From Perfection to Prototype

  At vizzuality, we believe that the people who use the technology we design and develop deserve a voice in what gets built, which is why we spend so much time learning about people's real experiences and asking users for feedback.

What does it look like to ask for project feedback – before you even start? 

As VP of Development and Impact at vizzuality, I help connect-the-dots between our environmental and social impact clients and our project teams who design and develop engaging digital tools that tell stories through data. One of these dots – in fact, the one I care about the most – is making sure that what we build for our clients is not just what our clients want, but something that our clients’ intended audiences will actually use and enjoy.

When I think about feedback, my mind often goes to something like an ‘after action review’ – what did we do, what worked or didn’t, and what did we learn? But in order to design and develop something that actually resonates with the right community in the right way, we must be willing to collect and act on feedback from our users, stakeholders and partners from the very beginning. Sounds easy enough, but the reality is that asking for feedback can often be scary or even paralyzing – especially in the beginning of a project when pieces of our work can feel nebulous, unstable, or high-stakes, and we want to get things just right.

With this in mind, here are my three easy tips for incorporating feedback into your project design and development from the very beginning:

Know who you’re designing for (hint: it’s almost always not you)

One of my favorite adages from my time at IDEO was ‘Don’t jump to ideas.’ For a firm with a well-known reputation for creative idea generation, IDEO actually has a particularly strong commitment to not jumping straight into ideas, but rather starting first with inquiry, inspiration, observation, and asking questions of the people they intend to reach through their designs.

There are lots of methods for outlining who your users are (the good old pen and paper works quite well), but in essence, it’s important to pause and have an actual conversation with your project teammates about who you are trying to reach and why. Ideally this happens before you have a solution in mind for whatever problem you’re trying to fix; otherwise you’re most likely jumping to ideas and putting the cart before the horse.

Step away from your computer and talk to a human being

How do we make asking for feedback less scary? My best advice is to recognize – and then actively practice embracing – the idea that there is simply no way we can know absolutely everything. In fact, if we knew everything already, we would have already solved whatever problem we’re trying to tackle – making none of our work necessary in the first place!

So, forget the idea that you can know it all, and instead commit to start asking questions. Begin by talking with one or two people (or five or ten) to learn about their world and gather insights to inform what you design. There are a lot of great resources out there with sample formats for interviewing users (some of my favorites come from DesignKit, a how-to guidebook from IDEO.org) but truthfully, it’s not rocket science. It can be as simple as a cup of coffee and a few questions.

Feeling adventurous? Once you’re ready to level-up beyond conversations and interviews, give observations a try. It turns out that we humans are hard-wired to create shortcuts in our minds and to abbreviate the steps we take to perform tasks. A time saver for us, yes. But this means we’re really actually pretty terrible at explaining what we do and why we do it. So, to account for this, we can use observations to get at the heart of how our users perform activities, behaviors, processes and tasks in a way that’s unobtrusive, inconspicuous and often quite revelatory.

Stay in touch

Want to know one secret to building something that people will actually use? Invite them into your design process early and often. In my experience, a user will be more likely to adopt a solution – technical or otherwise – if she can see herself in the design and execution of that solution. If I have a hand in determining a feature, or refining a user experience, for example, I’m not only going to feel proud of my contribution, I’m also going to be more likely to use and recommend the solution to others.

It’s true that by staying in touch and creating regular moments for collaboration with our users, we open ourselves and our work up to a slightly messier process – one where more voices and more needs must be managed. But the trade-off – the thing that makes all that messiness worth it – is that by inviting in the feedback of others early and often, we have more teammates to lean on, more champions to share our stories, and ultimately more impact through what we’ve built.

What’s your favorite way for including feedback in your early project design and development stages?

 

This blog was originally published as part of Feedback Labs’ Three Things Thursday series — a terrific collection of feedback stories in all stages of work. Thank you Feedback Labs for including me!

Toddler Parenting: The Ultimate Crash Course in Being Effective at Work

 Me and my little 'extreme user'

Me and my little 'extreme user'

Demanding. Frustrated. Stubborn. Selfish. Emotional. Impatient.

