The Mary Wharmby Hypothesis: Transformation in Large Organizations Starts with Creating a Common Language of Innovation

Mary Wharmby is a designer and educator with 20 years of experience guiding teams in the creation of both customer-facing products and services and employee-facing tools and systems. She is the former Head of Design Transformation at the global bank, BBVA, where she architected and led a team dedicated to driving innovation by strategically infusing design across the entire organization. Mary is currently founder of the challenger consultancy, Design Transformation, helping organizations be more innovative.

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about how Mary helped create a process transformation class that could affect big changes in a large, multinational organization.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Mary Wharmby Hypothesis: Transformation in Large Organizations Starts with Creating a Common Language of InnovationHow did Mary end up in UX and eventually product management from a background in political science and international relations? What was it like working for a global bank that saw its competitors as Google, Apple, Amazon, and other tech companies? What did she learn coming in as part of an acquired design team and that needed to jump in at scale? How did working at such a large multinational company fuse her interests in international relations and design?

How do you approach a merger or acquisition with a customer-centric mindset? How did Mary get the leadership team to take action on making change happen in their organization? What are the parallels between the growth of product as a discipline and the growth of design as a discipline? How do you start to move design upstream within the product development process?

What other teams are not part of the product or service development cycle but have a lot of power over it? How do you flip your mindset to think about what things are like from their perspective? What were their pain points? How did they overcome roadblocks in the process? How did they scale their design workshops once they found something that worked? What pledge did they make workshop attendees make to bring what they learned into their daily work?

What factors did Mary find in which teams were able to change their work processes? How did they make their process vertical, working with the C level down through to administrative assistants? How do you support workshop participants in a more meaningful and sustained way? What does the research tell us about how to change an organization with design thinking?

How do you measure mindset change in an organization? Why is it trickier than simply look at how a team’s actions have changed? What problems did Mary’s team face working in an international context? What is the global/local dynamic? How do you overcome the perspective that culture is a monolith? What does Mary do now in her work at Design Transformation?

Quotes From This Episode

If you tell the rest of the organization that innovation happens over here in the Innovation Center and everybody else you can just stay in the past, that's disconnecting your organization. - Mary Wharmby Click To Tweet If you're really experimenting you have the opportunity to fail. If you're really pushing things, then failure is going to happen sometimes. And failure within large organizations is very often taboo. - Mary Wharmby Click To Tweet If you give people a new skillset but say no when they get back to their day job, then they’re more frustrated than they were in the first place. You woke them up, showed them possibility, but then shut the door. - Mary Wharmby Click To Tweet In culture change, too often if we don't see measurable outcomes early on, we think the program failed. But we need a different lens to see mindset changes and, eventually, to see changes in actions. - Mary Wharmby Click To Tweet Don’t be afraid of culture change. Culture change is happening right now anyway. You might as well be driving it. - Mary Wharmby Click To Tweet


Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi and welcome to the Product Science Podcast where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
Holly Hester-Reilly: This week on the Product Science Podcast, I’m excited to have a conversation with Mary Wharmby. Mary is the founder and head strategist of Design Transformation and she’s a designer and educator with 20 years of experience guiding teams in the creation of both customer facing products and services and employee facing tools and systems. She’s the former head of Design Transformation at the global bank, BBVA and we’re going to talk a lot about that today and she’s currently leading a consultancy called Design Transformation. So Mary, welcome to the podcast. I’m super excited to have you here.
Mary Wharmby: Hi Holly. Thanks very much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So why don’t we start with a little bit of background. Obviously you do Design Transformation things in tech and you’ve been doing this for a while, but how did you get here?
Mary Wharmby: Well, it’s been a long and winding road. I actually have a social science background. I started out studying political science, international relations and decided in the 90s that the world was in a little bit of a more optimistic place than it is today. We didn’t need another diplomat, so I essentially dropped out and this internet thing, this web was starting up and at that point pretty much anybody could just do it. So I set up my own little mom and pop web design and development shop. Back then you did everything yourself. So I did photography, artwork, visuals, coding, customer research, and as the web grew and things changed, I started to specialize and went into UX. So I spent a few years doing UX Design for various companies, mostly in the digital space.
