Archives For creative culture

The myth of leadership is that it has to be top-down. The CEO has all the answers and leads by handing down mandates. But any chief who thinks he or she has all the answers is limiting the scope of the operation.

Why? The leader as autocrat is an outdated mindset that belonged to the era of operations efficiency, when companies were run like machines with predictable outcomes. In that day, you ran a reporting system that looked for exceptions to the rule and made strategy decisions based on those reports.

As I wrote in HBR, today’s design-driven organizations require a much more nuanced style of leadership. Instead of playing a single role, I’d suggest these four stances:

1.     The Explorer

Anyone who’s playing a leadership role is one step removed from the day-to-day and can ask bigger questions. Organizations have a habit of not zooming out enough to glean that perspective. The exploratory leader asks the most relevant questions that get the company to go find the right answers. Ellen MacArthur is a great example of this. She literally set out to sail around the world, and experienced firsthand that we’re all connected on a planet with limited resources. Out of that perspective she conceived the Circular Economy, and is now working in partnership with many businesses on new initiatives that have circularity at their core.

2.     The Gardener

I mentioned this in my last post. Setting the conditions for creativity has to do with cultivating a certain organizational culture and environment. Everything from ensuring there’s tolerance for risk-taking, to rituals that facilitate sharing what you and your team are working on today, to a setting up maker spaces at work where people can draw their ideas with pen and paper and use scrap materials to prototype them quickly.

3.     The Player/Coach

Instead of leading from a silo, the player/coach sits and works alongside employees. That way, leaders can help teams when they most need it—especially when the business requires a pivot. Playing this role builds respect, empathy, and enthusiasm for one’s team, because you see all the hard work up close and connect to your employees in a new way. Being a Player/Coach also serves the purpose of increasing the speed of decision-making, as the CEO can see firsthand what needs to be done and what resources are required to get there. Neil Grimmer, an IDEO alumnus, who’s now the Founder & CEO of Habit Inc., was that kind of leader. He worked alongside his teammates as a designer of his company and its product and that gave him the speed and knowledge he needed to launch two successful businesses (the other one, Plum Organics, was bought by Campbell Soup Company in 2013) in the years since he left IDEO.

4.     The Storyteller

One last thing to add to this list: In order to lead the people who work for you over the mountain, you have tell them a good story—one that is driven by purpose. If you are an organization that practices human-centered design, you know to strip away anything that doesn’t matter, leaving only the most beautiful and useful essence of the thing. Organizations who do that well are fulfilling their purpose to serve the humans who are also their customers. Leaders may have a blue-sky vision of how to do that from a 10,000-foot peak, but they have to articulate it in a way that people at every altitude of the organization can see it.

If I was to collage together the explorer, gardener, player/coach, and storyteller, it would create a portrait of the modern entrepreneur. Leaders who can embody these four roles set the culture of a design-driven organization almost by default. Those who do it well receive dividends, and those who do it poorly will pay for it later, even if the business succeeds at first. In order for leaders of major companies to launch new ideas, they have to have this entrepreneurial mindset.

That mindset is essential when you’re creating (and selling) something new. Steve Jobs, with all of his fireball charisma and powers of persuasion, created a reality distortion field—he told the story of Apple’s Macintosh in a way that was so convincing, he made the market. The leader of a design-driven organization will both paint a picture of the promise land, and embolden his team with the courage to go there.

Some of today’s most successful companies—Airbnb, Nike—have CEOs who are also designers. And leading organizations across industries, like Apple, 3M, and Pepsi, have highly influential Chief Design Officers at the helm. Making design a priority isn’t just about meeting the glossy expectations of today’s consumers—it’s is a key differentiator that drives organizations to outperform the market. But you don’t have to earn a degree in fine arts to be creative, and while the designer CEO or CDO may set the agenda, design-friendly behaviors need to flourish at every level of the organization.

Here are the top 5 approaches that we believe will have the biggest impact:

1. Cultivate curiosity

Human-centered designers share one quality—they like to ask questions, lots of them. Adopting a posture of humility and curiosity is how you develop empathy for your customer’s needs and desires, and when you’re in constant contact with the people you’re designing for, it creates a productive feedback loop. But that can’t always be a one-to-one conversation. In order to scale curiosity you need to design algorithms that collect and analyze data in a rigorous and human-centered way.