If you’ve ever had a tough boss or a tough client, you’ve probably privately used some of these words to describe him or her. 

Yet, if you’re a parent, you know that these adjectives can also easily be applied to another tough crowd: our children.

As my son makes the transition from infant to toddler to preschooler, I’ve been reflecting on how parenting has changed me as a person and as a professional. My theory? Parenting is by far the best crash course – the best on-the-job training you could hope for, really – for improving your effectiveness and success at work. Here are my top three parenting lessons that also help me at work:

Communication and Empathy are #1

The craziest thing about little kids, even ones who are too young to talk, is that they are constantly communicating with you and you are constantly communicating with them. Whether it’s through your words, your body language, your eyes, even your energy – our children soak up all of these cues even when we don’t realize it.

Parenting requires you to be constantly vigilant about what you are communicating and how you are communicating it. Every signal sends a message. For instance, using words to describe our planned activities for the day helps my son create a mental script that he can follow and find comfort in as we move throughout the day. Similarly, If I’m nervous about my son’s doctors appointment, even if I don’t communicate that message verbally, my body language might tell my son that we’re about to enter a situation that makes me anxious, which in turn creates anxiety for him.

In crisis moments, communication – and especially communicating empathy – becomes especially important. One of my favorite parenting books, Love and Logic, outlines a step-by-step process for how to tame a toddler meltdown. The first step is called “locking in the empathy”. Simply put, this means getting down on on your child’s level, making eye contact with them, and starting first by expressing your understanding for their feelings and emotions. By showing your child that you are focusing on him and his experience of the situation, you’re much more likely to make progress trying to calm him down and move on to the next thing.

As professionals, this emphasis on communication and empathy is equally important. Whether it’s making a recommendation for a new strategy, having a tough conversation, or simply nurturing a professional relationship, being mindful about how and what we communicate is vital both for our clients and for our colleagues. How often and how well do you communicate the planned activities for any given client project, or lock in the empathy with a tough colleague who’s not making things easy for you?

Life is about Choices

This is perhaps my favorite toddler trick and it’s all about control – or at least the perception of control. Being a toddler is tough for a lot of reasons, but a big one is that you’re self-aware enough to want to have free choice and independence, but at the end of the day you’re still two years-old, which means you get to do practically nothing on your own (at least, this is what I think being a toddler is all about). When a toddler confronts this inner conflict head on, it’s like instant internal combustion. So, to help ease this disconnect, you offer choices. 

Love and Logic talks about offering choices that are first, equally acceptable to you and second, don’t knowingly cause any harm to anyone. To demonstrate this, imagine a scenario in which you struggle every night to get your child to eat vegetables at dinner (in my experience, this is a very likely scenario). You don’t care what vegetables your child eats, but what you do care about is that he has something green on his plate. Instead of asking him, ‘would you like vegetables or a cookie at dinner,’ you ask him, ‘would you like broccoli or green beans with your dinner?’ All of a sudden, the conversation has shifted to one about choices, and usually this is enough. Your toddler feels in control of the situation, and your end goal of getting something green on the dinner plate is accomplished (although whether he eats it is another story). 

Since learning about the mind-blowingly effective world of toddler choices, I’ve started playing around with choices at work too. It’s been especially helpful with colleagues when I need to engage them in a conversation about pivoting or redirecting our work to focus on something unexpected. With a little bit of pre-planning before the conversation, I can pick a couple of choices – either of which will work for me – and then present them to the group for discussion. By selecting a few options that I’m ok with and then letting go of the final decision, I’m able to steer the group in a direction that I feel good about, while still including others in the process and giving them ownership of the final decision. 

Staying Present and Mindful

By far one of the toughest things about parenting is that our children make it tough to multi-task. Those pesky kids with their needs and wants! 

