Building a human-centered organization

Breaking down insights from 7 years of research and application

For those of us helping our enterprises readjust to a new normal, mobilize a response to the global crisis, or prepare to freeze entire businesses, we can’t help but reflect on the essential purpose of these organizations.

Organizations are facing an unprecedented convergence of social, technological, political, and ecological forces. Short-term changes in market dynamics pose an existential threat to businesses that cannot adapt to customer expectations, shifting supply chains, and fluctuations in capacity. Long-term super-crises, from a changing climate to rising economic inequality, are putting ambiguous but fast-approaching expiration dates on our way of life.

As stewards of large enterprises, it’s difficult not to notice gaps between our best intentions and our best outcomes, at times. Even the most well-intentioned organizations sometimes stumble over themselves to collaboratively fulfill their customers’ and communities’ needs.

Some organizations, including IBM, have turned to the values of human-centered design as a framework to balance the needs of the organization with the needs of its users, customers, and community. But many human-centered design movements have struggled to achieve impact. Often relegated to the delivery and execution layers of the organization, these movements often struggle to structurally shift an organization’s value to users, customers, and communities.

Since IBM embarked on its journey to build to a sustainable culture of human-centered outcomes in 2013, we’ve built a workforce of over 20,000 human-centered design professionals and trained over 200,000 employees in human-centered practices. We’ve worked through our own stakeholder challenges, and we’ve guided dozens of clients on their journeys. Although our transformation is ongoing, we’ve packaged the lessons we’ve learned into a framework any organization can use to create a more human-centered organization.

We won’t downplay the difficulty of this task. To do this for your own organization, it will require a deep understanding of and empathy for specific people and circumstances. However, the insights we’ve uncovered from 7 years of working with IBM and our clients have showed up consistently across industries. They’ve been useful for us, and we hope they’ll prove valuable to your journey, too.

The human-centered organization, defined

To guide our path forward, we found it necessary to create a working definition of the ideal organization. We call this the human-centered organization.

The human-centered organization is one that exists to fulfill a purpose for its users, customers, and community, and orients all of its innovation and operations activities around those people. It has instilled the principles of human-centered design and applied them in their most pure form to every aspect of their organization.

A human-centered organization:

  • focuses on creating better human experiences
  • builds resilience and de-risks innovation through continuous iteration and learning
  • cares as much about the experience of its diverse, empowered teams as it does about its customers
  • intentionally, actively embeds these principles into the fabric of the organization

Of course, building this organization is ongoing—a utopian ideal, if you will, that we continually strive to meet.

Changing how we value businesses

Most analysts in the industry measure the value of human-centered design against traditional business metrics. The data has not failed to deliver.

Metrics like these help human-centered design win allies in the C-suite. Yet, these traditional metrics for business success don’t address many of the drivers that demand human-centered solutions to begin with: the value of an enterprise to its users and customers, the welfare of its employees, and the resilience of the organization in the midst of external threats.

So, how should a human-centered organization measure its value? Some business leaders have been asking a similar question in different contexts.

Larry Fink, the founder and chief executive of the investment firm BlackRock, stated in his 2020 letter to CEOs that because of climate change, “we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.” He announced that his firm would put sustainability at the center of its investment strategy, arguing that “a strong sense of purpose and a commitment to stakeholders helps a company connect more deeply to its customers and adjust to the changing demands of society. Ultimately, purpose is the engine of long-term profitability.”

Fink, along with Jamie Dimon and Warren Buffet, have pushed to eliminate quarterly earnings reports in order to disincentivize “short-termism.” The 1950s management theory of stakeholder capitalism has seen a comeback, gaining so much influence in the World Economic Forum that they updated the Davos Manifesto to include it for the first time since 1973.

While understanding the performance of an organization through the lens of multiple stakeholders and success metrics isn’t controversial, we’re only beginning to learn how to integrate these lenses into the way leaders run their organizations. However, here’s what we know so far: becoming a human-centered organization involves a fundamental transformation of an organization’s purpose. This is more than just a change in ways of working, skills, or infrastructure; it’s a change to the reason we come to work.

Ask yourself

  • How has your organization’s purpose changed over the years? What triggered those changes?
  • How does your current purpose serve people?
  • Most importantly, how does this purpose trickle down into your employees’ day-to-day operations?

An evolution of purpose, not just operations

Here are 3 forms of transformation we often see take place alongside human-centered transformations. Each of these are a type of operational transformation—an evolution of how work gets done, but not an evolution of why work gets done.

However, each of these can still provide critical support for a human-centered transformation.

  • “Just drive.” “Where to?” “You’re not hearing me, just drive.”

    One of the most common types of transformations we encounter is the agile transformation. This movement intends to empower teams to respond to changing conditions, decreasing the time between design decisions and customer outcomes.

