CIOs Must Become Design ThinkersDisruption requires a new mindset.

Social media’s rise has drastically altered industries from journalism to health care, altering virtually everything we do and how we do it … Corporations, schools, hospitals, and virtually all large organizations need to adapt to social technology -- or be replaced…The US military’s term for [this] kind of environment is VUCA -- 'Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous.' The acronym came out of the US Army War College in the late nineties to describe the new operating conditions that world military leaders had to face -- the rise of terrorism, global political instability, and asymmetrical warfare. It’s a term that also perfectly captures the prevailing instability of society in general." ~ Bruce Nussbaum, Creative Intelligence

Delight. Beauty. Happiness. Purpose.

These aren’t words you’re used to hearing when it comes to business outside of a few outliers like Disney, Apple and Zappos. But that’s starting to change. Companies like Rackspace, Intuit, ZipCar, FAB, P&G, Samsung and Commonwealth Bank of Australia are embracing emotional concepts like these as a core element of their business strategy.

And with digital disruption causing upheaval in almost every industry, more and more companies will marry the emotional with the analytical, people with technology, and business with purpose as they seek to reinvent themselves. The intersection of the following disruptive forces means CIOs ignore this “soft stuff” at their own peril:

  • Technology (social, mobile, cloud): IT is now at the core of everything in the enterprise. It has become the medium for an organization’s relationship with its employees, customers and suppliers.
  • Change cycles are speeding up: Rapid emergence of new platforms that empower people and enable rapid experimentation have made 5 year plans, rigid processes and command and control obsolete.
  • People’s behavior is changing: Social networks, smart devices, unified communication channels and natural forms of interface are creating new behaviors in communities, the marketplace and the workplace.
  • Meaning is increasingly taking center stage: Recognition of the importance of culture in achieving business strategy has made it an important medium for creating shared direction, alignment and commitment.

You can’t plan, analyze or optimize your way to something completely new.

You can’t plan, analyze or optimize your way in world where VUCA is the new normal.

You can’t plan, analyze or optimize your way to delivering delight, beauty, happiness and purpose.

You have to design your way there. Disruption requires a new mindset. Disruption requires balancing the traditional analytic approaches employed by IT with the empathic approach of design thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

The Art of Design, a great primer on design thinking, was developed by the US military to teach officers the art of design.


Because military leaders recognized that they needed a new approach to training officers how to lead in VUCA environments.

Commanders and leaders at all levels need to answer four fundamental questions to compete decisively in the future:

  • What is the appropriate cognitive approach for 21st century warfare?

  • How should one structure and lead adaptive organizational work?

  • How should one structure and lead organizational learning

  • How can one communicate effectively in the 21st century?

Answering these questions requires reflection on alternative approaches to leadership; on constructing a cognitive framework for how to reason through complexity; on how to create an organizational learning system to decisively compete in the contemporary operating environment; and how to communicate the resulting understanding with others. Design is a strategic cognitive construct that directly confronts these challenges."  Art of Design

Simply swap warfare for business. Design thinking is a mindset, an intentional way of thinking, doing and making that resembles the approach taken by the designers and artists who question the norms to design the way forward in VUCA environments.

But most CIOs still think of design as icons, the pretty stuff that the creative types in marketing do to dress up consumer facing applications and websites. But design in its deepest sense is much more than that. As Steve Jobs put it, “Design is not just what it looks like. Design is how it works.”

Think about the phrase for a minute.

Design is how it works.

Design is beautiful solutions.

Design is making things better for people.

Design is thinking made visual.

“Design is integral to the DNA of each and every public service. How public services are ‘designed’ is central to their purpose, their function, their character. Design is about the application of hard disciplines not soft furnishings.” Restarting Britain 2: Design and Public Services.

“And 'design mindfulness' is at the heart of the new purchasing process about to be unveiled -- in a 20-person organization. And it's the soul of the reception area in a 3-person accountancy; and the very heart of the Formal Reports that same accountancy delivers.” Tom Peters

CIOs can no longer simply focus on back end infrastructure, systems and processes. CIOs need to step up to apply creativity to the design of the entire enterprise, taking on the role of value creators delivering solutions not just for the functional jobs people need to get done, but their emotional and social jobs as well.

It is because we need to focus upon how customers want to communicate and consume services, which is predominantly through mobile and IT, and this complex interaction between humans, organisation and technology is the friction we live with today.

Within this however is the greatest unknown quantity which is the human capacity for design and creativity. That is why customers engaged with technology create much greater outcomes than the technology inputs.
This is what I call design thinking.
After all, we have given the customer the ability to create and share their lives through technology, and it is their creativity in design that is changing the process, the system, the structure and the interaction." ~ Michael Harte, CIO of CBA

As Idris Mootee puts it “Design thinking allows us to rethink, re-imagine and reset the game.”

To become strategic revenue generators in VUCA environments, CIOs need to change the game, reinventing IT’s role within the digital enterprise. Designing thinking can help CIOs differentiate themselves and evolve their IT organizations from analytic order takers who focus on solving problems others have assigned them to creative innovators who ask probing questions and experiment with new possibilities for how to run, grow and transform their businesses.

