Archives For organizational design

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.

Why is Design a CEO Matter?

November 2, 2017 — 1 Comment

There was a time when efficiency was enough. When the role of the CEO was to optimize business as if it were a machine—making sure the supply chains and manufacturing systems and marketing channels were produced maximal output at minimal cost. Those days are over. And though I don’t suffer any romantic notions about the “good old days” of quality management and core competencies, being a CEO was certainly a more predictable job back in the 20th century.

Efficiency and delivering solid returns still matter, of course, but the old methods of getting there are threatened. Actually, I’ll go even farther: The old methods are incapable of preparing you for what we are seeing today—the most volatile and disruptive business climate the world has ever known.

In order to compete today, CEOs need evolutionary skills that will ensure their survival in a fast-changing climate. Business fitness now means learning how to be agile, resilient, and creative. It means adapting to the marketplace in quick generational cycles. That requires a brave new brand of leadership, and from our vantage point, as we work alongside companies young and old from around the globe, it requires being able to think like a designer.

The old methods are incapable of preparing you for what we are seeing today—the most volatile and disruptive business climate the world has ever known.

Why? Because if the core competencies of old were Gary Hamel’s “maintain world manufacturing dominance in core products,” the core competencies of today (customer obsession, agility, resilience) are intrinsic to the designer’s craft. Think about it: As the designer of a new service, product, or experience, your purpose is to identify the needs and desires of the customer, prototype solutions, and create something flexible enough to pivot quickly as those needs change, ensuring your continued relevance.

So, it’s clear that a design mindset is important, but does it ladder up to the CEO level? It does. And that’s because the organization itself is a design project. CEOs are charged with setting up a design-friendly culture in which the very metabolism of the organization runs faster. That means giving all levels of the company, from interns to managers to VPs, empowerment and autonomy—the permission to shift when they can see farther than you can. It means creating a safe environment in which they can fail without fear. It means telling them a compelling story about the purpose of your company and getting them invested in that story. You are working together to create something magnificent, and will walk into an unknown future side by side, together.

Knowing that those are the kinds of businesses that will thrive in this environment, a growing number of organizations are building design into their core competency. Ford is doing so today, and we’re proud to be their partners in that. Legacy technology companies like IBM have been investing heavily in design, too.

You are working together to create something magnificent, and will walk into an unknown future side by side, together.

Being capable of real change, of designing a future-proof, evolutionary organism, is no small feat. Take automobile companies: The model was once to sell cars that people wanted to drive. But today, mobility is a much more fluid concept. Now, car companies are designing for driverless cars and deliveries, for ridesharing, for multi-modal commutes, and for high-efficiency electric vehicles. That, in turn, means thinking about the urban infrastructure and how it will adapt to such changes—what happens to gas stations and parking lots? It means thinking through how driverless delivery ripples out to retail. The organization that is designed to sell a hunk of metal that takes a person from point A to point B is past its due date.

But it’s not just the auto industry—almost every business we know is facing this challenge. Shifting the purpose of an organization made for today to an organization fit for tomorrow is the job of the CEO. And, at its core, it’s a problem that requires design thinking.


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)