A Bright Idea @ IDEO

What does a flying fish tell us about corporate culture?

At design consultancy, IDEO, the answer is – quite a bit. When IDEO’s chief creative officer, Paul Bennett, hoisted an Icelandic lamp made from a lacquered, deboned cod above his desk in IDEO’s office space, it was more than a quirky design decision.

The lamp is a symbol of Bennett’s experiment to work differently. One day, the chief creative officer realized that his hyper-scheduled workday was preventing him from living an important cultural value at IDEO: ‘Talk less, do more.‘ Scheduled in back-to-back, ten-minute micro-meetings left no room for doing.

One of Bennett’s core roles as chief creative officer is to ‘help inspire people’. With no space for the type of organic interaction and spontaneity that inspires creative thinking, Bennett felt his energy was misdirected.

So, he ran an experiment:

  1. Clear the calendar: Say no more than yes
  2. Buck the ‘hot desking’* trend: Be an anchor amidst the fluidity
  3. Do ‘doctor’s rounds’: Spend ½ day at the desk, ½ day visiting colleagues
  4. Respond in real time: Allow for 5 minute or 2 hour interactions depending on the real needs of the organization

*Hot desking = No designated workspaces; Employees at IDEO sign up for desks every morning

Claiming a permanent desk and stringing the massive cod lamp above it are symbols of Bennett’s commitment to change his leadership behavior:

“When the light is on, it’s a signifier to the office that I am there, and a symbol to me that I should be accessible and approachable. And it’s a huge incandescent fish: As a surreal object in a public place, it can shake you out of your office stupor and help you think more creatively” Paul Bennett (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/jobs/where-the-fish-swims-ideas-fly.html?_r=0)

Bennett’s experiment is a perfect response to one of the trickiest aspects of managing culture. Culture is grounded in habits. Thankfully, habits exist to save us the time of making drawn-out decisions about…how to sign an email, for example. But, leaders and organizations run the risk of relying on habits that once served them well but are no longer driving high performance. Left unchecked, this is how culture can derail organizations.

Bennett’s habit of hyper-scheduling wasn’t helping him contribute to the creativity and organic interaction that IDEO values. Leaders should be deliberate, like Bennett’s experiment, in course-correcting behaviors that aren’t aligned with their company’s values. Ultimately, leaders set the cultural direction for their organizations. The fish lamp, the dedicated desk over which it hangs, and the stories behind them are artifacts of IDEO’s culture that can’t help but reinforce the value of ‘talking less, doing more.’

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Ashley Klecak
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