“How We Culture” With Michelle Lee and Jenny Gottstein of IDEO

Are you gearing up for the Culture Summit? Let us help you get in the mood by introducing you to one of year’s workshop facilitators, Michelle Lee and Jenny Gottstein of IDEO’s Play Lab.

Name: Michelle Lee

Position: Portfolio Director, Design For Play @ IDEO

Name: Jenny Gottstein

Position: Design Lead, Design For Play @ IDEO

 

What initially attracted you to the Culture space?

Michelle: Early in my career, I switched from the aerospace industry to toys because I needed to understand how my work could create positive emotional impact. Seeing a child deeply engaged with a favorite toy energized me in a way that couldn’t be matched by the launch of a satellite that, while amazing in its own way, was virtually invisible to the end cell phone user. My days in the toy industry taught me that through human-centered design, I could inspire joy, creativity and optimism.

Jenny: Before working at IDEO, I worked at The Go Game for 7 years (first as a game producer, and later as director of the game design department) as we designed team-building games for companies around the world. It was an eye-opening experience – I saw firsthand how much culture contributed to the overall success of the company. After a while, it became easy to spot the teams that were driving that success.

Here was the key indicator: they played well together! They cheered each other on, they complimented each other’s strengths and worked collaboratively to find creative solutions to curve-ball challenges. All of these teams, no matter what industry, had the same magic ingredients: Trust, laughter, curiosity, risk-taking and creativity. Based on those observations, I knew I wanted to design playful opportunities to help teams tap into those magical ingredients. 

 

How has that attraction evolved throughout your career?

Michelle: I’ve had the fortune of being a designer at a time when the role of design has greatly expanded. Previously seen as a way to make products more aesthetically pleasing, design has now evolved into design thinking – a method that is being widely applied to meaty challenges that extend to systems and organizations. We now create impact not only through products, but also through organizational tools and processes. This includes teaching teams to use design thinking themselves. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is seeing team members light up when they realize that they can be creative and have fun while tackling some of their company’s biggest challenges.

Jenny: As a game designer, I know how to design for a healthy competitive spirit that will produce outstanding results. But I’ve also seen that, when unchecked and rooted in individualism, competition can be disastrously toxic. At IDEO, one of our core values is “Make Others Successful”, which is why the company’s culture is so vibrant. Watching my colleagues embody this value every day has been a huge inspiration, and has reinforced my passion for designing experiences that help people bring out the best in each other.

 

If you couldn’t work in the Culture space, what would you be doing?

Michelle: I’d probably be co-writing a children’s book with my kids. I love the idea of a role where there’s limitless potential and room for creativity. This should be true of most job opportunities, but children’s books are boundless, letting you imagine the craziest characters and adventures. Add in some pretty rad co-workers, and it makes for one amazing work environment!

Jenny: Wind-tunnel dancing.

 

How do you define culture? Do you think there is or should be a universal definition?

Michelle: Culture can be difficult to define because it’s so much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s how a group behaves, what it believes, what’s acceptable and what’s not, but more so it’s a feeling you get when you’re surrounded by a certain group of people that drives how you act in those surroundings.

In game design, we talk about the concept of emergence. In emergence, individual pieces come together and interact to generate something new that could only have emerged through those interactions. If you think about this in terms of culture, culture isn’t static. It continues to evolve as different players interpret and act upon elements of the culture that have previously been established. The role of HR gets really interesting here, as HR can help shape culture by hiring, recruiting and elevating individuals who may reinforce an existing culture or push it in a new direction.

There’s definitely room for different interpretations of culture. Just as I think of culture from the perspective of game design, others will have their own ways to approach culture.

Jenny: Culture is like a party. When it works, EVERYONE wants to show up. When it feels forced, everyone makes lame excuses to leave early. Like a party, culture should be thoughtfully designed, and yet no one should feel like they are forced to attend. It’s important that everyone can co-create the party experience!

 

What are some common misconceptions about culture?

Michelle: Many people look to management to establish culture when it can actually be influenced by anyone in the company. It also doesn’t need to be established through company-wide policies, values or traditions. Individuals contribute to culture through how they interact with others on a daily basis.

Another misconception is that play contributes to culture only by providing breaks from productive work. In fact, integrating a playful culture into key aspects of work can make for greater creativity, innovation and satisfaction.

