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The Journal

5 Leaders Reflect on How the Pandemic Has Reshaped Their Thinking

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7 minute read

In May 2019, we launched The IDEO Journal, a digital publication that shares stories at the intersection of business and design. For the past year, in partnership with readers and IDEO leaders, teams, and clients, we’ve explored topics like social innovation, creative leadership, organizational purpose, scaling startups, and much more.

The goal of the Journal has always been to celebrate the powerful combination of design thinking and business acumen, and the resulting magic and positive impact of applying this duo to the world’s gnarliest problems. Nearly one year later, as we face what some are calling the biggest challenge of our time, this objective remains the same. In this spirit, we revisited five Journal stories from the past year, and asked the authors to reconsider their perspectives in light of the COVID-19 crisis: Has your opinion shifted? If so, how?

For some authors, much of their original thinking is now more relevant and valuable than ever. And for others, this question sparked new ideas and rich insights about design-led business that can help leaders face this moment with resilience, courage, and creativity. Here are their thoughts on what their original ideas mean in the context of the present moment.

Image by Gracia Lam

Don’t Throw Away Your Innovation Budget

In July 2019, IDEO Senior Portfolio Director Joe Brown shared the three most common traps companies fall into when investing in new innovation projects.

“It seems like everyone I talk to is looking to cut back on non-essential spending and nonsense innovation. It’s slash and burn time in budget town. It can feel scary to decide which innovation projects are most vital to keep or to kill.

Since the COVID-19 crisis started, I keep turning to the Outcome framework in this Journal article to help leaders decide which bets are important to keep right now. If you have to cut your spending, which efforts can you afford to cut? It can also be scary to feel like your work is falling under the knife. So, I’ve been turning to the Metrics framework to help teams threatened by cuts demonstrate the value of their projects—even if those projects haven’t yet generated profits. If you’re looking to strategically re-evaluate your innovation portfolio, this piece is worth another look.”

Joe Brown's recommendation for further reading: Roaring Out of Recession, Harvard Business Review

Image by Raymond Biesinger

The Three Qualities Leaders Need in an Uncertain Future

Suzanne Gibbs Howard, IDEO Partner and IDEO U Dean and Founder, challenged the commonly-held belief that leaders must always have the right answer and that this high level of certainty is what leads to success.

“When I wrote this article last year, though I was thinking deeply about navigating uncertainty, I had no idea that by March 2020, I would be experiencing it directly and wondering how to lead through this crisis.

Many of the principles in this article hold up in answer to 2020’s big questions: What are the things I need to hold to in order to navigate uncertainty? How can I continue to convene people even when we can only do this remotely? How can I stay curious, even when I am exhausted from homeschooling and taking care of parents and other friends in need? And how can I retain fierce optimism in a time of crisis at home, at work, and across the globe?

This is a time for leaders to rework their pact with society. If I could add an additional quality to this article, it would be boldness. Today I’m wondering this: How do we rebuild our world post-COVID differently from the way we approached rebuilding in the wake of 9/11 and the 2008 recession? How do we go beyond small tweaks to the systems, and instead set up a more resilient, inclusive, and sustainable future? How do we not only survive uncertainty, but thrive? We must be bold.”

Suzanne Gibbs Howard's recommendation for further reading: COVID-19 Is a Chance for Business Leaders to Rework Their Pact With Society, Politico

Image by Thanawat Sakdawisarak

The Learning Program That Aims to Make Cities More Economically Resilient

In this piece, former IDEO Senior Portfolio Director Sarah Zaner and Rick Wartzman, Head of the Drucker Institute’s KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society, reflected on how they helped instill a culture of lifelong learning in South Bend, Indiana.

“With over 30 million people newly unemployed in the US, the need to reskill much of the nation’s workforce has reached a level of urgency not seen since the Great Depression. It’s tempting to meet the problem with technology that promises to scale massively and quickly. But before we design big, tech-centered solutions, we must remember that behind the statistics are struggling people. The challenge we’re facing as a society goes beyond the need to reskill millions. We also need to forge the resilience and unlock the agency needed for individuals and communities to create and take part in a hopeful future.

