Nurturing a Creative Culture
How writing a book about our shared values helped articulate what it means to be successful at IDEO
How do you know when you’re successful in your work? You can check off a list of technical skills and expertise you bring to the table. You can use a career development rubric to make sure you’re hitting the right goals. But often, it’s your behaviors—the intangibles that are the most difficult to articulate—that make the most impact. Things like your ability to stay optimistic or your willingness to adapt when there’s no roadmap.
Because of the nature of our work at IDEO, these intangibles are a big part of what defines the experience of working at the company. So in 2012, a global team of designers from our U.S., Europe, and Asia offices came together to codify these values and behaviors as part of a larger effort to evolve IDEO’s career development platform. More often than not, when IDEOers hit road bumps in their career, it was not about what they were doing, but how they were doing it.
The team agreed that, in addition to identifying the technical requirements needed to progress through one’s career, it was just as crucial to give IDEOers the tools they need to navigate the complex culture. So they captured the values they believed were foundational to the culture and most strongly shared across the IDEO community, and put them to paper in The Little Book of IDEO. The title is meant to reflect its purpose for readers—a handbook that’s compact, useful, and free of any corporate jargon.
For IDEO-ers, this red cloth-bound guide provides a shared lexicon around both the hard and soft skills we need to succeed. It describes things like why IDEO is so loosely structured, where it comes from, and where it’s headed.
Most importantly, the book identifies the organization’s seven core values. These are by design specific, actionable, and integral to the kind of work we do and the environment in which we do it, going beyond common sense and general ethical practice. The intention: to foster meaningful conversations within the community about life at IDEO, and how to achieve success along the way. With each succinct expression comes a deeper explanation of why it matters, and how it shapes our experience at IDEO.
Over the years, the book has been roundly embraced by the IDEO community as an honest articulation of who we are, as opposed to what we aspire to be, and what we appreciate most about working together. When IDEOers first got their hands on it, a movement took shape to create videos that bring each of the core values to life. To depict the value of "Embracing Ambiguity," for example, New York-based designers built a makeshift cardboard rowboat, and while simulating a storm, navigated their way through uncharted territory with teamwork and optimism. San Francisco produced a Jacques Cousteau inspired look at the lifestyle and behaviors of designers in their natural collaborative habitat.
Through the process of making the videos, IDEOers came together to reflect on each of the values, talking through what resonated and what didn’t. It gave them a sense of ownership, and a platform through which to share their interpretations.
A Global Conversation
IDEO has a global presence—offices in two countries in Europe, two countries in Asia, and multiple locations across the U.S. As an organization that embraces a human-centered culture, it felt important to learn if the values resonated with the IDEO community in all of these locations, especially in a country like China, whose working culture is so different from the west. We saw the authenticity and resonance of the values as essential for attracting, motivating, and retaining local talent.
So how did The Little Book of IDEO land in Shanghai? Exploring this question would illuminate insights into how our own clients are often challenged to keep their company culture resonant within the global landscape.
A team of IDEOers in our Shanghai office took on the challenge of exploring the meaning behind each of the values. They were surprised with what they discovered—that despite the firm’s Western origins, locals felt largely connected to the values. It even helped to further solidify their identity as a community, even if it may have been in tension with local working culture, because it was rooted in a set of shared beliefs.
In some instances, the Shanghai team built on the existing values in order to refine the meaning for the local context. For example, the core value "Be Optimistic" rings true, but could sound naive when translated directly to Chinese, implying "rose-tinted glasses.” So in the Mandarin edition, an extra phrase was added to convey the measuredness we mean when we talk about optimism at IDEO. The lesson here: The treatment of something as fundamental and nuanced as our values requires authenticity and emotional connection, and therefore more of a transcreation process than straight translation.
As an organization, we are designed to be flexible. This means we’re always changing—even when it comes to how we are structured—so that we can respond to the kinds of challenges that clients come to us for. In the midst of our constant evolution, The Little Book of IDEO is as resonant today as it was when it was published.