Mary Wharmby: And then I started to shift into service design and strategy. Ultimately ended up on the West Coast as a design director for the consultancy Spring Studio where I led product and service development for teams. We worked for a lot of financial services organizations. Did some education. Even did something for Kamala Harris, for the California DOJ website. Then one day we all came to work and there was an announcement that we had been acquired. Acquired by a global bank based in Spain. Most of us had never heard of it. It was BBVA and when we Googled it, it was really nice because the chairman and the CEO at that time had already been comparing themselves to Google and Apple for quite a few years.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow.
Mary Wharmby: I had already done a lot of work in financial services and in my experience at that time, it tended to be a little bit more of a traditional industry, but BBVA was really ahead of the curve. They were seeing the disruption from the FinTechs and the GAF was pretty early and they saw their competitors not as Citibank or Santander, but as Google, Apple, Amazon, they knew that they had to change. And that was the reason for the acquisition. Prior to that, this was about, this was early 2015 there wasn’t really much of a design department, customer centricity, these things really weren’t playing a major role in how BBVA got things done. So the acquisition was really an attempt at a quick fix for that sort of thing to basically bring in house a design team.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So I want to ask you a little bit more about that part because knowing my listeners, I think that not all of them will have experienced being at a place that didn’t really have a design team. Can you kind of describe that for us? How big were they and how did they not have one?
Mary Wharmby: Well, I’m glad you asked. They were about 130,000 employees, primarily in 13 countries. A huge presence in Spain. That was the originization point. Got on T-Bank in Turkey, Compass bank in the United States, Bancomer in Mexico, various other banks in Latin America. So BBVA had grown through acquisitions and essentially you had multiple organizations, multiple technology stacks, multiple ways of working, multiple corporate cultures. We were on the other side of the world. So it was a very interesting decision. Headquarters was in Madrid, Spain. Spring studio was about 40 designers, strategists, et cetera based in San Francisco. So one of the first challenges was around figuring out what they had already, but also figuring out how to work together. And I think this is a very common story with the acquisition of design teams. I’ve heard it was Hot Studio and Facebook, a couple other adaptive path with Capital One and I think that the very first hurdle is really how do we work together and what is the place of design within the organization?
Mary Wharmby: Because often if they’re purchasing a firm right out of the gate, they may not have a presence as I mentioned. So they had been getting design done through contractors really at a project by project basis. So there wasn’t a coherent design strategy that was passed on through projects and there was a loss of continuity, customer centricity, collaboration, et cetera. It was really essentially an atomization of the process. And if you think about this, not just across functions within one organization but you think of this times 13 organizations spread around the world, it was a very interesting challenge.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. The scale of that is just mind boggling. And I find myself wondering how many of the 40 designers stayed very long?
Mary Wharmby: Well it was interesting. So, Spring Studio we saw a lot of other patterns. So we saw Hot Studio be basically disbanded, brought down to Menlo Park and distributed across Scrum Teams. And I believe not that many stayed past the first year or two. Spring Studio followed the adaptive path model more closely where they retained their name, their physical location and identity. And they were essentially an internal consultancy for BBVA. My own interest though went beyond just delivering products and services for BBVA. That was really the purpose of purchasing Spring Studio. But at this point, through some quirk of luck, my political science and international relations background kind of started to wake up and my interest became in how do we actually embed design in BBVA in a larger way.
Mary Wharmby: So out of the 40 so of us, I requested a transfer to Madrid to work with the fledgling design team. There was a head of design, Marianna Wickman and she was starting to build an internal team in Madrid. We were seeing a team put together in Mexico City. There was a small team sometimes in some of the other countries. And so I made the jump, I left San Francisco, I moved to Madrid and my role became around helping BBVA shift toward a more innovative workflow and mindset through design.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So first of all, I’m struck by how brave that was. I feel like, wow, what a big change you made.
Mary Wharmby: Or crazy.
Holly Hester-Reilly: And yes, what a big challenge you took on and I mean apparently you’re not crazy because you’re still here and you’re telling us about it. So you’ve lived to tell the tale, but I’m curious if you could tell us a little more, I mean my sense is that many of our listeners will inherently know why someone would want to do that because they already believe in embedded design but there might be some who are not sure. And I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what drove you to think that that was the really valuable and important work to do?
Mary Wharmby: Well it came from a couple of places. The first was we started to do projects. We started to jump in and work on products and services for BBVA and we recognized very quickly that we were a bit misunderstood. We were new, they weren’t used to working with designers and people didn’t really get us, they didn’t get the process, the mindsets and there was friction in the product design and development process. So it was clear from the start that there needed to be some sort of a more collaborative workflow put into place. At the same time, we didn’t understand the organization that well. So this was a mutual disconnect. A lot of us had only worked in consultancies, we were from a different culture, different ways of working as a consultancy, going in house, there’s already a lot of challenges. But when you put that consultancy nine hours away in time, a different language, different ways of working, 40 people shop versus 130,000 people shop. It’s just really, it’s apples and oranges.