2. Experiment early and often

Designers never stop at one sketch. Likewise in business, being able to “sketch” or test the viability and desirability of several ideas at once is a critical skill. We have a tool called Creative Difference that organizations can use to test the effectiveness and creative capacity of their teams. Now that we have collected and analyzed quite a bit of data, what we’ve found is that teams that explore and iterate five or more solutions at once produce 50 percent more successful launches. Experimenting like a designer means valuing divergent thinking as much as convergent thinking.

3. Collaborate across silos

Designers don’t subscribe to the myth of the lone genius. Alighting upon breakthrough ideas requires collaboration across disciplines. And today, the challenge goes even further than getting internal departments to talk to one another. To predict the disruptive solutions of the future, one must now go outside the building and cross the boundaries of industry. That’s the only way organizations can avoid making a common mistake—defining the competition too narrowly. (Who would have thought, for example, that a search engine like Google would end up becoming the biggest competitor for the media industry over advertising dollars.) For CEO’s, this might mean looking for interesting partnerships or investments outside of the company’s core business. It might also mean bringing talented people into the organization from outside the sector. A lot happens across the boundaries of silos, so adopt a practice of gathering knowledge from unexpected places.

4. Spread ideas like a virus

Developing a storytelling practice isn’t typically seen as part of the designer’s toolbox, but it’s an essential skill. The ideas you generate will die on Post-It notes if they don’t have an animating force. Tell a great story, activate networks who can help you build your idea, and do anything you can to make the idea contagious within the organization. Don’t let the idea get tossed back and forth between teams—that’s a quick way to kill it. If the idea started with a leader who has low visibility, the trick is to quickly assign it to a product owner who can spark a movement. The earlier you have an owner who sees it as their job to generate excitement and momentum around the idea, the better chance it has at survival. Data collected from our Creative Difference work has shown that leaders and product owners who foster clear purpose and consistent intent have 20 percent more successful launches.

5. Go big and go fast for the win

Design-driven organizations understand that more is more. If you start with a surplus of ideas, then you can sacrifice a few darlings along the way and not be sunk by it. Companies like IKEA have a firehose of new products every year; it’s become habitual for them to produce at that rate. And with 30 percent of revenue coming from new products, the company doesn’t have time to be too precious. Such abundance requires all of the above qualities to create a sprint-like design process that builds early prototypes, garners evidence and feedback from the marketplace, and responds quickly—all mid-stride.

One last note: Lists of important qualities have limited value if they’re seen as mandates plunked down from on high by a corporate crane. A design-led culture requires skillful and steady cultivation. One way creative leaders can start is to fancy themselves gardeners. In that role, they must seed a common purpose that can take root across the organization. Once that purpose is planted, smart, emergent ideas will sprout up everywhere, across the company’s halls. Everyone must understand why the company exists, and that reason has to go beyond making money. It has to be about designing something extraordinary—something that people dearly want.

It has been exciting to see design thinking gaining ground in a growing range of industries over the last few years, but even I have been surprised by the enthusiasm with which some in the legal field have embraced the concept.

The law is not exactly known for creative problem solving. But it turns out that the industry is facing the same set of challenges as everyone else as disruptive technology forces regulators and policymakers to think differently. This is a moment of rich opportunity for design thinkers, and we now have evidence that the world at large is taking notice.

IDEO’s Chief Counsel, Rochael Soper Adranly, has just been recognized by the Financial Times as one of the Top 20 global General Counsels of 2017 sitting alongside General Counsels of some of the largest companies in the world.

Rochael boldly applies creative problem solving in corporate legal departments and legal firms and that has set her apart from the pack. Her approach is based on the fundamentals of design thinking, as the Financial Times explains: “Today’s general counsel need to be both business-minded and human-centered. This means . . . having a clear awareness that legal problems are human problems.”

I truly hope that many more in the legal field take up Rochael’s message of human-centered design thinking.

Illustration by Anuja Shukla



Hunter Gatherer, one of the inspiring international company examples in Leading for Creativity.

The world of business has never been more volatile or unpredictable. Sources of competition and disruption can appear anywhere—not just disruption in products, services, and technology, but also in channels to market, policy, talent, brands, and supply chains.