    Paired with strong human-centered purpose, agile transformations empower the whole organization to execute on a shared mission. But organizations should take care: increasing delivery capacity alone is not a surefire way to remain competitive in a market of rapidly changing customer expectations. In fact, the opposite often occurs: without a shared understanding of the value delivered to people, iteratively delivering smaller increments of work can result in a fractured customer experience.

  • "Why don’t you get a design thinker on it?"

    Skills transformations create a new organizational capability by bringing in a new skill or discipline. The classic form most commonly related to human-centered organizational transformation is the “design transformation” wherein an organization hires a formally-trained design workforce and simply facilitates their physical integration into the organization.

    Alone, introducing any new skill or discipline into an organization generally doesn’t produce meaningful structural change to the organization. However, as an organization’s purpose evolves, it may require new skills to deliver a new class of outcomes.

  • "The same thing you were doing before, now with AI."

    Digital transformations seek to increase efficiency and amplify innovation potential by changing an organization’s operating infrastructure. New digital routes to market are established, new internal tools are developed, and new policies are enacted. Especially today, it may seem more than ever that a failure to “go digital” can make the difference between an organization brought to its knees and an organization poised to help lift a society out of crisis.

    When oriented around a clear purpose, digital transformations can support and perpetuate better ways of knowing and acting. But we’ve seen many costly digital transformations fail because they didn’t address the real needs of the people they served. Digital infrastructure hardens bad behaviors as well as good ones. And changes to infrastructure don’t raise an organization’s innovation potential unless employees know how to apply these tools to fulfill the organization’s new purpose.


What does a human-centered organization stand for?

It intentionally, actively embeds these principles into the fabric of the enterprise.

Everything the enterprise does is focused on driving better experiences for users, customers, and the community.

A white circle with a black border 

It builds resilience and de-risks innovation through continuous iteration and learning.

A black arrow in the shape of an infinity loop with black lines running alongside it 

It invests in the experience of its employees, shareholders, and suppliers as much as it does in that of its users, customers, and the community.

3 identical white circles with a black border arranged in the shape of a backwards L 

A focus on human outcomes

Everything the enterprise does is focused on driving better experiences for users, customers, and the community.

  • Instead of framing opportunities, projects, and organizational constructs around internal logistics, human-centered organizations frame them from the outside-in: as user or customer needs.
  • Instead of measuring success against metrics relevant only to the organization, human-centered organizations measure success against metrics relevant to users, customers, or the broader community of stakeholders.
  • Instead of designing for abstract, fixed personas, human-centered organizations recognize the dynamic nature of their users and customers, empowering them to actively participate in the design and delivery of their experiences.

It begins at the mission statement and permeates down to every standard an employee needs to meet in each of their tasks. It spans from the front of the marketing funnel to the last conversation with a support agent. It goes from how they compensate executives to how they name fields in performance management systems. Perhaps the most important hallmark of the ideal human-centered organization is that it aligns everything it does to the needs it fulfills for the people it serves.

This principle also reflects the ideals of the largest segment of today’s workforce. According to a 2017 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 9 in 10 Millennials across the world believe that “the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance.”

Even for-profit enterprises in ruthlessly competitive markets should be able to agree with some interpretation of this principle: market share comes from making customers happier than the competition. Yet, in our experience with ourselves and our clients, a focus on human outcomes is perhaps the most challenging principle for an organization to adopt.

We’ve worked with non-profits who frame their purpose as strongly human-centered, yet struggle to orient their organizational infrastructure or nurture their employees’ human-centered practices. Conversely, we’ve seen teams inside enterprises enthusiastically adopt human-centered mindsets, even as their senior leadership teams foster practices that perpetuate poor user experiences.

Diverse, empowered teams

It invests in the experience of its employees, shareholders, and suppliers as much as it does in their users, customers, and the community.

  • Instead of investing solely in what customers see, human-centered organizations empower employees, shareholders, and suppliers with experiences that help them drive user and customer outcomes.
  • Instead of building homogeneous teams, human-centered organizations build diverse and inclusive teams.
  • Instead of forcing teams to gain approval for every minor decision, human-centered organizations empower their employees to learn through action.

The design-literate call it “service design.” Human resources departments call it “employee experience.” Danny Meyer, the restaurant magnate behind storied institutions like the Union Square Cafe and Shake Shack, calls it the “virtuous cycle of enlightened hospitality.” Whatever you call it, this principle recognizes that poor user or customer outcomes can be traced back to decisions made by employees and stakeholders.

This isn’t just the responsibility of a human resources department. It encompasses everything an employee touches within an organization, from their sense of psychological safety amongst team members and senior leaders, to the affordances and constraints embedded within organizational infrastructure, to the welfare of their families and dependents. It also expands past the employee, into the experience of an organization’s shareholders and suppliers—from the information they receive, to their cost of doing business.

What does this look like in practice?