Mary Wharmby: So really the first wake-up call came out of the projects and it was clear to everybody that we needed to, on the one hand, start to educate people about design. Who were we? What were we about? Where were our value points? How can we contribute to this organization? At the same time we needed to learn about the organization more. We needed to better understand their needs, better understand who we were working with, how were they already working, what challenges our counterparts were facing. So socially as a designer and I think your audience is probably familiar with this mindset of customer centricity and design. The question really is who is your customer when you’re working on products and services, your customer is usually an end user outside of the organization who’s a consumer of the product or service.
Mary Wharmby: When you’re thinking about how do two organizations actually merge together, then your customer becomes the employees and the leadership of the two organizations where we really needed to deeply understand what were the needs of BBVA and help BBVA understand what were the needs and value points of Spring Studio and design. So that was really the driver. And of the bottom up driver. The second piece that fell into place over time was this idea of kind of back to the idea that BBVA is really competing with Apple and Google and Amazon and helping the senior leadership get the organization to fulfill that mission.
Mary Wharmby: So for years they had been speaking to this and really talking the talk and they had everybody on board. People were really excited and they were ready for change. So essentially we had pent up demand for change within the organization. The piece that seemed to be missing at the time was the recipe. How do we actually get this done? What are the concrete steps that we take to start down this road toward innovation, toward customer centricity, collaboration, creativity in the way we approach problems. So really the push for this was coming from two directions really out of the projects that we were working on and this really kind of a micro activity point of view. But then also how does design really get behind the larger mission that the senior leadership of BBVA had set out to accomplish? And how could we contribute to that mission?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. So a lot of what you just said resonates with things that I’ve seen and that I know a lot of the product managers and designers that I interact with regularly face. I think in particular this idea of I or my team come from a different culture where we’ve seen the light and the people around me haven’t seen the light and I just want to shake them. And I’m really, I’m struck by the patience and empathy that just comes across in the way that you talk about it. I always strive to do the same thing. I’m a big believer in understanding your coworkers the same as you try to understand your users, but I think that it’s maybe still a little too rare. It was a lot of the teams that I come across.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I’m curious if you could share with us what, because I think that there’s a lot of parallels in the growth of product as a discipline and the growth of design as a discipline. And that product is maybe a little bit lagging behind in terms of the consistency and maturity of what it means to be practicing this and the number of organizations that have adopted it. So I’m curious if you could share a little bit about while if BBVA didn’t even really have designed in house, what was products or was there there at the time and what did that look like?
Mary Wharmby: There were product teams and engineers. If they did use designers, they were generally contracted designers and it was one off a project by project. So we were losing the in house knowledge that designers could bring and transfer from project to project or product to product. Really the first place and it’s interesting to me that you say that product is lagging behind design in this. I think there are a couple of dimensions here I think within organizations and when you think of really visibility and essentially political power within organizations, I would say product leads design there, people understand that product, they’re going to produce products. That’s what product does.
Mary Wharmby: When you hear the word design, you use the head scratcher because they’re like, okay, well it must be the visual design. So when we first entered BBVA, and this is true across many, many organizations, the ask for designers was, “Well, here’s our product, make it look better, make it more usable.” So it’s really designed tacked on at the end of the process, which is as you know is an undervaluation of design and really a missed opportunity. So our first challenge, and again, this goes across multiple organizations. Probably every organization that I’ve worked with to one extent or another, is how do you start to move design upstream within the product development process? So our first real challenge were the product teams. They weren’t used to working with dedicated designers and they didn’t know the value that we could bring. So, first-
Holly Hester-Reilly: So I have a-
Mary Wharmby: Go ahead.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, sorry. So I have a question for you there because I totally hear what you’re saying. One of the things that I think will help with the understanding for our listeners is one of the ways that I see differences in what it means to be a product manager is whether they’re really very focused on delivering whatever’s been asked of them by somebody higher up in the organization or whether they’re true partners and leaders in discovery of what should be done and why. And so I’m curious just to help with setting the scene. Did you feel that the product managers there or whatever their titles were or the people who were performing that function, were they very focused on delivery or did they think that they were trying to understand the problem and they just didn’t need to invite the designers along for that journey?