This Journal piece describes how The Drucker Institute, IDEO, the city of South Bend, Indiana, and the St. Joseph County Public Library created a system for lifelong learning. The goal of Bendable was always to help South Bend be more resilient in the face of a changing economy. And then, scale that model in a hyper-local way across the US. Now, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s more important than ever that we collaborate across sectors and with communities to create cities of lifelong learning.”

Sarah Zaner's recommendation for further reading: COVID-19: A Time of Immense Uncertainty, Working Nation

Image by Johan Papin

How Design is Driving Ford to Reimagine What a Car Company Can Be

In December 2019, IDEO Partner and Chief Operating Officer Iain Roberts discussed how design thinking is permeating Ford, transforming the century-old automaker’s corporate and cultural DNA.

“Earlier this year, I wrote about how design is changing the way Ford develops their vehicles for the better. In the present moment, the power and potential of this design movement could not be more apparent within Ford, or more relevant for other organizations.

Design thinking principles like human-centeredness, agility, and a bias toward building have helped Ford quickly pivot in response to the pandemic, creating medical equipment that meets the needs of those working tirelessly for us on the front-lines. Amongst many impressive efforts, one stands out for me: D.Ford employees designed a protective face shield in the span of a weekend, and now Ford has produced nearly 20 million units to meet the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE).

While design has been core to improving Ford’s fundamental business and ability to create new vehicles and products, CEO Jim Hackett and I are also seeing it play out in unexpected ways and spread to other parts of the business. Human resources, legal, and manufacturing teams are closely collaborating and focusing on people as they approach challenging questions like, “How can we reopen our factories in a way that ensures our workers are protected and safe?”

For Ford, it’s not just about producing cars or medical equipment—it’s about people, their safety, and their needs. The way that Ford has responded to the crisis not only proves that human-centered design is there to stick, but points to its ability to support and guide companies through ever-changing circumstances.”

Iain Roberts' recommendation for further reading: Ford’s Swift Pivot to PPE Showcases the Automaker’s Competitive Edge in Design, Fortune

Image by Mark Conlan

Prototype the Future of Your Business With This 4-Step Design Exercise

Joe Gerber, Managing Director of IDEO CoLab, explained how design fiction can help leaders break free of present-day realities and envision a genuinely novel future for their businesses.

“I recently finished teaching Design the Future at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business with my IDEO colleagues Joanne Cheung and Sandeep Pahuja. The class started right as the country began to shut down, and classes at Berkeley were either cancelled or shifted online.

That was about three months ago, which simultaneously feels like a lifetime ago and yesterday. This is still a time of tremendous uncertainty, but one thing has become quite clear: getting back to “normal” is not possible, because the fundamentals have changed. By staying home, we’ve been forced to see things that we can’t unsee: Many of us don’t need to work in an office, our health system is broken, and much more.

Very real disruptions aside, this was the perfect time to teach Design the Future online. Design fiction and other futuring techniques are created for these moments of uncertainty. They often come across as fantastical and unrealistic, but if used correctly, they offer a rigorous strategic framework for leaders to proactively build toward preferred futures.

By definition, strategy is about making choices to guide the future. As we continue to venture into the fog, we can all think like futurists. Design fiction creates space for imagining the unimaginable, but can also anchor us in the choices we have in the present to rebuild the future.”

Joe Gerber's recommendation for further reading: Nassim Taleb: A Definition of Antifragile and Its Implications, Farnam Street

Header illustration by Devin Peek

  • English Taylor

    Senior Writer, IDEO San Francisco
    English is a Southerner turned Californian who loves writing about people and design. Passionate about reproductive health and healthcare advocacy, English works and volunteers as a birth doula.
  • Sarah Rich

    IDEO Alum
    Sarah has spent most of her career editing and writing for magazines and online publications including Dwell, The Atlantic, Wired, Medium, Stanford and UCLA Graduate School of Business.
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