Mature enterprises are creating the building blocks that act as both a source of employee empowerment and connective tissue that makes the organization feel cohesive and consistent to everyone. Digital design systems aim to help software development teams deliver higher-quality, more coherent experiences, faster; customer experience management platforms help teams identify experiences to prioritize; and since the definition and boundaries of design are in constant flux, career frameworks help employees envision a future for themselves as next-generation leaders of the organization.

In response to a deluge of studies run by organizations like Deloitte and Google—each corroborating diversity in management with financial outcomes and team performance with psychological safety—enterprises are investing in creating a more diverse workforce and inclusive workplace, applying diversity and inclusion targets to hiring and retention practices.

From C-level executives forgoing a year’s worth of compensation to save jobs and preserve employee culture through a crisis, to organizations that equitably redistribute compensation across people at every level, we’re seeing stories of enterprises actively prioritizing the welfare of the employee over the comfort of senior leadership.

Above all, it’s important to note that a transformation will fail if you can’t convince all stakeholders that it will help them fulfill their own (selfish) purposes better, as well as accelerate the organization’s achievements.

“We must constantly remember how important the human factor is to building great teams, to working well with our customers, and to creating amazing organizations,” Royal Philips executive committee member Ronald de Jong told MIT Sloan Management Review. “Being cognizant of the psychodynamics of change and transformation are vital to a company’s long-term success.”.

Restless reinvention

It builds resilience and de-risks innovation through continuous iteration and learning.

  • Instead of falling in love with a solution, human-centered organizations learn to fall in love with the fundamental human need behind it.
  • Instead of planning projects in large waterfall releases, human-centered organizations minimize risk by iteratively developing ideas, making decisions, and delivering outcomes.

Fundamental needs rarely change, even as the ways we address them change constantly. Yesterday’s horse-drawn carriage was a prototype for today’s automobile. Today’s automobile is just another prototype for tomorrow’s transportation breakthrough. 

While the problem is defined by a fundamental human need—getting from A to B—the solution at any point in time works within the constraints and affordances of the era (technological advancements, evolving resources, changing consumer expectations, etc.). Enterprises are resilient when they stay stubborn about the problem they solve. They fail when they stay stubborn about a specific solution.

Accepting this principle seems to result in 2 contradictory phenomena. The first phenomenon is an unwavering focus on a fundamental need. Paradoxically, the most resilient organizations build their identity around a mission that changes slowly, if ever.

But the second phenomenon is a willingness to continuously evolve the methods used to solve the problem. Resilient organizations rapidly iterate and bring to market new ways to serve their customers, employees, and stakeholders.

This is where the value of “going digital” reveals itself today.

Externally, digital (and particularly mobile-first) enterprises can more flexibly service their users and customers through a broad array of channels. Internally, digital enterprises can iterate and retool their business infrastructure faster than “analog” businesses.

But digital enterprises should not be lulled into a false sense of security. Although today’s environment has tipped the balance in their favor, the same cannot be said about the unknowable next paradigm. Restless reinvention isn’t a matter of technology—it’s a matter of an organization’s capacity for change.

Ask yourself

  • What do users, customers, and the community say about your organization? What structural barriers within your organization prevent people from focusing on human outcomes?
  • What do employees and shareholders say about your organization? What keeps employees from bringing the best version of themselves to their work?
  • How do the interests of different stakeholders (e.g. users, shareholders, community, employees) conflict with one another?
  • What fundamental human need does or can your organization anchor itself in? How many different ways have you fulfilled the need?

How do people build a human-centered organization?

Putting the principles to use

In practice, applying the 3 principles discussed above looks different depending on your context.

We often see organizations apply human-centered principles through the adoption of design thinking: a structured approach to help teams deliver human-centered outcomes more often. But enterprises that begin with “design thinking transformations” often fail to really transform. This isn’t to say that the spirit of these efforts is misguided. What is misguided is the common belief that as long as everyone is an expert in design thinking, the organization will successfully become human-centered.

Through our experience coaching and tracking hundreds of thousands of design thinkers across hundreds of distinct job roles, we began to see successful behaviors organize into 4 related but distinct practices. While “design thinking” does play a key role, building a sustainable culture of human-centered outcomes requires all of these practices..

More importantly, we discovered that these practices need to balance each other out in any human-centered organization. Over-committing to one of the practices produces diminishing returns. The absence of any of the 4 greatly undermines an organization’s ability to conduct the other practices effectively.

Deliver outcomes

from theory to tangible outcomes

For any transformation to win legitimacy, it must quickly prove its ability to deliver tangible outcomes. Building a human-centered delivery capability is often the first step.


You’re a designer working for the IT department at a large car rental company. You’re tasked with adding something the CMO calls “value-added services” to the mobile app. The one you’re working on right now is a customer loyalty rewards feature that gives car renters a daily allowance at local restaurants.