Mary Wharmby: I think it was a little bit of both. They were very delivery focused and I think that’s almost the norm from what I’ve seen in product teams. As you said there are some that are a bit more progressive in terms of understanding the customers and really getting out there. There were pockets of that at BBVA. I mean it’s huge, as I said, multiple organizations. So there were places where things were happening very effectively and then there were places where it was a little bit less effective. And one challenge was just how do you get visibility into such a large organization? So initially we went out and we looked for things. We were looking for designers. Are there any designers here? We were looking for product teams that that already understood.
Mary Wharmby: And so initially there was really a discovery phase of what’s really happening in the organization, who needs us and where could we be of most value? So initially our plan was to integrate ourselves more fully into the product development process to not be that afterthought at the end, make this look pretty or help with the usability. But really to get out there in front and be more of a partner with the product manager and the engineering team way earlier in the process.
Mary Wharmby: So we started looking at the projects that we were working on and we did co-creation sessions, not just for product development but for process development. And we started to look at how can we more effectively integrate design into product. And that was really the first step for us. And I think that was the primary goal when we were purchased, was to come in and help bring the product development cycle to a place where it’s more customer centric, more research based, more collaborative across teams. So step one was integrating design. The second disconnect that we saw was among a group that we refer to as the shapers. And these are really several groups. Now the shapers are your legal compliance procurement and other teams that are not directly part of a product and service development cycle, but have tremendous power to either accelerate, slow down or completely derail these projects. Again, this is a very, very common disconnect within organizations. I would say it’s even more common than the initial one of design not being integrated.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So tell me a little bit more about that. I think, I feel kind of strange saying this, but I’ve definitely been in way too many conversations about the definition of stakeholder. And I’m curious why you called them the shapers and how you came to that and if you were trying to bypass something and what value did you get from looking at them the way that you did?
Mary Wharmby: Well, first of all, this idea of, “Oh, they just derailed our project. What’s wrong with them, if they only get it, why don’t they get it? What we’re trying to do.” And again, you kind of need to flip your mindset and think about, okay, well what are we giving them? What is this experience for them? And when we went out and we spoke to the lawyers and the procurement specialists and compliance, they had a lot of pain points. They felt misunderstood. They felt that they were being labeled the bad guy and they felt that just like design, they were being brought in at the end of the process when it was too late for them to really have input and that the ask of them was either thumbs up or thumbs down. And it was putting them in a difficult position where they felt that sometimes BBVA or again this goes to every organization that I’ve ever worked with was being exposed to risk or other factors.
Mary Wharmby: And they felt that they were a bit sidelined. When you think about it in terms of their needs, it’s pretty obvious. Okay, well they need to come in earlier in the process. They need to have more input when it actually matters. And but again, we all need to understand one another. So this isn’t about everybody understanding product or everybody having to understand design so much. Is it’s a mutual thing that we need to eventually get to a place where we speak the same language.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So I have a question for you. So I recently was talking to people within a financial services firm that probably has a lot of similarities to the kind of thing where it’s a big company and so they’ve got much more bureaucracy and all of that. And they also felt, they didn’t call them the shapers, but they felt this frustration you’re talking about. Right. And I had asked them what happens if you bring them in sooner? Can they be a part of it along the way? And I’ve heard that advice from others in the community before and done it before, but in this particular organization, they said to me, “I don’t think that they would ever do that because they’re so strapped for time.” And they didn’t think that, they didn’t know how they would convince the shapers to do it. And I’m curious if you hit any roadblocks like that. If there were situations where the shapers were like, “Well yeah, I don’t like coming in at the end but I can’t participate the whole time either.” And what would you do or what did you do?
Mary Wharmby: Oh yeah, we absolutely hit that roadblock. And really what we did was we put together ultimately an educational program. Our aim in the beginning was directly at the stakeholders, the product team, the engineers and the people with direct contact with the product or service that we were trying to develop through kind of an accident of vacation timing in Spain. We put together our first prototype of a week long design thinking sprint. And it wasn’t ready until the third week of July. And if you’ve ever been to Madrid, it’s about 102 degrees at that point, sometimes more.
Mary Wharmby: And the whole operation essentially shuts down for a period through August. And this is very common throughout Europe, especially Southern Europe where it gets so hot. And so the original class we were going to bring in just the product people. What happened though, because so many people were already on vacation, we brought in a basically a random selection of people from whoever we could get essentially.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I love that. That’s scrappy.
