When a new employee joins the design firm IDEO, they are handed a copy of The Little Book of IDEO. This little red tome walks through the firm’s founding story, organizational values, and best practices for being successful both individually and collectively at the company. Most companies have mission statements, but translating lofty sentences into day-to-day committed practice is a significantly harder challenge, especially when you are in the business of design and innovation.
Founded in 1991 by David Kelley, IDEO is known for many innovations in the digital space, including Apple’s first mouse, the first Treo, and the Tivo remote. In recent years, they’ve pioneered human-centered “design thinking”, a term Kelley uses to encompass IDEO’s wealth of creative problem-solving approaches and practices used to generate innovative solutions to business problems. The company has grown from their first Palo Alto office to a globally renowned innovation firm with presences in cities across the country and international centers like London, Munich, Shanghai, and Tokyo.
Much of IDEO’s growth and success can be attributed to their unique culture. “Most people I know have jobs or careers that they do mainly to earn a living…But all too many of them — lawyers, doctors, management consultants — have jobs that ‘look good but feel bad’,” cautions David Kelly in The Little Book. “This is not the case for me and hopefully for most IDEO-ers. What we do is a way of life, not really a job, and it feels good.”
“What we do is a way of life, not really a job, and it feels good.” — David Kelley, IDEO Founder
How can executives and design leaders cultivate a workplace culture that makes work feel good and not like a job? First, start with an inspiring but clear core mission that can be succinctly communicated and applied to each aspect of the company. “In the early days of IDEO, we focused on balancing great work with a business that was successful enough for us to keep going. While we were small, we didn’t need much more than that to keep us all headed in the same direction,” says Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO & President. “As we got bigger…we needed something more to aim for; a shared reason to get out of bed in the morning. That guiding idea is ‘impact’. You can think of this as our purpose — the long term focus on creating the maximum possible positive impact through design.”
Impact can permeate all levels of a company’s operations. At the highest level is the impact of a company’s products and solutions on global users and trends. For consultancies like IDEO, impact on client companies is the next layer underneath and includes not just the output of project work but also the impact of thought leadership. Successful engagements often change how clients think and operate even when formal involvement has concluded. Aside from impacting users and clients, employees at IDEO have also striven to impact design education, creating products like OpenIDEO and DesignKit to share design methods and case studies as well as inspire collaboration to solve major global challenges.
The mission statement also applies to the impact employees have on each other. According to The Little Book of IDEO, “Making Others Successful” is the motherlode of all IDEO values — genuinely wanting success for others and going out of your way to help them get there is the secret sauce. Paul Bennett, IDEO’s Chief Creative Officer, recounts how different his early interactions were in comparison to other companies, “The day before I felt like a cog in a large, anonymous system and now here I….was invited to brainstorms, people were asking me questions, genuinely interested to know what I thought, asking me to work on projects with them and to review work, share ideas, and actually design stuff with them. I felt like I both belonged, but more importantly, that I mattered here. I was seeing my impact.”
The core culture of IDEO is remarkably consistent across their global offices, despite them being thousands of miles apart, housing diverse employees, and serving vastly different types of clients. “Shanghai and Munich might may be culturally poles apart, but all of our offices feel similarly warm, embracing, fun, human, serious, businesslike, and playful,” recounts Bennett, who has traveled and worked in every IDEO office. “One of our colleagues summed it up beautifully: ‘IDEO is the country’.”
Thinking of the company as a country whose citizens share and uphold a core set of values has helped IDEO maintain an innovative and open culture despite rapid growth. “For a human-centered organization, it of course makes perfect sense that our inner core, the magma at the center of our earth is our people. We are all in the business of design and innovation, and our overall success is dependent on the overlaps between everyone’s skills. We are, all of us, creative people at IDEO. All of us,” insists Bennett.
How can an executive ensure that their team or department upholds cultural values? One strategy is to hire people who already express those values. Since one of IDEO’s core values is “Be Optimistic”, the company focuses on hiring people who can get excited about future possibilities in just about any field. They subscribe by a quote from Jay Chapman the Chief Happiness Officer of Pret a Manger, a British sandwich chain, which goes “You can’t hire someone who can make sandwiches and teach them to be happy. So we hire happy people and teach them to make sandwiches.” Another strategy is to implement processes and company-wide habits that promote the values. For example, to promote collaboration, everyone is encouraged to go out of their way to acknowledge everyone around them by using the word “we” rather than the word “I”, particularly when work is reviewed.
“You can’t hire someone who can make sandwiches and teach them to be happy. So we hire happy people and teach them to make sandwiches” — Jay Chapman, Chief Happiness Officer, Pret a Manger
Preserving the company’s values is not always easy, especially across deep cultural divides. Michael Peng, the co-founder and co-Managing Director of IDEO Japan, started his career in the company’s Palo Alto office and later helped open their New York office. When he made the leap across the Pacific to open their first office in Asia, he discovered that IDEO had to adapt their culture to accommodate risk-aversion in both Japanese clients and employees.
The makeup of IDEO’s Tokyo office is half Japanese, half international. “One of our core tenets is ‘Embrace Ambiguity’, but just try telling a Japanese person to do this. Their whole lives have been about knowing the answers, going through formal processes, and filling out forms. Japanese culture tells them that an answer exists and that their mission is to get to this answer as fast as possible,” says Peng of the challenges Japanese employees sometimes have with IDEO’s open culture. Japanese clients often feel the same way. “In Japan, clients want an answer before you even begin. If you tell them you’ll have a product in three months but don’t know what it is, they’ll wonder what they’re paying you for.”
IDEO employs multiple strategies to make their cultural work even with ingrained geographical differences. First is education. Clients in Japan are often not used to asking for help and not sure how to work with companies like IDEO, so Peng and his team invest time in explaining what the company does and the unique philosophies and processes they espouse. Next they allow clients time to build up trust by encouraging small wins and meaningful conversations. A client may require fifty conversations to be convinced to do a small workshop, but that workshop leads to a project, which eventually leads to collaboration on future strategy.
Finally, Peng and his team created tools and project structures that fit within the context of Japanese corporate culture. In Japan, corporate decisions are often consensus driven, meaning managers at each level must sign off before a project can move forward. What Peng discovered was that often a point person at a client company did not necessarily need answers up front, but simply needed proof of progress to justify continued IDEO engagement to their bosses. Knowing this, IDEO Japan added more frequent check-ins and major milestone meetings and also equipped clients with more concrete deliverables as well as storytelling tools to better communicate the work being done. While the design process, like in any other country, is still fraught with ambiguity, empowering clients to be better storytellers within their own companies helps lend a narrative structure to IDEO’s work and gives clients a frame of reference that fit within their own cultural expectations.