peter Merholz and Jesse James Garrett on LinkedIn or on Twitter, where he’s @peterme and I’m @JJG. If you want to know more about us, check out our websites, petermerholz.com and jessejamesgarrett.com You can also contact us on our show website, findingourway.design where you’ll find audio and transcripts of every episode of finding our way, which we also recommend you subscribe to on apple, Google, or wherever fine podcasts are heard. If you do subscribe and you like what we’re doing, throw us a star rating on your favorite service to make it easier for other folks to find us too.

As always, thanks for everything you do for all of us. And thanks so much for listening.

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