Mary Wharmby: It was a happy accident though because we had people from HR, we did have some product people, we had some engineers, we had people from software security, just a random group. And they went through this bootcamp. And the first thing that happened to us in the boot camp though was by day two we realized this isn’t going to do it. Even though we had dedicated five days to this, it became obvious right away that to really help people, not just talk the talk but walk the walk, we were going to need to go further down the road with them. So by day three we had iterated and we tacked on a two month practice project for each one of the participants.
Mary Wharmby: And through that practice project we gave them materials, we gave them coaching and we asked them to come back two months later in this case because of the summer, it was about three months later. And when they came back with their practice projects for a half day session, I was completely blown away by the work. Really, really surprising. Amazing box prototypes with embedded iPads, videos of user testing, a lot of really cool stuff and that was really our aha moment. When we saw some folks that weren’t really involved in product come back with this rich work that they had done. That was when we said, “Oh my God, this is it. This is what we have to bottle. This is our product now internally is to bring this, to bring it out into the organization.” And so when we did kick off the regular courses after the summer, we kept that enrollment model where people would opt in and they would come from different teams.
Mary Wharmby: So we would have people from legal opting in, human resources, product. We ultimately created three versions of the bootcamp. B2C was our first one. So that was your typical, let’s rethink the credit card experience or banking for millennials or something. But we also developed a B2B for the corporate B2B folks that are working with large organizations and a B2E for human resources, facilities, people that are internal to the organization where their customer is the employee. And we tailored these and we continued this coaching practice. We ultimately put together a 200-page design thinking manual, masterclasses came about a year later in facilitation, visual thinking, storytelling, prototyping, user research, and ultimately train the trainer.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Tell me more, that sounds incredible and I think I know a little bit more about your story and where you got to, but I want to flesh that out a little bit. So you started with this sort of scrappy, it’s in the summer and most people are on vacation sprint in which you discovered when they came back three months later that huge changes had been made in the way that they were approaching their work and the level of engagement they had with it. Right. Then you said that had to be sort of what your product was to the company, what you guys would do. What did it look like from there? Because this isn’t 130,000 person company. Right? So how do you go from the however many people were around during the summer and in Madrid to start having these versions of it and what did that look like?
Mary Wharmby: That’s a great question. So the issue of how do you scale this thing is probably the thorniest part. So we were in Madrid, we had 20 people in the first workshop. So okay, 20 out of 130,000. Step one, we started to offer more workshops and we stuck with Madrid in the beginning. We stuck with the corporate holding company and we went for about a year iterating the class, hearing from these people. We ultimately ended up calling them design thinking ambassadors. They got their manuals and we would ask them to go back and rethink their areas. And we had a bit of a pledge that we asked them to do, start to interact with customers, whoever your customer is, start to interact with them. And for many that was actually a revelation that they’re actually, that they had a customer. I remember in one of the courses that I was teaching, it was in the US because I didn’t teach in Spain because of the language.
Mary Wharmby: But we had a lawyer in the room and at the end we do a share out and she said, “Well you know what, I didn’t know why I was here most of the time.” She had actually been invited to attend and she said, “I didn’t know why I was here. I don’t have any customers, this doesn’t make any sense.” And at the end though, she said, “By the end though now I see that I do have customers.” And her exact words were, “From now on, I’m not going to just say no. I’m going to start to think about what are they proposing, what are they asking for and why and I’m going to try to understand their needs and what they’re trying to accomplish. And then we’re going to work together and co-create a product solution idea that will protect BBVA from legal risk, but also allow the product teams to do what they need to do, which is to innovate and to push the envelope.” When she said those words, that was another great moment for me that people started to realize they had a customer.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s beautiful.
Mary Wharmby: The second thing we asked, well start to collaborate, start to work across functions and start to invite others into your meetings and into your solutioning. Start to build, learn through building, start to co-create things, make things tangible and test them. Now testing was another interesting hurdle within the organization because if you’re really experimenting and you’re testing, you have the opportunity to fail. If you’re really pushing things, then failure is going to happen sometimes. And failure within large organizations is very often taboo. So that was another big hurdle we had to get around was really opening the door to this idea that failure is not only, it’s going to happen, but also that it’s okay and it’s actually a sign that you’re pushing things. The question needed to be, where do you fail? And from a product development standpoint, we want to be failing early. And when the cost of change is not very high, when it’s just post, it’s pulled off a wall rather than undoing a year of coding.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So I think a lot of listeners will be familiar with an environment where failure is not safe. And certainly they’ll be familiar with testing and failing. I think one of the pieces of what you achieved that I’d love to understand more is it’s one thing to tell the people on the ground this, but it’s another thing to create and influence the environment so that it actually becomes safe to do. Whether it’s influencing their bosses or the senior leadership or the structure of incentives or… How did you do that? How did you approach that piece of the problem?