A typical day has you working through wireframes and testing coded prototypes. With limited access to customers, you spend a lot of time listening in on customer calls, studying up on what the giants in the automotive insurance industry are doing, and looking at usage stats on the app. So far, task completion rates hover just below 75%. The app has 4 stars in the App Store. You’re good at your job.

But you see the writing on the wall. Things have been turbulent in the car rental industry for some time as business travelers increasingly turn to services like ride-sharing. The mobile app had just 2 new downloads in the last week.

Having spent hours listening to customer calls, you think you understand the real job to be done: mobility in an unfamiliar city. And though you love cars, you also have a passing interest in urban planning. What if the app was also a public transit pass? What if it connected to an electric scooter service or crowdsourced a bike share? What if it got people free admission into restaurants? You’re full of ideas—if only you didn’t work for a car rental company.

It’s the stated goal of design thinking, Lean UX, and agile development alike. It’s the bread and butter of researchers, designers, front-end developers and marketers, among others. When business leaders say their organization is “human-centered,” they’re often referring to the way teams deliver outcomes.

This is the most visible of the 4 practices, because it produces the most tangible results—a critical element for any change movement to win legitimacy. For this reason alone, when organizations look to transform, they often build out their human-centered delivery capability first.

To build out this capability, we often see change leaders hire new delivery talent (e.g. formally trained designers), provide training to select teams (e.g. pilot teams), and establish incubators and innovation hubs to achieve quick wins that support program expansion. As programs win legitimacy, change leaders often look to transfer this capability out of innovation hubs and integrate it into their core business.

Like many other enterprises, IBM began its transformation through a rapid increase in its human-centered delivery capability. This consisted of 2 elements: hiring human-centered skillsets (e.g. designers, front-end developers) that the company lacked, and re-skilling its existing workforce in human-centered practices (e.g. design thinking).

In 2013, we hired 100 formally-trained designers and onboarded 7 multi-disciplinary teams (approximately 1,000 employees) working on critical projects across the business. The designers and front-end developers were embedded into those 7 existing teams. We kicked off the integration of these people and the introduction to the new practices with a 1-week face-to-face bootcamp.

A diagram showing that you need a funded project in order to deliver outcomes, and you need to deliver outcomes in order to improve human outcomes
    • Applying this practice requires:
    • a funded project
    • and the ability to influence:
    • how the problem is framed
    • what a team will deliver
  • Great human outcomes: human needs, well fulfilled

    Inclusive outcomes: solutions that reflect the needs and input of many users and stakeholders 

    Continuously improved outcomes: solutions that continuously improve in response to new information about organizational objectives, technical capacity, and human needs

  • Research users’ needs

    Synthesize insights

    Ideate on solutions

    Prototype concepts

    Deliver solutions

    Evaluate outcomes

  • Is the project doing better than it was before?

    Is the need satisfied, or are people able to satisfy a need?

    Is the solution more desirable or easier to use than it would have been otherwise?

  • A diagram showing that delivering outcomes provides a path to impact for guiding teams, provides ROI for investing in opportunities, and substantiates the value of transforming conditionsA diagram showing that guiding teams integrates the practice for delivering outcomes, investing in opportunities provides project parameters for delivering outcomes, and transforming conditions makes it easier to deliver outcomes

    Investing in opportunities ensures favorable project parameters.
    Without a strong investor, even the most competent delivery practitioner’s success is suppressed by poor project parameters.

    For example, let’s say a highly competent software delivery team gets assigned a new project. If the success criteria defined is framed as a technical feature, the team must either work to gain support to reframe the opportunity, or deliver the feature as requested—resulting in a poor outcome.

    Guiding teams integrates human-centered practices into every part of delivery.
    Without practitioners guiding teams, the team will be unable to integrate human-centered practices into their day-to-day workflow.

    For example, a delivery team may uncover a new insight about their users’ behavior. But if the insight doesn’t get translated into human-centered tasks in the backlog, the insight may be lost in the course of delivery.

    Transforming conditions makes delivering outcomes easy.
    Without transformation allies, a delivery team will be unequipped to conduct basic practices required to deliver good human outcomes.

    For example, a business may deploy a delivery team to serve a new customer segment. If organizational policies prevent the team from getting direct access to primary customer research, they will struggle to develop an offering that customers value.

Guide teams

from workshop facilitation to practice integration

Without further actions taken, any “enlightenment” gained in special moments like workshops, design sprints, or innovation incubator projects gives way to the inertial influence of business-as-usual practices. Teams must integrate human-centered practices into their way of working. This requires ongoing operational contact with their upline leadership and the political capital to have the right conversations with the right people at the right time.


You’re still a designer working for the IT department at a large car rental company.

You’ve had some problems with the rest of the team: The engineers don’t build the things as designed. Instead, they seem to be prioritizing other things on their own. Those things may be important, but so is rewarding customers for their loyalty. You know that the single biggest ROI from human-centered design is its ability to align everyone around the same customer priorities. But you’re having trouble getting the team focused on this.