Jenny: Culture is not an “add-on” feature, nor a switch you can turn on or off with happy hours and perks. It’s a practice that has to be exercised every day in every corner of the company’s operations.

 

What’s the best culture advice you’ve ever received?

Michelle: When David Kelley first started IDEO, he talked about never wanting to employ more people than could fit on a single school bus. While the company now has more than 700 employees, it still feels like a small company. This is largely because David set the stage with his early vision. Within IDEO, different locations, disciplines and portfolios are empowered to create their own subcultures within the larger company culture, enabling them to have their own flavors while still holding human-centered design and IDEO’s company values at their core. Each group is like its own school bus in a fleet of buses all headed in the same direction.

In the Play Lab, where the Design for Play team resides, puns are commonly mixed into everyday conversation, fun surprises will be left on desks, meetings will conclude with purposely awkward high fives and prototypes are often seen flying through the air. On top of this, you’ll find a team that loves to collaborate, isn’t afraid to throw out crazy ideas, is quick to prototype and truly believes that all ideas belong to the group. Having smaller subcultures such as these creates a sense of pride and connection that feels authentic and right. It also enhances an employee’s sense of stake and purpose, in the smaller group identity as well as the company as a whole.

Jenny: The managing director at one of our IDEO locations is a huge proponent of hiring “unicorns” – people who don’t necessarily fit in a prescribed role, but have a unique perspective and combination or quirky skills. Each time he hires a unicorn, he tells them “The only way you will fail here is if you conform. We hired you because you DON’T fit. The whole point is for us to grow in new directions – you can help us change our DNA.” I think that’s brilliant because it flies in the face of hiring ‘good culture fits’ which can lead to homogeneity.

 

If you had to pick one culture-enhancing practice or “tactic” most companies could or should implement, what would it be?

Michelle: One practice that often gets missed in the race to constantly innovate is taking the time to reflect, celebrate and look beyond your walls. This can take the form of an annual review to look back and see how much has been accomplished over the course of a year, but it can also be accomplished through smaller gatherings that happen quarterly, monthly or weekly.

Every Tuesday, our location gathers over lunch. The meal is cooked fresh by James, a beloved member of our Experience Team, giving the event a very personal flavor. Katie, another member of the team serves as MC, providing her own energetic and quirky flair that have become critical to our culture. The next hour is filled with individuals sharing lessons from recent projects; inspiration from personal trips, local events or global news; celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries; and occasionally a heartfelt, if slightly goofy, award for someone who has gone above and beyond. In a world of emails and Slack messages, there’s still something very magical about physically coming together in one space.

Jenny: Listen for laughter! Studies have shown that laughter increases creativity. Wherever laughter is, innovation is not far behind.

 

If you could impart one universal understanding about company culture to every senior executive in the world, what would it be?

Michelle: Cultures can be designed, just like products and services can be designed. At the heart of it, it’s about creating positive human experiences.

When we design, our first step is to build empathy – taking the time to listen and observe. Next, we identify opportunities. What elements of culture are already bubbling up from different sources? What’s resonating with your employees while aligning with your company mission? What can you continue to nurture and grow? Also, where is your company facing challenges and how could culture help address these challenges?

From here, don’t be afraid to prototype. Rather than make one big statement about culture, try small experiments to see what works and surface leaders who are excited to build your experiments into larger agents of culture change. Finally, iterate to create a stronger culture over time that can evolve with your company’s changing needs.

Jenny: You can’t mandate culture, and it won’t change over night. You have to till the soil, tend to it with TLC, and have patience until culture blooms organically.

 

It’s the year 2030, what is the workplace culture dialogue talking about?

Michelle: Technology advances are putting an abundance of data and information at our fingerprints. Over time, it will be interesting to see how those tasked with shaping workplace culture embrace these new tools. As we can track more and know more, there will inevitably be discussions about how to do so responsibly, balancing quantitative data and statistics with the understanding that our jobs are to support complex human beings who shouldn’t be simply distilled down to numbers.

Jenny: Play audits and laughter metrics as key performance indicators! Inquire within for details… 😉

 

What are you excited most for at Culture Summit this year?