Mary Wharmby: Well, first of all, I modeled failure. So we all have steps forward and steps back. What I immediately did whenever we had a step back is I owned it. I said, “Okay, look, hey we blew it here.” And at first people was like, “Oh no, no, no, no Mary, no. No. We talk about it but it’s not okay.” And I kind of forged ahead anyway and I owned it and I was very open about, here are some places where we learned and really tried to recast failure as learning. The second thing we did was in the courses, in the bootcamp, we taught them where to fail and we opened the door for it that way that if you’re failing in this investigation or ideation or prototyping stage, that’s where you want to do it.
Mary Wharmby: So starting to shift people to say not only is it going to happen, but if it happens in this space it’s actually a good thing. Now your mention of the bosses, this was a really interesting piece for us and it was a failure or a learning point for me, let’s say, because it was the weakness in our recruitment approach that went all the way back to the beginning. So when you’re recruiting just one, maybe two people from any particular team and you’re asking them to go back and change their teams. To go back as one lawyer or two lawyers and change the way the legal department works internally to shift their service design model within the organization. That’s a pretty big ask. So as we started to train these ambassadors, we got through our first 1000 in about a year and that was our goal.
Mary Wharmby: These were almost all in Madrid again in Spain. And what we were finding when we went back and we talked to our ambassadors, was that some were very successful going back to their teams and some less so. And it really depended on the boss and the dynamics of the team. Sometimes you might even have an administrative assistant who went through our bootcamp. So it wasn’t always managers. We really, not only did we pull from laterally across many, many different functions, but also vertically where we worked with the CEO’s eventually for the first year. So they didn’t really know about us, but eventually we got to the C level. But we went all the way down through the organization and we worked with administrative assistance and a lot of unlikely characters and asking them to go back and change their areas was too big of an ask.
Mary Wharmby: So we started to, we went down two paths. The first one was to try to fix what we had broken. So what would happen is the ambassadors would graduate from the session, from the bootcamp. They would be on top of the world. People that had been in their roles 15, 20, 25 years in the same role, doing the same thing in the same way, were suddenly introduced to a whole new way of working and they ate it up. You think people are going to say no, what’s a lawyer that’s been doing it for 20 years? Or an economist could have say when they walk into a design thinking session and what we saw was it was almost universal that people were, they ate it up. They got to over that initial hump of, “What are we really doing here?”
Mary Wharmby: But by the end, they would leave the session ready to take on the world and that’s what we asked them to do. Go back and change this organization team by team. Now, the ones who failed, they felt even worse than they had if we had never touched them. Because we got their hopes up and then they went back and the door was shut. So one of my big learnings about these sorts of programs in general is often they’re just the training and we figure, okay, well if we give them a week of training or sometimes even an hour of training that they’re going to go back and they’re going to be able to work differently. And that’s not the case. They need more, but they also, people need to be able to use this new skill set. If you give them the skillset, get them excited, and then when they get back to their day job, you say no, then you’ve got people that are more frustrated than they were in the first place. Because you woke them up, you showed them possibility and then you shut the door. So we started to put together-
Holly Hester-Reilly: I have a question for you there.
Mary Wharmby: Sure.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, I mean I love hearing your stories and I’ve seen that as well. And part of why I asked the question is, because I’ve also learned this the hard way. So this is how we all learn these things. But I’m wondering if the bosses, like in those cases where that happened and then you got to a point where the designers of this training said we’ve got to fix what we broke. At that point, did only the people who felt that pain see that pain or did the people above them say… Was anybody coming you saying like, “Why did you give them this other idea? It’s horrible.” What did that look like?
Mary Wharmby: Nobody came to me with statement. We did have the skeptics. We did other people that didn’t want to engage at all. And we let them be. By now though, senior leadership was starting to become aware of this program and they were hearing about it. We were starting to promote it within the organization. So nobody came and said this to me. I actually came to them and I said it to them. So that goes back to that concept of kind of modeling failure. So what we did was we started to put together toolkits for the individual ambassadors to better engage with their teams. The manual was really their reference, but we put together posters, card decks, even something that we called a roadblock removal kit of common roadblock-
Holly Hester-Reilly: How clever.
