Archives For organizational design


If you’re reading this post on LinkedIn, then you already understand the power of communities working together to create new possibilities. But as we head into 2015, it’s worth underscoring the importance of community collaboration.

When Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus founded Grameen Bank, his innovation was not so much the idea of lending small sums of money to poor villagers in Bangladesh; it was the idea of lending to small groups of women who could help each other make the best use of the loans and ensure repayment. The community was the big idea.

Communities have long been the key to building things that an individual or family might find beyond their resources. Think about the barn raising tradition. Communities came together to help farmers build over a few days what may have taken months to do individually. A modern example of barn raising can be found atLocal Motors where automotive enthusiasts come together in micro-factories to design and build off-road vehicles faster, and at a fraction of the price, of conventional manufacturers.

Two years ago, I wrote about the importance of making others successful at IDEO. We have found that for our own brand of design thinking, collaboration is essential. It’s the only way we can tackle the kinds of complex challenges that we think most need solving. At IDEO at least, better together is a fundamental business strategy.

This basic insight — the power of collaboration — led us to create OpenIDEO, our online community that enables anyone to use design thinking to address pressing global issues collaboratively. We have been blown away by the passion and commitment of the community that has participated in more than 25 challenges. And we’ve learned that the idea of community collaboration is especially valuable in three different ways.

  • Better understanding of users. By involving a broader community in the research phase of a challenge, everyone gains a more complete understanding of all the stakeholders and variety of use cases. For example, an OpenIDEO participant from Uganda assembled a team to interview parents and educators in rural villages to get first-hand insights about the most pressing needs for early childhood development.
  • Relevant place to prototype ideas. Rather than designing in a vacuum, working with communities in need adds that magic formula necessary to come up with solutions that directly affect those who will benefit from it. You’ll also have a readymade place to try out and improve your ideas. For example, after realizing the need for safe recreational spaces for women in Istanbul, participants of OpenIDEO’s Women’s Safety challenge tested their idea through a prototype in that community.
  • Built-in motivation to implement the idea. New ideas need lots of prototyping and work before they’re ready for launch. If communities are collaborating to solve their own problems, it’s much more likely that they’ll be motivated to carry the idea forward and to implement the ideas. What’s more, the idea might be picked up by an entirely different group – maybe even in another part of the world – than the one who created it. For example, college students in New York City worked with an NGO in Nepal to develop a new project that helps low-income women support each other in Kathmandu.

If you want to see how some of these ideas are playing out, or contribute to one yourself, check out the latest community-based challenge on OpenIDEO, the transition to renewable energy.

This challenge is relevant to just about everyone on the planet. How can your involvement in this community push the effort to the next level?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


When we’re doing job interviews, the phrase “good cultural fit” gets bandied about a lot—and for good reason. IDEO’s stock in trade is creativity, collaboration, and human-centered innovation.

We don’t have discrete departments, rigid job titles, or corner offices. In fact, most corporate trappings simply don’t work for the kind of work we do, and honestly, neither do the types of people who crave them. The success of our company depends upon hiring people who are not only smart and talented, but who also have great emotional intelligence. We look for insatiable curiosity, irrepressible optimism, deep empathy, and those who play well with others. (Lone geniuses need not apply!)

Here at the Top 5 qualities I look for:

1. They say “we” more than “I” when recounting accomplishments. If they’re generous with giving others credit, I know they’re team players and will accept feedback.

2. They talk about failures, not just wins. If you’re trying to bring new ideas into the world, you’re going to fail…a lot. How you recover and learn from pratfalls is the true test. Or as we say: “Fail often to succeed sooner.”

3. They’ve spent time teaching as well as learning. Having an advanced degree shows diligence and mastery. Teaching shows you’re committed to making others successful, too.

4. They’re nice to the receptionist. When the interview is over, I check with whoever’s manning the front desk to see how the candidate acted upon arrival. Were they polite and friendly or did they treat the receptionist poorly? If it’s the latter, I know they only relate well to those in their perceived social group. Not very empathic or human-centered.

5. One final note about how we hire. We believe in asking for forgiveness, not permission.This goes for the job application process, too. Turning in a standard-issue résumé and cover letter won’t turn heads. Candidates who have wowed us have taken creative license and gone the extra mile to demonstrate their capabilities and passion. They’ve made video portraits, designed custom apps or, in one case, brought turntables connected to a dancing robot for an impromptu DJ set.

Hiring’s not an exact science—finding truly outsize talent never is—but these five qualities help us hone in on that most elusive quality: someone who feels like an IDEOer.

What other qualities suggest high emotional intelligence?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog) 


Bringing contractors into the fold at an IDEO food event

In April, I wrote a piece called “Designing a Freelance Life.” The post received nearly 200 comments. Reading over them, it’s clear that freelancing is a mixed bag. Even the language we use to describe those who work on a temporary basis—“temps,” “independent contractors”—feels wrongheaded.