Design thinking is a core competency for building the creative enterprise

the design ladder

Image source: Restarting Britain 2, Design and Public Service. The Design Ladder is a registered trademark of the Danish Design Centre

According to former CIO for the United States Vivek Kundra “Emerging rock star CIOs are thinking about how to reinvent a company like Starbucks and fundamentally rethink the in-store or retail experience.” Michael Harte, CIO of Commonwealth Bank of Australia is one of those rock star CIOs:

Innovation agility, design thinking, or creative [banking]. Whatever you prefer to call it, it’s becoming essential. All in all, CBA is at the forefront of technology renewal, with a clear focus upon innovation agility or, as Michael and Polaris like to call it, design thinking. Me, myself, I, prefer to call it creative banking, which is applying creativity to the design process of banking, and that’s a good thing."

Reinventing organizations means applying creativity such diverse experiences as the:

Every industry, every organization and every IT shop needs more creativity, more design thinking.

The real challenge facing CIOs is no longer to design, supply and operate a perfect infrastructure. The real challenge of the future is designing the enterprise interface, marrying science with art to deliver innovation centered firmly on human-centered principles such as delight, beauty, happiness and purpose.

The Enterprise is the New Interface

Our networked society is increasingly dominated by what Lewis Mumford called the unseen world of cables, wires, connections, codes, agreements, and capital. Today more than ever, the role of this invisible city in determining the structure of the urban area is vast. Visible form is merely an irruption of other forces, a graphic user interface for a more powerful command line below. ~Kazys Varnelis

Dan Hill, in his wonderful manifesto on the future of the city, suggests that social technology can be used to create a new interface on the city. That while “IT was once a service like catering or postage, to be procured. IT, or what replaced IT, is now at the core of almost everything. It is becoming the medium for a government’s relationship with their citizens.”

The same holds true for the enterprise. The enterprise is now digital. Everything and everyone either now is (or is rapidly becoming) connected and enabled through technology. The enterprise is the new interface. A new canvas for creativity and innovation. A new medium for building relationships.

Once we start thinking about the enterprise as interface, a new medium for creativity, opportunities for innovation become endless. Enterprise as interface suggests a wealth of new possibilities for reinventing interactions between employees, customers and suppliers.

Whether the enterprise they’re working with is a city, government, utility, retailer, manufacturer, healthcare organization or financial institution, CIOs have the exciting opportunity to create new interfaces for their enterprise that alter the way people interact, reinvent the way work gets done and transform how services are delivered.

CIOs are in a unique position to use disruption as a creative force to reinvent the enterprise, becoming the most important ally of CEOs, CMOs and CFOs.

Can the CIO Become the Hero of the Digital Enterprise?

In many organizations IT is nicknamed the “Department of No.” Rather than seek out IT as a business partner or source of innovation, departments like marketing have increasingly gone around IT, spinning up their own shadow IT organizations. But instead of focusing on the problem, let’s focus on the possibility. Let's ask What if, a favorite tool design thinkers use to explore future possibilities.

What if IT was lauded as the Department of Yes?

What if IT delivered beauty and happiness?

What if IT was beloved?

The possibility is there for the taking. But, as Martin Hoffman, Volkswagen CIO in Design Thinking Kommt says it requires a new way of thinking that puts a laser focus on people and their experiences.

The goal of modern IT development is not to exhaust all that the technology will bear. The goal is to align each development decision consistently to users. It is not enough to design hardware and software. The big challenge is to perfect the user experience. At each touchpoint contemporary applications must at least meet or even exceed the expectations of the user." 

This laser focus on people brings with it a change in business mindset that puts a strong focus on customer focused outcomes:

What are the key outcomes for the customer? What does the customer want from the bank? How do they see the bank? How do they want to deal with the bank? Work out what the outcomes are by focusing upon what the customer is doing, how they want to interact, and then build and evolve the bank on a continuum for the relationship you want to have with those customers through those interactions." ~ Commonwealth Bank of Australia CIO Michael Harte

Those CIOs who have turned their focus on delivering tangible value to people through beautifully designed applications that support the functional, emotional and social jobs people need to do are being lauded as heroes by the people within their organizations. Take Joe Beery, SVP & CIO, Life Technologies, who is seen as a hero by his organization’s sales organization: “In the past, you might find that those solutions bubbled up through other business groups. But it’s good to see them come from the IT group. Right now, we’re pretty popular.”

Just imagine.

IT as a strategic revenue generator. IT delivering happiness. IT delivering beauty. IT delighting users. IT becoming beloved by their organizations.

What a wonderful possibility. What a worthwhile mission.

Design is an act of optimism. It’s about charging into the future rather than protecting the past. It’s about building towards something rather than fixing problems. It’s about making real change happen.
CIO must become design thinkers.

In future posts I’ll examine some of the design thinking capabilities CIOs must build into their organizational DNA to convert their IT departments from order takers relegated to the back office to strategic innovators adept at prototyping new versions of the future enterprise.

Title image source: Positioning IT to Fuel Growth. Intuit CIO Ginny Lee

Editor's Note: Another must-read from Joyce -- Irrational Employees Create the Best Customer Experiences