Mary Wharmby: … That people would face. And often these things were just legacy. There were things that had been sitting around for decades, processes, legacy processes, legacy ways of working, legacy mindsets. And when they woke up, before that they hadn’t really seen these things. You kind of become immune to it. If you walk around your coffee table enough times you know you can do it in the dark with your eyes closed and not bump your knee because you know where these things are. What happened was with the ambassadors, they woke up and we said go change the world. And they started to bump into things and they would bump into something and the first thing was they would say, “Well what is this?” And when you look at how design thinking starts to infiltrate organizations, how does it start to make impact? There was a great study done last year from the Darden School of Management in University of Virginia and they looked at this and they said the very first thing to change is mindset.
Mary Wharmby: So whereas yesterday I was going to walk around these things. Today my mindset is different and now my eyes are a little bit more open and I can see things. The second rung of that ladder is to actually say something. To say, what is this? Who does it belong to? Why is it here? Does it make sense? The third level is to actually do something about it, to move it out of the way and say, well, what if we try it over here? What if we try it this way? Will it make an impact? And then the fourth level is where you get, if this is the classic iceberg and most of it’s been under the water, the fourth level is measurable outcomes. Now often we look there first and if we don’t see the measurable outcomes, we think the program failed. Whereas there’s all this activity happening way down the waterline and we need a different lens.
Mary Wharmby: We need a different lens to see mindset changes. We need a different lens to see changes in the conversation, changes in actions start to be a little bit more easily visible. But helping people to start to work on how do we one by one remove these blockages to innovation throughout the entire organization? The second thing we did kind of goes back to the recruitment model is we started to advocate for a team model here. Rather than just pulling individuals from different parts of the organization, we started to say, why don’t we go team by team systematically and that way you’re bringing in the management of the team. You’re bringing in the people that would be the ambassadors, but also the larger group and you’re basically exposing everybody to the same methodology, the same vocabulary, the same mindsets on a team by team basis. And that was a big learning for me and that’s how I work now.
Holly Hester-Reilly: How was that transition received? Was there extra work to convince people to send the whole team or were they pretty excited to do it?
Mary Wharmby: It was an uphill piece because by then we had the legacy of inviting people in the way that we did. This was around the time by middle of last year that I was starting to get ready to leave. My understanding is that they’ve done both. They’ve continued the open enrollment, they’re up to 5,000 ambassadors now in 13 countries.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow.
Mary Wharmby: After the first year in Madrid, we started to branch out and we went to Mexico first, Turkey as well, Latin America, United States. And we started these programs in each country. And what we saw was that we needed to localize, we needed to localize the content and we needed to empower the people on the ground. It wasn’t enough for my team to come in from Madrid and say, this is how you guys should work. That was already striking on an existing pain point, which we call the global local dynamic, where you’ve got the centralized HQ and they’re developing ideas and plans and they’re pushing them out into the spokes, into the periphery or in this case, to the countries. And it wasn’t perceived as collaborative as it needed to be.
Mary Wharmby: So when we got out to the countries, we started to flip that model again and invite more participation, make the changes that we needed to make and ultimately set up a global network of, okay, we just tried something new in Peru. Maybe we can use that in Madrid. Maybe we can use that in Birmingham, Alabama. Really, really kind of enrich the ecosystem around this program.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I love the thoughtfulness with which your team applied all of the design thinking principles to how to drive change in a huge organization and sort of the… I just kind of imagined like if you had a map and there were like every, every employee of the company was like dots that all started with one color and you just started to see it change and there was some like flux back and forth and then over time it grows and grows and then one day you look at the map and you’re like, “13 countries, 5,000 people.” That’s incredible.
Mary Wharmby: I think your visualization is really spot on because a lot of times when we think about changing a culture, especially in a large organization, it seems so insurmountable and we have this idea that culture is a monolith. And even some of the change management processes that are out there, very popular ones say, “Okay, culture happens last, it’s step seven or step eight and in a linear process and you’re not going to get to it until seven or eight years out.” So people tend to say, “Okay, well then we’re not even going to touch that.” And really culture is, it’s much richer than that and it’s much more dynamic that it’s really, there are always pockets of culture and that’s what we did. The way I envisioned it, which is very similar to what you just described is a little Petri dish where you have these little pockets of change. Sometimes the pockets die, sometimes they get bigger, they touch one another, and then that gets bigger.