Michelle: I’m extremely excited to meet with others highly invested in creating positive human experiences at companies across a wide range of industries. Knowing that we may be facing similar challenges, I look forward to opportunities to mindmeld and cross-pollinate ideas, discovering amazing ways that individuals are approaching culture at their respective organizations.

Jenny: I’m excited to play with all of the brilliant culture designers in attendance! Looking forward to sharing what we know about leveraging play to design vibrant work culture, and learning from others in the room. Please come find us before, during, or after our workshops. We can’t wait to meet you all!

Hung Pham is the founder of Culture Summit, a conference that brings together founders, thought leaders, and culture champions to share insights, strategies, and best practices on transforming company culture from the bottom up.

“How We Culture” With Jack Altman, Co-Founder and CEO at Lattice

“How We Culture” With Jack Altman, Co-Founder and CEO at Lattice

Are you gearing up for the no-fluff, all-strategy 2018 Culture Summit? Let us help you get in the mood by introducing you to one of year’s speakers, Jack Altman, Co-Founder and CEO at Lattice.

“How We Culture” With Jack Altman, Co-Founder and CEO at Lattice

Name: Jack Altman

Location: San Francisco, CA

Position: Co-Founder and CEO at Lattice

 

What problem were you looking to solve when you founded Lattice with your co-founder Eric Koslow?

Eric and I were working together in a fast-growing company called Teespring. I was head of business and corporate development and he was the head of engineering. When we got there we had about 200 employees and we grew to 400 over the course of 2 years and we realized we were feeling a lot of the same problems as the company grew. We felt all the pain of getting more humans to work together harmoniously: communication breakdowns, unclear responsibilities, people not knowing what was expected of them, and a lack of transparency throughout the rest of company. We realized, wow, as you grow, people management becomes this difficult thing.

That was the “problem” we wanted to solve. And what inspired me was seeing how quickly and immediately my happiness and my situation got better with a manager – Robert Chatwani, the former Chief Revenue Officer of Teespring and current Chief Marketing Officer at Atlassian. I realized that building companies is hard, but a great manager has so much power over making employees lives better.

When we left Teespring, we were looking to solve this problem of how companies can do management better.More specifically, how to build a goal-setting tool managers can use to set and align goals throughout company. Over time, we developed a product for performance reviews that really clicked with our clients and that’s become our central offering.  

 

What initially attracted you to the HR space?

For me it was the realization that HR isn’t this boring compliance world. It obviously has that, but software has gotten so good at automating payroll and benefits and core HR systems so that now, instead of spending time on those kinds of problems, you get to work on strategic things: people. Are we motivating and growing the right person for the right role? When I reframed for myself that HR isn’t this cost center, boring function but a function whose job is to make people really successful, I became passionate about it.

How has that attraction evolved throughout your career?

I’ve come to believe that, despite how obviously important the role is to companies and the people that work for them, HR teams are still undervalued by their companies. Over the last 2.5 years at Lattice, I’ve gotten to work closely with extremely talented and caring people. I’ve learned that HR is made up of a great group of humans who choose to spend their career on other humans, and they need more championing in the world and general corporate environments.  

 

If you couldn’t work in the HR space, what would you be doing?

Besides people management, I get a lot of enjoyment out of company building in the general sense: I love the process of creating a new product and talking to customers and building a complicated company.  

 

What are you reading, online or off, that you recommend?

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss

Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company, by Andrew S. Groves

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD.

 

How do you prefer to read/consume information?

I do succumb to the internet and should spend less time there, but I prefer books over nearly everything else. I have a funny style of reading where I go through a ton of books, but don’t read them cover to cover. I don’t make myself feel guilty about not reading the book front to back and every page. Instead, I allow myself to flip through as I want to go to chapters as I want and mark them up, using the table of contents as place to jump around from. In a lot of cases, depending on the book, this allows me to get through books faster, not because I read less but because I don’t get bored. I’m always excited to read.

 

What’s your technology of choice?

I use an iPhone and a 15-inch Macbook Pro. For a while, I enjoyed using a Kindle, but I go in waves between a Kindle and regular books. I don’t use a ton of other technology, but I do love my Airpods.

“How We Culture” With Jack Altman, Co-Founder and CEO at Lattice

What does your workspace look like?

