Teamwork and Innovation the IDEO Way

IDEO is run by Tim Brown (left) and David Kelley.

You must defer to the boss.

Chaos is discouraged.

Climb the corporate ladder.

Status is everything.

All of the above beliefs are fast disappearing, but it’s companies like IDEO that were challenging these beliefs back in 1999. The words of IDEO’s founder and chairman, David Kelly, do a fair job of summing up their work atmosphere, “If you go into a culture where their’s a bunch of stiffs walking around, I can guarantee that they’re not likely to invent anything.” ABC news did a story on this global design consultancy, and the company’s method of working together is fascinating.

Basically, everything we use was created to fill a need, but the goal is for the “thing” to have both attractive form and efficient function. For example, floss was an invention that had good function, but the decision to put it in a box with a small piece of metal at the top for cutting off the amount you want was the form. (It’s a great product, but I’m going to abstain from asking who actually flosses on a regular basis.) IDEO’s job is to design that form.

“We’re not experts in any given area; we’re experts in the process of how you design stuff.”, says Kelly. Someone could ask them to design a space shuttle, a chair, a toothbrush, or a shoe – it doesn’t matter. It’s not the idea itself that matters, it’s the process of making that idea better.

Isn’t this how it should be with your art? You may have a great or a lousy idea for a project, but neither is going to go anywhere without the knowledge on how to make the idea a reality. A fantastic idea that’s poorly executed still makes a bad product.

The process that Kelly talks about involves heavy teamwork, but there are some very specific differences between the IDEO team in the video and what a team from a traditional work environment might produce. For example:

  1. In an IDEO team, there is a noticeable lack of “status” or “title” for group members.
  2. The team leader is leading because he’s good with groups, not because he’s superior.
  3. The group itself is a mix of very different individuals. For example, it includes, a Harvard MBA graduate, an engineer, a psychologist, a marketing expert, a biology major, and a linguist.

Can you imagine a work environment where everyone is given the same amount of respect? David Kelly explains his take on it in the quote, “In a very innovative culture, you can’t have a kind of hierarchy of ‘here’s the boss and then the next person down and the next person down’…” He says that this is because it’s impossible that the boss would have all the experience needed for any and all projects. In other words, other members of the group have different experiences and that valuable insight gained from such experience won’t be accessed if everyone is relying on the boss’ ideas alone.

Secondly, have you ever been in a situation where responsibility or leadership was given to someone just because of their status, even though they have zero skill in that area? At IDEO,  the reason the Stanford engineer (who had worked at the company for just six years) was chosen as group leader was because he was really good with groups. This is what it means to take advantage of the skill set available and simultaneously throw over-sized egos out the window.

Lastly and quite possibly, most importantly, the group consisted of people with extremely different backgrounds and expertise. When forming a group, it’s often standard to choose people who do what you do and think like you. But if your team is more eclectic, you’ll have more resources, insight, and experience to draw from. Kelly says it simply in the quote, “You’ve gotta hire people who don’t listen to you… I don’t think corporate America wants to hear that right yet.” It’s a given that you still need to maintain a sense of order and respect, but the idea is that you need people who don’t just accept everything you say. If you only work with those who believe everything you believe, how will you grow? How will you improve and broaden your ability?

Watch the full video below:

Imahni Dawson is a writer and musician, with a great passion for Jesus, learning, and helping others reach their full potential.

3 thoughts on “Teamwork and Innovation the IDEO Way

  1. The team designed such a great shopping cart that stores couldn’t get them fast enough. No, wait, that never happened. 13 years later and none of the ideas expressed in the design teams work have been adopted to date.

    Some designs are classic because they also happen to be very functional. Say what you will about the shopping cart, it’s very functional. The teams was picking nits in order to justify a complete redesign.

    To bring this around to our business. All the camera companies (sans Arri) are reinventing the camera body. So much so that after you have purchased a very expensive camera you then need to go out and buy all the attachments that used to be there and a no longer included. Just look at the Blackmagic Design camera. It’s a cube. Ooooh very ergonomic. Very functional.

    Now we live in a time of great optical sensors that are all looking for a functional camera body to be placed into. When SONY brought the FS100 to Los Angeles, the cameramen in the room slammed it. Rightfully so. Guess what, most of what we complained about was fixed in the FS700. But they still left that terrible viewfinder system. As one recent reviewer said, “You’ll have to go out a buy a proper viewfinder from Zacuto.” Oh darn, I think I may have given his identity away. Bollocks!

    Give me a 1980 Betacam with the sensor technology we have to day and I’d be happy. Well, as long as it was the 48 lbs. that was the original Betacam…

  2. I really enjoyed this post.
    I am fully aware that I am not the best at what I do, but I started my company, so does that make me the leader? Most times, because it’s my name on it, but I bring talented people in around me to support the concept.
    I was about 3/4 of the way through before I even realized it wasn’t Ron writing, but Imahni! Great job girl! Lots of insight, and though some curmudgeons will never allow room for change because they’re stuck in their old, stubborn, immovable ways, they’ll fade into their oblivion soon enough, allowing room for free thinkers and actually worthy creative types to take their place.
    Steve Jobs said it well in the narration to “Think Different.” “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it and what an awesome quote by Steve Jobs! Thanks for sharing that. You said it so well in, “though some curmudgeons will never allow room for change because they’re stuck in their old, stubborn, immovable ways, they’ll fade into their oblivion soon enough, allowing room for free thinkers and actually worthy creative types to take their place.” That is certainly the day I look forward to.

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