This February marked my three year anniversary as a member of the OpenIDEO team at IDEO – amazing how the time has flown!
Maybe it's because I'm marking this anniversary, or because our team is growing and I find myself training and coaching new colleagues, but I've started reflecting on how OpenIDEO has evolved over the last few years – and by extension, how I've evolved with it. When I joined OpenIDEO way back when, our platform and our community was less than six months old. We were an exciting new initiative in IDEO's eyes, and yet most of our colleagues weren't quite sure what to make of us. We were small, scrappy and said yes to (almost) everything for the sake of continued learning and growth. We knew enough to be dangerous and had some hunches about where we were headed. But beyond that, the rest was open, white space.
Joining OpenIDEO marked a true departure and a leap of faith for me: prior to IDEO I'd never worked in technology, I'd never been part of a startup, and I'd certainly never imagined I'd join a design company. Even with all of these unknowns, it was a no brainer to jump in with both feet.
One of the cool things about joining OpenIDEO when I did is that I've had the chance to be around long enough to see our efforts grow and blossom. Ironically, in a world of fast-moving, short attention-span startups (and the employees behind them), having some staying-power has enabled me to get mired in the details AND see the forest for the trees, so to speak. As I round out Year 3 and move into Year 4, here are a few highlights of what I've learned and how I've grown so far:
Finding Comfort in Chaos
When I first joined OpenIDEO, I was looking for structure. Ten months into what felt like a topsy-turvy, post-MBA job search that I had no control over, I viewed my IDEO offer letter as the guarantee of stability I was craving. How wrong I was! Instead, what I found was a brand new business with a largely unwritten future. Admittedly, in my first year at IDEO this mismatch was really challenging for me. I often found myself feeling inwardly resistant to conversations or projects that seemed too chaotic, or simply wishing we could have figured out all this messiness already. Everyone talked about things like 'experiments' and 'iteration' – and in truth, at the beginning of my OpenIDEO tenure, I often wanted to run screaming in the other direction.
Being a natural project manager, though, my inner organizer eventually took over and I started creating the structure I needed. In the beginning, this meant nailing things down, making quick decisions and clamping down on anything that felt ambiguous or undecided. Not surprisingly, I wasn't so successful in those early days – not only was that way of working not in line with our cultural and team values, but it wasn't any fun either. Later, I learned to move forward in my work by creating a skeleton outline – just enough structure to give myself a North Star to follow, while also still leaving a bit of room for spontaneity and unexpectedness.
At the time I thought I was just trying to wrap my arms around something to force it to make sense. Now, however, I can now look back and say that the experience of creating something out of nothing, of finding comfort in the chaos, was hugely valuable because it pushed me to do the very thing I was resisting – namely being flexible, not having all the answers from the outset, and learning to be comfortable with iterating along the way.
The beauty of working in a startup – as chaotic as it can be – is that in the chaos, there is possibility. There is growth and movement and fluidity in ways that you don't experience when you're working in a more traditional, 'pre-built' organization. Yes at times it can feel frenetic or unstructured…but strangely enough, this way of working has rubbed off on me. In fact, I can now say that I proudly use words like 'prototype' and 'test' in a sentence! Only this time around, it's not just jargon – I believe it.
Speak Now…or Don't
Prior to joining OpenIDEO, I'd worked in pretty traditional, hierarchical organizations where rank mattered. Where I sat in the food chain not only influenced the work I could do, but it affected the opportunities I had to participate in conversations. Because of this, I got trained (for better or for worse) to often times keep my opinions to myself. When I did speak, I agonized in my head: when was I going to chime in? what would I say? what questions will other people ask and how will I answer? It was exhausting.
One major shift that caught me off guard at IDEO was that suddenly, people wanted to know what I thought about things. Unlike other organizations, OpenIDEO (and IDEO more broadly) has a fairly flat structure and culturally, we value healthy, constructive dialogue and inquiry. This meant that, at any number of times during a day, my teammates, my manager, other folks at IDEO would ask, 'Ashley, what do you think?'. Other times, they wouldn't even bother asking – the expectation was that I would just dive right in.
While this may sound like a breath of fresh air, it was actually very challenging for me. Outside of some impassioned conversations in MBA team rooms, I actually didn't have much practice using my voice. So, when pushed for a point of view on something, I instead turned inward and became speechless. While I'd always thought of myself as an extrovert, every day I sat in a roomful of extroverts who were well-practiced in speaking up – and suddenly the introvert in me switched on.
That's not to say that I didn't have an opinion; in fact I had opinions about everything! I just didn't know how to share them.
Over time, and with the support and coaching of my manager and others, I slowly started practicing speaking up. And believe me, it takes practice. But incredibly, through this practice I don't just feel more comfortable going through the motions of speaking my mind. Instead, I've come to trust even more in the content I have to share. Maybe it's that I've been doing this long enough to have opinions that are rooted in real work and a real understanding of what we do, maybe it's just something I've been practicing long enough that it feels less rehearsed and more spontaneous. Whatever the reason, it's a liberating feeling to have a point of view and feel confident enough to share it.
There's No Substitute for the Real Deal
At OpenIDEO, we're quick to celebrate the online partnerships and virtual teams that form on our platform. After all, we're an online tool – which means 99.9% of what our community does is online too.
For our team at IDEO, the same is true: our 10-person group is actually made up of a collection of people across multiple locations: the U.S., the U.K., New Zealand, even Eastern Europe. Amazingly, there isn't actually one time during the day when we can all get on a phone call together. At first this was incredibly frustrating and felt agonizingly slow (even now, when the phone or video connection is poor, it's easy to want to pull your hair out). But as they say, necessity is the mother of invention – and working as part of a virtual team means getting creative. Whether it's finding new tools to support our online brainstorming sessions or establishing new rituals that support our team to form bonds across time zones, we're definitely seeing some advantages to working this way.
My sense is the trend these days is to further shift the balance toward virtual teams – and I'll admit that it's a skill I've worked hard to acquire. Nonetheless, one final learning from the last three years is that there really is no substitute for the 'real deal'; that is, in-person, face-to-face connections and collaborations. On the OpenIDEO community side, we're starting to see incredible traction when community members take their efforts 'offline' and continue their collaborations locally as a team. You can check out some great examples here. And for our team, we're all starting to coalesce around the idea that certain projects 'live' in certain locations. It helps us focus, it means that projects can move forward more quickly, and it gives each local team the chance to form an identity and a bond.
It's funny to look back on the last three years and wonder whether these lessons have been ones unique to working at a place like IDEO, or whether I'd have caught up to them at some point somewhere else. However they came to me, and even though I call these my lessons learned, I'll admit I still have to practice them everyday. At times I still struggle in chaos, lose my voice or miss feeling an in-person connection. Some days are easier than others. Three years in, though, I'm thankful for the journey and learning so far – and I'm excited to see what the lessons are in Year 4!