In truth, while we all love to check email while watching TV or doing any number of things at the same time, being a parent forces you to put down your devices, your to-do list, and pretty much everything else and focus completely on your child. Parenting is, in fact, the best form of mindfulness training you can find. Some of my happiest, most fulfilling, and most memorable moments with my son are the ones when I am able to drop completely into parent mode: sitting on the floor building a train set, listening to my son describe his day at school, getting lost in the plot of a playful library book. I may never finish cleaning the house or doing laundry, but I’ll also never regret the moments when I stopped worrying about chores and errands and instead spent my time being completely present with my son. 

Being present at work often feels in direct conflict with what I’m supposed to be doing at work, which is being productive. How can I let go of my to-do list and be present at the office when my inbox is overcrowded and my calendar is filled with meetings? My approach to this is to find moments of being mindful in the midst of the day’s chaos. This could look like any number of things, but right now for me it looks like closing my laptop when I’m in a meeting so I can focus on the conversation. It looks like asking how my teammate’s holiday was, and then genuinely listening to the answer. It looks like enjoying the progress my client makes in a workshop, without worrying about the work that inevitably comes next. 

At IDEO, I learned about the value of looking to extreme users, or edge cases, for insights into how to design solutions or services that work for everyone. Three years into my parenting journey, I can safely say that toddlers are most certainly extreme users! 

How has being a parent changed your approach at work? I’m curious to hear what you think.

An Evolving Definition of Community

Who knew 'Presidential' was a flavor of cupcake?

When I was in business school, I defined community as a collection of people – consumers especially – who were uniting around causes and missions that they cared about and using their purchasing power and their voices (especially on social media) to effect change in the world. Once I joined IDEO, I began to round out this working definition of community to include location – that is, whether the community exists online or offline – and how that location influences the type of work people can accomplish together.
Over the last 3.5 years with OpenIDEO, my passion for community – and particularly unlocking new ways of supporting communities to collaborate, innovate and see positive change where they live – has deepened and taken on new dimensions that I couldn’t have expected. And I’m very proud to say that my next step – as a Presidential Innovation Fellow in Washington, DC – is helping me continue to round out my understanding of community on a scale that I could have never imagined (Read more about the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the incredibly talented folks who’ve joined this year’s class).
For my first project, I’ve been paired with an innovative team of strategists and doers at the National Archives and Records Administration. I, along with another PIF, are charged with exploring how crowdsourcing and online community engagement can help NARA accelerate its efforts to expand public, online access to our Nation’s most valuable historical records. It’s no small task when you consider NARA has over 12 billion pages of paper records within its holdings! Yet I’m confident that crowdsourcing, if applied in smart and intentional ways, can quickly and effectively scale this effort.

When I started The Changebase, way back as an MBA student in 2009, I had a hunch that the idea of community – a collection of people united by common experiences, shared values or like-minded goals – would play a large part in my professional career, but I couldn’t have anticipated exactly how.

In business school I defined community as a collection of people – consumers especially – who were uniting around causes and missions that they cared about and then using their purchasing power and their voices to effect change in the world. Once I joined IDEO, I began to round out this working definition of community to include location – that is, whether the community exists online or offline – and how that location influences the type of work people can accomplish together.

Over the last 3.5 years with OpenIDEO, my passion for community – and particularly unlocking new ways of supporting communities to collaborate, innovate and see positive change where they live – has deepened and taken on new dimensions that I couldn’t have expected. And I’m very proud to say that my next step – as a Presidential Innovation Fellow in Washington, DC – is helping me continue to round out my understanding of community on a scale and through a lens that I could have never anticipated (Read more about the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program and the incredibly talented folks I'm lucky to partner with in this year’s class).

For my first project, I’ve been paired with an innovative team of strategists and doers at the National Archives and Records Administration. I, along with another PIF, am charged with exploring how crowdsourcing and online community engagement can help NARA accelerate its efforts to expand public, online access to our nation’s most valuable historical records. It’s no small task when you consider NARA has over 12 billion pages of paper records within its holdings! Yet I’m confident that crowdsourcing, if applied in smart and intentional ways, can quickly and effectively scale this effort.