In order to survive in today’s complex world, organizations need to generate, embrace, and execute on new ideas. That takes creativity and a creatively capable workforce. It’s the secret sauce, or in evolutionary terms, it’s what keeps you fit. Organizations without it can’t compete.

When we first think of creative organizations, design firms, advertising agencies, or tech startups typically come to mind. Building a creative workforce takes more than hiring a bunch of designers and hosting happy hours. It requires a mindset shift that begins with leadership.

I’ve observed leadership styles across diverse industries: teams in financial services, working with frontline customer support; healthcare organizations, improving patient experiences; and tech companies, learning new ways to retain talent. These team leaders didn’t come from “creative” backgrounds — they weren’t innovation experts, designers, or writers; they were sales leaders, human resource specialists, and software engineers. And they led their organizations in ways that allowed every individual to participate creatively and arrive at better solutions, even when the path was unclear.

Creative leadership isn’t about leaders simply becoming more creative. It’s about individuals leading for creativity. That means you, as a leader, must unlock the creative potential of your organization, no matter the industry. It’s your job to set the conditions for your organization to generate, embrace, and execute on new ideas. It’s a competitive imperative that will keep you ahead in the marketplace.

Holding a curious mindset is a great starting point when you’re leading your team or organization. If you’re in a truly new space, you won’t always know the answers. Your team won’t either. You’re going to venture into the unknown together. Asking questions is one of the best ways to practice a curious mindset—questions that challenge assumptions, inspire others, open up a broader context, and cause reflection.


Supporting creativity requires a suite of approaches that empower individuals and teams to search for solutions and take ownership of what they do.

  1. The explorer. Leaders need to have an inspiring vision and set the course for a new direction. If they don’t, people won’t follow their lead. They hold to that vision and take risks to get that much closer to their destination.
  2. The gardener. Leaders need to set the conditions for creativity to thrive, such as providing inspiration when energy is low. When challenges crop up, they act swiftly to address them and make necessary adjustments.
  3. The coach. Leaders need to stay present and engaged. They’re on the field, at eye level, offering guidance on the fly. They help their team navigate ambiguity, learn from mistakes, and ask the right questions.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to explore on this topic. If you want to continue this conversation, I hope you’ll join my course, IDEO U’s Leading for Creativity, and help your organization thrive in today’s complex world.


This week, school principals across the globe are lacing up their sneakers and toting their brown bags to school as part of Shadow a Student Challenge, a program to help school principals better understand their students’ experiences.

As of Monday, more than 1,200 school leaders have taken the challenge in all 50 states in the U.S. and in 24 countries. Looking at the tweets coming from these experienced school leaders, it’s fascinating to see their revelations from standing in the shoes of their students for a day. Turns out being a student is hard work!

“2 classes, two 40+ question tests so far…the kids are such troopers! I’m exhausted already!” tweeted Jonathan Adel (@jonathanadel).

“Health to ELA to Math…Communicable diseases to Text Features to an Algebra 1 test on Multi-Step equations = worn out :)” wrote Ed Gettenmeier (@egettenmeier).

“Spanish, Eng, math, now government…my head is spinning. I was so lost in math,” wrote Bradford Hubbard (@hubbardbradford). He followed up, “Feels very vulnerable to say, ‘I don’t know.’”

This is what empathy is all about. Not just sympathy for someone else’s circumstances, but the deep intuition for what it feels like to live their lives. When they sign up to follow a child for a full day during the week, these school leaders are clearing their calendars to commute to school, attend classes, and eat lunch alongside their students to see the entire school experience through their eyes.

The organizers of the challenge — IDEO, the Stanford, and the Hewlett Foundation — are providing resources to help school leaders, who are asked to hack potential solutions where they find a need during their days as students.

There’s a big idea here for all of us who play a leadership role (and most of us do in some way lead others) — to try shadowing our own “student” for a day. Of course, it doesn’t have to literally be a student, per se, but someone who you may have responsibility for, someone whose daily work life you haven’t experienced.

If you manage a store, for example, try ringing up customers at the checkout. If you run a logistics center, try working on the warehouse floor. If you manage project teams, sign up to be a regular project team member for a day. Whatever it might be, go experience the day of someone you lead.

Just as with the principals, you may find it harder work than you imagined, and it may give you insights into how to create better experiences for your colleagues.

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)