Mary Wharmby: And that’s really how they’re starts to happen is piece by piece, team by team. And it’s really important to keep that in mind. And I think not to be afraid of culture change, that culture change is happening right now anyway. You might as well be driving it.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I love that statement. So I see we’re running low on time, so I want to turn the conversation to what you’re doing now. And I’m sure it’s still very much a lot of the same but also not. So tell us a little bit about what your consultancy does.
Mary Wharmby: Yeah, well, it’s very similar to the work we did do at BBVA. We’ve iterated it quite a bit. I left late last year and took a few months off, so I launched the Consultancy Design Transformation in April was the formal launch and what we do is we essentially work across what I would say our existing silos within the vendor community. On the one point you have strategic management consulting. Works with the C-suite generally around value proposition and customer centricity. Really what’s the direction of the organization? The values. That’s one piece. Often a consultant comes in, they do that, they hand off a roadmap and they say, “Thanks very much.” The next kind of piece though that where that disconnect is, is the capacity of the organization is not there to fulfill that mission. So there’s essentially a gap analysis that needs to take place. We need to look at the organization and say, what are the needs of the organization? How can we start to build the capacity and the capabilities to actually fulfill that mission?
Mary Wharmby: Now often that piece is the domain of HR and corporate training, so usually that’s not very well connected to the strategic mission. It happens off site sometimes. It’s off the shelf training and so integrating those first two points is a big one. The third though is around process reinvention, opening the door once you’ve got the mission, once you’ve got the capabilities, really allowing a bottom up transformation to happen so that the lawyers are equipped to rethink their service design model within the organization. It’s not me as a service designer coming in or a business process engineer coming in and saying, “Okay, this is how legal should work in this organization.” It’s really working with legal, giving them the tools to start to shift their own processes through coaching. And in my experience, that’s really where people start to engage. That if you come in with a process and efficiency mandate that often scares people and you’re not going to really win over engagement and hearts and minds.
Mary Wharmby: But if you come in from a point of view of understanding empathy and engagement, you’ll get to process an efficiency, but you will work in the other direction. So what we’re doing in Design Transformation is we’re connecting these three points of strategic management consulting, the capacity building and the process reinvention so that you’re really kickstarting the organization in a whole new way. And we’ve taken a lot of the learnings, the recruitment model, working in a team level, going out and coaching, keeping it relevant, keeping it in the day to day. All of those learnings have come back and they’re really starting to gel within Design Transformation. And our mission is really to help other organizations start to see and start to operate with a more holistic model that often these investment is usually put directly into the product and service pipeline.
Mary Wharmby: We’ve got to train those guys because they’re the innovators and if you tell the rest of the organization that they’re not innovators, that innovation happens over here in the innovation center or these teams are the innovators and HR and everybody else you can just stay in the past. That’s disconnecting your organization. So we’re really about helping the organization connect, collaborate and ultimately creating a common language of innovation throughout the organization so that product, legal, HR, compliance, administrative assistance facilities, everybody speaking the same language of innovation. And they’re all able to get behind that mission of delivering whatever value it is that the organization is trying to deliver.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that sounds phenomenal. I’m sure the clients are lucky to have you. Well this has been really great. How can people find you and Design Transformation if they want to follow along and learn more or reach out?
Mary Wharmby: Well, they can check out they can reach out to me on mary@design They can find me on LinkedIn. I’m open to conversations. I mean as maybe you could tell this is a real passion for me. The work that we did at BBVA was a turning point in my own career and really kind of coming full circle and bringing all of that organizational theory that I got as a student way back in the day. I’m not going to say exactly how far back in the day. And connecting that with design and what I do now in a really practical way. I could easily say it’s been the most meaningful work of my career and I think we’re really onto something here.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That really comes through, it’s heartfelt and inspiring and I think it’s wonderful when we’re able to combine these different domains of knowledge into something that makes an impact. So that’s awesome.
Mary Wharmby: Yeah. Thank you. I mean I think that’s what we’re all after is impact. My final advice to your product teams would be around making a bigger tent. If you’re on a product team and you feel marginalized or you feel misunderstood and you feel like you’re swimming against the stream here, think about how do you bring others in? And think about the needs of others, empathize with them and you’ll start to see things turn around in a really magical way.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s wonderful. That’s fantastic advice. Thank you, Mary.
Mary Wharmby: Thank you very much.
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