Talking Scrum with IBM Design

It was unusual to see three corporate suits in an art school. What was more unusual was that these executives were sitting on stools amidst an earnest crowd of design students, answering questions about design thinking, cognitive computing and social responsibility. These were some of IBM’s top executive management team, and they were at SVA to talk about design.

Last Friday, IBM partnered with MFA Design for Social Innovation and SVA to host a speed networking session that brought a team of IBM’s designers and managers to DSI. After a welcoming introduction by Ethan McCarty, IBM’s Director of Enterprise Social Programs, ten IBMers and agency partners moved among tables for an hour of rapid-fire chats.

I sat on a stool next to two MFA Design students. We sipped coffee and swapped thesis topics until our first IBMer arrived. How does his group collaborate, I asked social engagement manager George Faulkner. He gave us a full picture of the agile scrum process that project teams use at IBM’s new Design Lab at 590 Madison.

Source: Klean Denmark (Daily Sprint Meeting) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Organizations like the Scrum Alliance provide certification to become a Certified Scrum Master. Scrum is a technique for rapid product development, and a process for transparent, team-based work. I think designers would make great Scrum Masters; they need to be top translators across functions, identify and remove barriers to success (where systems design comes in handy) and continuously help “evolve the Definition of Done.” For more on scrums, go here.

The next speed round brought a UX designer from Oglivy, one of IBM’s agency partners. She advised the student next to me on digital strategy for her smartphone app thesis. We talked about failure, and the importance of courage and risk taking. Plus, there’s no time for hesitation in agile development. Check out these “failure modes” submitted by attendees at the IBM Innovate conference in June. Anyone who’s had a poor manager or worked on an overburdened team can certainly relate.

Throughout speed mentoring, we learned firsthand why IBM values passionate, collaborative employees, and how the company is innovating toward a more sustainable future through programs like Watson and Corporate Service Corps. Three of IBM’s top executives then arrived from their monthly Town Hall meeting to open a dialogue about the company’s shift to user-centered design and social responsibility, and field our questions about working at IBM. They explained that the company’s ability to design at scale is what sets IBM apart—and creates opportunities to revolutionize whole industries. IBM has already contributed technology for genome mapping and energy monitoring projects, and sees applying its computing power to financial services and healthcare. It felt fantastic to hear these corporate leaders “speak our language,” calling on design and technology to change the world.

One of the visiting executives asked where we see design as being most valuable. As we called out the systems and issues we’re working on in our design theses, class projects or outside SVA, I dare say every student in the room was picturing themselves as an IBMer (I certainly was).

Image sources: (above) SVA DSI, (below) Klean Denmark (Daily Sprint Meeting) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Please see the SVA DSI blog for original version of this post.


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