At the start of a new release, you get the whole team together—designers, engineers, product owners—to help synthesize transcripts from customer calls and decide on a direction. Sticky notes in hand, your whole team bumbles through personas, scenario maps, and storyboards—but they make it through, and you’re proud of them. You snap photos of each artifact and document them in a shared folder.

As you wrap up, the team congratulates you on a good workshop. “That was great! I feel aligned,” they say. But as you ramp up into the next week, you see the same old behaviors. To the detriment of the newly designed and aligned-upon loyalty rewards experience, the developers still seem to be spending their time on “database migration to managed cloud.”

With a heavy sigh, you figure it’s time to schedule another 1-on-1 with the development manager.

Change movements need to prove concrete value, quickly. But efforts to achieve “quick wins” don’t result in sustainable behavior change if the practices that got them those wins aren’t rapidly integrated into their routines.

Without further actions taken, teams fall back on old habits. But for a select few, these moments of enlightenment are revelatory, and they recognize the need to build the relationships necessary to introduce and integrate human-centered delivery practices into the team’s routine way of working.

Some will refocus their role on the team, while some will turn to “design thinking coaches” or “master facilitators” outside their organization for help. But teams should remember that the goal of this practice is not merely education or workshop facilitation; it’s lasting change in the team’s behavior and mindset over time.

At IBM, after teams came back from our intensive, week-long design bootcamps, we saw some teams go straight back to their old habits. But we also saw teams that truly changed, adopted new ways of working, and delivered transformational outcomes.

We spent a long time researching both archetypes: the failures and the successes. What emerged was an understanding that teams that successfully adapted shared an interesting trait: their success came down to specific people.

These people built good relationships within their cross-functional delivery teams, built strong rapport “up the chain” with senior stakeholders, and leveraged “back-channel” means to spur their teams upward.

We called these people “magic people.”

Since then, we’ve intentionally developed programming to increase the rate at which magic people (now we call them Coaches) emerge: advanced facilitation training, Coach training, communities of practice, and more.

At IBM, being a Coach isn’t a full-time role. The most effective Coaches are on the team, but they have some enhanced responsibilities and respect.

A diagram showing that you need an team in order to guide one, and you need to guide teams in order to have a human-centered team
    • Applying this practice requires:
    • a team
    • and the ability to influence:
    • how work should get done
  • A human-centered team that regularly frames opportunities as human needs and fulfills those needs through human-centered design practices

    A diverse, empowered team inclusive of a range of perspectives

    An agile team capable of rapid iteration and responsiveness to new information about organizational objectives, technical capacity, and human needs

  • Facilitate team alignment

    Integrate human-centered activities into team rituals

    Advocate for team needs to stakeholders

    Mentor individuals

    Convene communities

  • How much is the team collaborating?

    How much does the team trust each other?

    Do team members believe their work is valuable?

    Do team members believe themselves to have agency over the outcome?

    Do people feel like they are growing on the team?

    How long do people stay on the team?

    How long does it take for the team to deliver human outcomes of a certain quality?

    How much external input does the team require to deliver improved human outcomes?

  • A diagram showing that guiding teams integrates the practice for delivering outcomes, provides ROI for investing in opportunities, and enacts changes for transforming conditionsA diagram showing that delivering outcomes provides a path to impact for guiding teams, investing in opportunities provides project parameters for guiding teams, and transforming conditions enacts changes for guiding teams

    Delivering outcomes gives a path to impact.
    Without teams delivering outcomes, there’s no point to trying to guide teams.

    For example, a design facilitator with expertise in guiding teams may be hired into an organization, but without a direct relationship with delivery teams themselves, they can’t directly impact a team’s way of working.

    Investing in opportunities aligns the team around a human-centered objective a guide can work with.
    Without a well-defined human-centered opportunity, any human-centered guidance will conflict with the team’s business objectives.

    For example, let’s say a sales team gets assigned a new client. If the team is pressured to achieve a sales target at the expense of client satisfaction, guides will have trouble changing the behavior and mindset of their teams.

    Transforming conditions makes delivering outcome easy.
    Without transformation allies, a delivery team can’t act on the best—or even the most obvious—guidance.

    For example, a business may deploy a delivery team to serve a new customer segment. If the delivery team is blocked from conducting primary customer research, it doesn’t matter how well a guide can fit research into a workflow.

Invest in opportunities

from trusting the process to framing the opportunity

Teams are constrained by the resources and opportunities they’re given. Stakeholders who provide resources and assign opportunities must learn to apply human-centered principles, too.


You’re the head of IT at a car rental company.

Which means you’re also “head of digital.” And with the company increasingly relying on digital channels, it also means you’re “head of transformation.”

You are operationally inclined. You like to sit in the trenches with the teams. You even participated in the customer loyalty rewards workshop the designer led last week. Day-to-day, you’re handling 2 big initiatives: cutting costs by migrating the entire rates engine to a managed cloud, and working with the CMO to create “value-added services” for renters through the mobile app.