What will be the tangible outcomes of my time as a Presidential Innovation Fellow? Thankfully I'm only two months into the program, so I don't need to know that answer just yet. But I do know that over the next year I'm looking forward to further evolving my definition of community, this time on a national scale. How might we design citizen services that meet the needs of a community as diverse and complex as the American people? Wish me luck!

The Values We Wear to Work

When you think about the work that you do - the companies you join, the teams you're a part of, even the projects you take on - how often is your approach to that work determined by values?
Sure, a lot of us have chosen to go into work that feels like it aligns with our personal values - but that's not what I mean. Rather, I'm talking about overarching values that either you, your employer or your team have set as guiding principles. If you had to describe the North Star of what you do at work and how you make decisions, what would that star look like and where would it take you?
Recently I had the opportunity to visit the very nice community of Bozeman, Montana and speak on the campus of Montana State. The title of my talk was "Creativity, Design Thinking and the Crowd" and my intention was to talk about how OpenIDEO approaches the intersection of design thinking and crowdsourcing in its own way.
As I prepared my slides and delivered my talk, however, I realized that my talk - more than anything - was an exploration of the values that we hold dear as part of the OpeniDEO team and, by extension, as members of the OpenIDEO community.
In the end, I circled around 10 core values that I believe both steer and ground the work we do:
We’re about people
We design for inclusion
We focus on collaboration, not competition
We speak to different motivations
We invest in framing the question
We use a process
We’re transparent
We design with, not for
We believe in-person matters, too
We leave room for emergence.
Interestingly, having had some time to reflect on the experience of delivering this talk, I'm actually not sure that this list couldn't benefit from some refinement, a couple of additions, and maybe even some edits. Perhaps that’s true with all workplace values – they are subject to change with time and perspective. Regardless of what stage of development they're in, many of the values I’ve outlined in my talk have been true to me for some time and remain that way to me right now, like a badge of honor that I wear proudly everyday at work.
What values do you 'wear to work' each day? Are they codified somewhere in writing, or are they more reflective of an informal, collective mindset that you and your team shares? I'd love to hear what you think.

MontanaState

When you think about the work that you do – the companies you join, the teams you're a part of, even the projects you take on – how often is your approach to that work determined by values?

Sure, a lot of us have chosen to go into work that feels like it aligns with our personal values - but that's not what I mean. Rather, I'm talking about overarching values that either you, your employer or your team have set as guiding principles. If you had to describe the North Star of what you do at work and how you make decisions, what would that star look like and where would it take you?

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the very nice community of Bozeman, Montana and speak on the campus of Montana State. The title of my talk was "Creativity, Design Thinking and the Crowd" and my intention was to talk about how OpenIDEO approaches the intersection of design thinking and crowdsourcing in its own way.

As I prepared my slides and delivered my talk, however, I realized that my presentation – more than anything – was an exploration of the values that we hold dear as part of the OpenIDEO team and, by extension, as members of the OpenIDEO community.

In the end, I circled around 10 core values that I believe currently steer and ground the work we do:

  1. We’re about people
  2. We design for inclusion
  3. We focus on collaboration, not competition
  4. We speak to different motivations
  5. We invest in framing the question
  6. We use a process
  7. We’re transparent
  8. We design with, not for
  9. We believe in-person matters, too
  10. We leave room for emergence.

Interestingly, having had some time to reflect on the experience of delivering this talk, I'm actually not sure that this list couldn't benefit from some refinement, a couple of additions, and maybe even some edits. Perhaps that’s true with all workplace values – they are subject to change with time and perspective. Regardless of what stage of development they're in, many of the values I’ve outlined in my talk have been true to me for some time and remain that way to me right now, like a badge of honor that I wear proudly everyday at work.

What values do you 'wear to work' each day? Are they codified somewhere in writing, or are they more reflective of an informal, collective mindset that you and your team share? I'd love to hear what you think.

Three Lessons from Three Years at OpenIDEO

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 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. I'm not much of a risk taker, but I can say now that I jumped into IDEO with both feet – even though I had no idea what I was getting into.
One more note: even though these are lessons I've 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!

A desk with a view

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!