Summing up my readers’ observations, I made a list of pros and cons. First, from the worker’s perspective:

Pros: Great for work/life balance, higher pay, and the ability to address diverse challenges across multiple industries

Cons: Few or no benefits, lack of community, erratic work and pay

A temporary workforce involves trade-offs for companies, too:

Pros: No expensive benefit packages, on-demand talent, and edge-pushing expertise when it’s needed

Cons: Conflicting timelines, a steep learning curve, and legal constraints that arise when companies need longterm help (especially in states like California)

The list helped define the problem, but it didn’t answer the question: How might we make the experience of freelancing better on both sides of the desk? For more insight, I turned to my colleagues Alicia Terkel and Heather Ferguson, who head up IDEO’s Bay Area contract talent.

Here are some of the ideas we came up with that I’m most excited about:

What if instead of calling people “independent contractors,” “temporary employees,” or “contingent workers,” we created more human-centered titles that celebrated the expertise they’re bringing to the table? Monikers like “Social Media Maven,” “Video Auteur,” or “UXpert.”

What if instead of throwing talent into the deep end in a new office, we invited them into the family through company programs like annual flu shots, office parties, and team-building exercises such as fitness challenges or community food drives?

What if companies relieved the pressure on individuals to provide for their own security by banding together to offer a robust package of benefits and financial services? Companies could share a flexible talent pool and offer workers discounted healthcare and retirement planning. And the network of businesses could pull from that pool in a more reliable way, saving them the time and expense of sifting through a slush pile of resumes or trawling LinkedIn.

If, as predicted, 40 percent of the workforce will be comprised of temporary workers by 2020, we don’t have much time to address this issue in a human-centered way. Companies need top-drawer talent to push the needle and progress. But if we don’t create inclusive, supportive environments, people won’t bring their best work to the table. Remember: Ideas don’t make companies great, people do.

What best practices have you experienced as a freelancer or organization that hires them?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog) 

Reflections on Davos 2013

February 5, 2013 — 1 Comment

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I recently returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The overall sentiment there was one of cautious optimism. While there is a long list of major problems to be tackled, the immediate prospects for the global economy seem reasonably good and there is a sense that most economies will grow this year.

The theme of the week was resilience—the question being, how do companies and countries weather the increasing volatility of markets, society, and climate? One obvious conclusion is that resilience requires the ability to rapidly react and innovate in changing circumstances. Creativity and design can help make organizations more resilient.

Another theme was the growing focus on tackling global problems that are associated with basic human needs. I couldn’t help but reflect upon the Designing for Life’s Necessities post in December. Access to healthy food and clean water, achieving active healthy lifestyles, redesigning broken healthcare and education systems, creating new jobs, supporting aging communities, and mitigating the effects of global warming—these were all topics of discussion in Davos. My sense is that in the next year more large corporations, governments, and NGOs will be looking for creative ways to address these issues.

Davos is a place to meet intellectual superstars and I was fortunate to spend time with both Daniel Kahneman (father of behavioral economics) and Clayton Christensen (of The Innovator’s Dilemma fame). They both offered wise words about purpose, success, and happiness—while commenting on the dangers of taking a conventional view of success and happiness. In particular, how companies measure success today in terms of return on capital.

How will you measure purpose, success, and happiness this year?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

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How often have you experienced unfriendly or grumpy service on an airline, in a restaurant, or in another service environment? Quite a few times, I imagine. In the vast majority of cases, I would take a bet that this is not so much a result of poor hiring or training, but a reflection of a poor internal culture.

Service brands often use the vocabulary of theater to describe what good service looks like. They talk about “performance,” “scripts,” and “stages” when instructing their staff. However, they forget one crucial difference between acting and working as a service provider. On the stage, the performer has a chance to prepare, and can treat the moment as a separate experience. A sales clerk in a retail environment has to cope with unpredictable customers and shifting levels of demand — never having the opportunity to distinguish the “performance” from the rest of the job.

When brands attempt to script their service performance, but do not give equal attention to their internal culture, it should be no wonder that these organizations inevitably fail to meet consistent service standards. Companies that have combative relationships with their employees, or fail to engage staff in a respectful way, risk seeing these same negative attitudes filter into staff interactions with customers.

Famously great service brands — such as NordstromSouthwest Airlines, and Four Seasons Hotels — go out of their way to develop respectful and positive corporate cultures that act as the foundation for great service. One of my local favorites in San Francisco is Bi-Rite Market. Owners Sam and Raph Mogannam have created a positive and inclusive culture that extends beyond employees, all the way to suppliers and the local community. A few simple behaviors guide how staff interact with customers, known as “guests.” Everything else comes down to the naturally optimistic and helpful personality of staff who work in an enjoyable and supportive culture.

Where might your corporate culture be obstructing your ability to deliver the best experiences to your customers?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)