The “value-added services” thing keeps you up at night. The CEO thinks this will save the company. But you see the writing on the wall. Things have been turbulent in the car rental industry for some time as business travelers increasingly turn to services like ride-sharing; in fact, the company lost close to 30% of its business in the last 4 years, and your department’s budget for new initiatives this year is half of what it was last year. You’ve been here a while, seen things come and go. But this is different.

The customer loyalty rewards tool finally ships. On the first week of launching it, only 32 people used their points through the app. The second week, 36 people used their points. While the team is publicly congratulated for the release, you know in your heart that it was a failure.

You’re tired of pushing out promises of success to the next release. In the ensuing post-mortem with the team, the CMO blurts out, “Our customers are driving around an unfamiliar city, and all we can care about is what car they’re driving?”

The team pauses. You think back to all the things your designer said. What *if* the app was also a public transit pass? What *if* it crowdsourced a bike share? *How might we help people feel like they know where they’re going like it’s their own neighborhood?* The retrospective ends on a tense note, but out of the corner of your eye, you see the designer grinning ear-to-ear.

Teams don’t operate in a vacuum, nor are they ever completely autonomous. A team’s mere formation presumes a problem to be solved; the resources provided to a team presume a solution to be delivered. Team members trying to integrate human-centered practices into their team routines will discover an upper limit imposed by 1 of 2 factors: the resources available to the team or the team’s mandate itself. However, these factors are often decided upon by stakeholders distant from the delivery team and, more to the point, distant from the real users of the very thing they’re funding.

Furthermore, these stakeholders have often been schooled in legacy artifacts like project planning charts, feature/function lists, or estimates of points cleared from a backlog. They often struggle to understand or engage with human-centered teams whose deliverables and artifacts generally look fundamentally different than those of a “traditional” team. Faced with this uncertainty, stakeholders either resist the unknown and suppress human-centered practices, or they “trust the process” without adequately lending support or connecting the team’s work to the organization’s broader objectives.

Confronted with poor resource support or a poorly framed mandate, savvy guides may attempt to remediate the situation by trying to help these organizational stakeholders understand the downstream impact of their practices.

An error often made at this point is to train these stakeholders on the same practices used by a delivery team (e.g. send them to an “executive design thinking workshop”). However, we’ve found that being a good stakeholder is a distinct practice with distinct objectives and methods: identifying human-centered opportunities, framing human-centered problems, properly chartering teams, and then knowing how to evaluate the progress of human-centered development team.

Not surprisingly, our experience with ourselves and our clients has shown time and again: a strong grasp of this practice is critical for the success of any transformation movement. When business leaders with resources and organizational mandate advocate for human-centered practices, it lends crucial legitimacy to the movement; without their support, the movement risks making change for change’s sake.

At IBM, as we bootstrapped our program, our focus was not on enabling individuals, but on the teams delivering against business priorities. We worked closely with those teams and kept senior leaders engaged and apprised of the teams’ progress. But we’d often run into a problem: While teams generally understood how these new practices integrated with their day-to-day work, their first and second-line management didn’t know how to support them.

We created a design thinking course for executives, but that didn’t work. It wasn’t that these business leaders didn’t understand “design thinking.” It was that they didn’t know how to manage design thinking teams. Ultimately, we caught our error, and redesigned the curriculum for business leaders to specifically address what it takes to be a good customer, stakeholder, and advocate of human-centered design teams.

As our program’s scope grew from a handful of teams to the entirety of the business, our focus shifted from investing directly in strategic projects to giving business leaders the means to grow and support their teams for themselves. Fostering strong relationships with our senior-most executives, we built a corporate communications program that gave these leaders insight into the health of their delivery teams doing the work and the tools to be good stakeholders.

A diagram showing that you need a human-centered team, a funded project, and management support in order to invest in opportunities, and you need to invest in opportunities in order to meet organizational objectives through human outcomes
    • Applying this practice requires:
    • a human-centered delivery team
    • a funded project
    • upline management support
    • and the ability to influence:
    • how success is measured
    • who’s on the team
    • when things get done
    • where in the organization teams get deployed and money gets spent
  • Success criteria defined as the fulfillment of human needs

    Diverse, empowered teams staffed with the necessary perspectives, skills, and authority

    Teams deployed to and resources invested in opportunities that fulfill the most important needs

    An environment conducive to agile iteration and responsiveness to new information about organizational objectives, technical capacity, and human needs

  • Reframe organizational objectives as human opportunities

    Deploy the right amount of resources and diverse, empowered teams

    Interface between human-centered teams and organizational demands by tracking team progress, advocating for team insight, and celebrating team success

    Support (and remove blockers to) human-centered methods

  • Are customers willing to advocate for the organization or solution?

    How fast do customers join us?

    How fast are customers leaving us?

