Exceptional by Design: Teamwork @ IDEO

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of working alongside an IDEO team on a project for a consumer audio company. Two learnings stand out from that experience. The first was the way the IDEO team balanced a disciplined design process with creative thinking. The second was their instinct to collaborate and learn, even from another team at a startup company. Seeing the results of their approach, we adopted those lessons into the practices of our own team. When I began my doctoral research into team performance, it was no surprise that IDEO consistently appeared among the companies that fostered high-performing teams. For me, the really interesting question was “what lay behind those lessons I learned, and the experiences I had, working with the IDEO team?”.

Teamwork @ IDEO

Dana Cho is a Partner and Managing Director of the IDEO Palo Alto office. Last year, in an interview in Wavelength, Designing teamwork: an interview with Dana Cho of IDEO, Dana described the heart of her approach to team leadership is built around the internal interactions—the relationships—that foster creative collaboration. She went on to describe the role of team leaders in developing expertise and confidence in their people and giving them the autonomy to do work that matters to their clients. When asked about the connection between IDEO’s approach to teamwork and business success, Dana summarized it as “… if you have an incredibly engaged and passionate team, they will naturally create amazing design work that will lead to client satisfaction. And that will lead to profitability and business growth.”

In a great article in Medium, Be the Leader You Wish You Had, Clark Sheffy, Managing Director at IDEO San Francisco, reinforces Dana’s people and team relationship-centric focus within IDEO. In his personal story of leadership transformation and building high-performing teams, he notes the impact of shifting the hiring process from “picking people apart, to finding and supporting possibility.” Clark summarizes his leadership lessons learned as “It’s about believing in others, and focusing on fanning the flames of creative, weird, exothermic people, rather than fixing problems.” He concludes with a wonderfully contemporary take on Aristotle’s “We are what we do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”, saying, “How you approach your day, is how you will live your life.”

Developing IDEO Habits in Your Team

Exceptional teams have much in common:

  • They get the right people on board – focusing as much on possibilities as capabilities.
  • They develop a deep understanding of what motivates people at work.
  • They foster the habit of focusing on people and their relationships.

And, they bring a strong sense of purpose, joy, and fun to teamwork. Bringing these practices to your team starts with having a clear plan—an architecture—for building a highly-effective team, having the discipline to implement the plan and measure progress, and developing the habit of focusing on the health of key relationships.

As you build your winning team, take to heart Clark Sheffy’s words of wisdom, “How you approach your day is how you will live your life.”


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.