    Are teams fulfilling the intended need for the intended user or customer type?

    Does the intended market segment see the solution or organization as desirable?

    How many people with this need pay the organization to fulfill it?

    Is the organization gaining market share? 

    How much does it cost to acquire and service a user?

    How much do people end up spending?

  • A diagram showing that investing in opportunities provides project parameters for both delivering outcomes and guiding teams and provides legitimacy for transforming conditionsA diagram showing that both delivering outcomes and guiding teams provides ROI for investing in opportunities and transforming conditions reduces investment risk for investing in opportunities

    Guiding teams and delivering outcomes gets return on investment.
    Without people capable of guiding teams and delivering outcomes, investing in an opportunity may not net any return.

    For example, an enterprise may choose to invest in serving a new customer segment. Without a delivery team capable of conducting primary customer research, the investment may fail to pay off as the team struggles to develop an offering customers love, stay for, or pay for.

    Transforming conditions reduces internal risk to their investments.
    Without transformation allies, bold investments in human-centered opportunities may be hindered by limitations in organizational infrastructure.

    For example, an organization may choose to invest in a new AI service offering that hinges on the expertise of content designers. But without a formalized career path for content designers, it may be difficult to hire, let alone retain, the new skillset long enough to support a viable offering.

Transform conditions

from heroic efforts to business-as-usual

Nobody is hostile to human-centered outcomes. But organizations are resistant to change. Teams daring enough to defy the odds face an uphill battle against the status quo. To achieve a lasting, sustainable culture of great human outcomes, change leaders must make the organization habitable to human-centered practitioners.


You’re still the head of IT at a car rental company.

The company has its back against the wall. It’s undergoing a reinvention, but you know it won’t come easy.

Last year, after a series of failed attempts at bringing “value-added services” to the mobile app, you took a chance on a project you believed was crazy. It was a small win, but now it’s the fastest-growing segment of the business.

You know that others will scoff at you when you proclaim proudly that “We are not here to rent cars—we are here to make every city in America feel like home.” Of course they’d scoff. The infrastructure that has helped the company survive as long as it has tells them otherwise. The company has been renting out cars, not delivering “experiences.” Its lifeblood has always been charging money to rent a capital asset. Your job is to build an entirely new company while managing the old one.

You’ve had one success. Now you’ve been asked to repeat this success everywhere. You are terrified, but you have allies. The CMO is in your court. The design department has been waiting for this moment for years. The CEO is curious and encouraging—mostly.

Until this point, we’ve only discussed the practices that enable a single team to deliver great human outcomes. But for most large organizations, these practices aren’t enough to make substantive changes to an organization’s outcomes. What does it take for these principles to truly impact the organization?

First, it takes an order-of-magnitude increase in the adoption of human-centered principles, at every level of the organization.

Most large enterprises are made of many teams, each of which contribute to a collective outcome. Consider a customer of a typical enterprise software offering: at various parts of the customer’s journey, they will interact with touchpoints owned by the marketing team, the sales team, multiple product squads, and multiple support teams. It is often difficult to value the relatively small improvements made by a few human-centered teams in the midst of many poor customer experiences. If you want to dramatically improve a customer journey, every team needs to operate at their best, in concert.

Second: it takes a willingness to upend the status-quo and re-envision the systems and processes that form the backbone of the organization.

Consider a human-centered delivery team operating within a traditional organization. In this environment, competing incentives like short-term revenue targets may prevent investment in the most impactful human outcomes. The effort required to deliver a great human outcome can be described as heroic. Faced with organizational realities beyond their control, many teams would simply choose to take the path of least resistance.

Transforming conditions requires visionary leadership to create a culture where human-centered decision-making is the convenient and obvious thing to do. This practice includes the work of convening stakeholders, forming a vision, and driving alignment across the organization. But it also includes the groundwork of culture change: changing the management system to include measurement of and incentives for great customer experience; building spaces that foster human-centered understanding and creativity, and intentionally building pipelines for talent with diverse thought and lived experience, and more.

In 2012, IBM established a small division of the company with a clear mandate: build a sustainable culture of human-centered outcomes.

As we bootstrapped the program, we focused on creating a microclimate that would prove value quickly. This meant working with the most strategic projects in the business to achieve their objectives. But it also meant scouring the market to build a formally-trained human-centered design workforce, defining human-centered design practices, and commissioning the first physical design studios and virtual workplaces to support those practices.

As our movement evolved from inception to explosive growth, we shifted our tactics to enabling the entire business at scale. For example, we shifted our resources away from providing high-touch coaching of project teams, toward building self-service tooling for enablement and measurement and fostering communities of practice. We developed a management system that gave senior business leaders insight into the behavior and health of the delivery teams doing the work. And we created new policies that aligned our measurements and incentives with human outcomes, such as linking Net Promoter Score with a portion of executive compensation.

Now, as we move from explosive growth to continuous evolution, our focus shifts again. Within our walls, we continue to drive increasing standards for excellence into our products and services. But we’ve also shifted our focus to guiding our clients and partners as they begin their human-centered transformation journeys, too.

A diagram showing that you need an organization in order to transform conditions, and you need to transform conditions in order to have a human-centered organization
    • Applying this practice requires:
    • an organization
    • and the ability to influence:
    • what an organization stands for and how everyone aligns to this standard
    • who gets to participate in innovation and how they’re enabled to succeed
    • the innovation methods used by the whole organization
    • the digital and physical environments available to teams tasked to innovate
    • what teams work on and how their problems are framed
    • measurements, incentives, and infrastructure that impact a team’s ability to innovate
  • An organization effective at improving the welfare of all people in its stakeholder ecosystem

    A resource pool of diverse, inclusive, and empowered teams

    A resource pool of enabled human-centered design practitioners

    A resilient community of practice that support each others’ practice growth

    An organization with practices suited for problems they face

    An organization with the physical and digital environments that facilitate cross-functional and cross-organizational collaboration

    An organization that frames investments as problems to be solved for people

    An organization that measures success by the value delivered to humans

    An organization that incentivizes its people based on the value they deliver to humans

    An organization with infrastructure that supports human-centered practices

  • Define a vision for human-centered change

    Measure the organization’s external outcomes and internal maturity

    Build urgency and align stakeholders

    Build a program to identify talent needs, find and screen talent, onboard talent, and retain them through career growth

    Define shared language and practices and mature them through awareness, evaluation, adoption, and integration campaigns

    Commission new spaces by identifying space needs and creating or procuring physical tools, digital tools, and environments

    Identify strategic project engagement criteria and opportunities

    Pilot, scale, and integrate new incentives, processes, and infrastructure that enable a human-centered practice

  • Do employees believe their work is valuable?

    Do employees believe they have agency to make outcomes happen?

    Do employees feel like they are growing inside the organization?

    Are employees staying with the organization?

    Are teams applying human-centered practices?

    Are teams delivering improved human outcomes?

    How long does it take for the average team to deliver human outcomes of a certain quality?

  • A diagram showing that transforming conditions makes it easier to deliver outcomes, enacts changes for guiding teams, and reduces investment risk for investing in opportunitiesA diagram showing that delivering outcomes substantiates the value of transforming conditions, guiding teams enacts changes for transforming conditions, and investing in opportunities provides legitimacy to transforming conditions

    Investing in opportunities provides the legitimacy required to get a change initiative off the ground.
    Without investor allies, a change initiative may be out of touch with the needs of the organization, perceived as coming from an “ivory tower,” or seen as tinkering unnecessarily with an already precariously-balanced ecosystem.

    For example, we saw an enterprise attempt to transform the way its sellers were incentivized in order to improve long-term client relationship health. The transformation wasn’t sponsored by sales leaders, so the reform was perceived as a threat to quarterly sales targets.

    Guiding teams helps practitioners delivering outcomes navigate transformed conditions.
    Without guidance, practitioners may have difficulty understanding how to take advantage of newly transformed conditions.

    For example, we saw a regional government adopt matrix management in order to facilitate collaboration across a citizen journey. Without guidance on how to behave in this new paradigm and integrate these behaviors into the team’s workflow, the new management structure failed to overcome the cultural silos that inhibited cross-organizational collaboration.

    Delivering outcomes proves the value of the change.
    Without delivering outcomes, it will be difficult to retain continued support for any initiative to transform conditions.

    For example, an organization deployed formally-trained designers to strategic projects. But because those projects didn’t have the research skills needed to deliver improved outcomes, the initiative to build a formally-trained design capability lost legitimacy.

Ask yourself

  • Which of these practices have your organization’s past transformations focused on?
  • To what extent do these practices exist in your organization today?
  • Which ones are the strongest? Which are the weakest?

It starts with the first step

For those scrambling to respond to our current crisis, we understand that it may feel like an inopportune moment to introspect on your organization’s principles and practices. But in times like these, focusing on human outcomes is more important than ever.

Becoming human-centered isn’t a head thing. It’s a heart thing. We’ve found, at least for us, it’s best to learn through doing. You don’t have to license a training platform for your company. You don’t have to fully—or even partially—understand how your whole company gets “enabled.” What you need to do is to start doing it.

Find a team that’s working on something critical. If you can, start with a couple of teams. See if their leadership wants to deliver something better, faster, and for less than it would normally cost.

You’ll need some human-centered expertise on these teams, but you don’t all need to be experts. Within a few weeks you’ll know whether these approaches are working.

Let us know your thoughts

Every story, idea, and circumstance helps us either validate or improve upon this point of view. We’re always eager to talk with people who believe systems should work in service of people—especially those striving to make that a reality. If you have feedback to offer, want to share a case study, saw your own story within our insights, or want to learn more about our research, contact us.

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