At work, I make a point of not really sitting down in one place too much. I have a desk, but I’m rarely at it. A lot of that is because I’m at meetings or sitting with different teams and spending time with people. Spending time physically next to people and talking to them has been my MO ever since I started managing people – in fact, somebody in the office dubbed my workplace personality animal to be a hummingbird because I’m always floating around. At home, I like to work on my couch with a coffee and a notebook and computer.  

 

How do you define culture? Do you think there is or should be a universal definition?

To me, one of the ways I think about culture as the fundamental way a group of people interact and work with each other. But I don’t believe there’s one understanding of abstract ideas that is true, so I don’t know if there should necessarily be one universal definition. There are multiple lenses we can look at culture through that are reasonable and useful. For example, maybe someone else thinks culture is the degree to which people at a company feel a sense of belonging, while other definitions may be useful tools to encourage a healthy team dynamic.

 

What are some common misconceptions about culture?

One of the big misconceptions is the belief that you can change people. A lot of companies will spend a lot of time putting certain values in place or encouraging employees to act a certain way. But I think in most cases you’re hiring adults who are fully-formed human beings. Ninety percent of who they are was established before they joined your organization, and you won’t be able to have too much of an impact on that.

That’s why it’s important to invest in culture early, because you mostly can’t change people. Getting culture in place early matters so much because when you’re first building a team it’s about the people, not how you tell the people to act. And after that, the most powerful culture editing tool you have is hiring and firing.

“How We Culture” With Jack Altman, Co-Founder and CEO at Lattice

What’s the best culture advice you’ve ever received?

The best thing I heard recently is from an interview we did with Kaitlyn Holloway, VP People at Reddit. She said that when the company wins, that helps build the culture in many ways. I’d never heard this concept expressed this way, and it quickly resonated with me.

At first it seems like it shouldn’t be all about winning, but then I mapped it back to my own experience and saw the truth in it. When things are going well and there’s room for growth and everyone believes the company is great, a lot of good things happen: the bar for talent comes up because you can attract and compensate good people, and that’s empowering for existing employees. It’s the old saying, “Growth cures all problems at a startup,” through the lens of culture.  

 

If you had to pick one culture-enhancing practice or “tactic” most companies could or should implement, what would it be?

In our experience as a relatively small, under 40 person company, offsites have been a surprisingly powerful bonding event for our employees. We’ve done a few at this point, some with teams, some with the whole company, some more substantial than others, but during every offsite people have a great time and get to know each other outside the office in a relaxed environment. When we were a really small team of 6, we went to Nicaragua and stayed at an Airbnb. More recently, we’ve taken a half day in Napa Valley, as well as an international offsite in Mexico.

You can almost see how much faster communication is and how people enjoy doing work together when we give them the space and opportunity to build friendships.

 

What do you do to discourage negative/harmful culture from emerging?

As far as a tactical approach, I try to establish for myself and other managers and leaders that everyone on the team should be talking to each other first. If someone comes to me and complains about someone else, the first thing I do is ask, “Have you talked to them directly yet?” In most cases, I know if they have or haven’t, but it helps to remind people that the way to resolve problems is by trying to work it out together. It also helps me avoid rewarding or enabling company politics.

“How We Culture” With Jack Altman, Co-Founder and CEO at Lattice

If you could impart one universal understanding about company culture to every senior executive in the world, what would it be?

I think the place where senior executives can lose sight of the importance of culture is when it comes in perceived contrast to business goals. If you’re the VP of Sales or Engineering and your job in this quarter or 6-month period is to hit a particular revenue number or ship a new product, it makes sense in the short-term to make cultural sacrifices in the name of those ends without being deliberate and thoughtful about why.

Of course, sometimes there are times as a leader when you do have to make those tradeoffs to reach short goals: you might really need to get this feature released in order to keep the team’s momentum up and to meet that goal you’re willing to make the team burn out more than normal, or allow a rockstar engineer who’s tougher to get along with a little more leeway. Those tradeoffs are made all the time, but you need to be aware of when that balance gets out of whack and make deliberate choices between business goals and culture.

 

It’s the year 2030, what is the workplace culture dialogue talking about?

One of the bigger trends in the past 15 years has been a shift in power from employers to employees, as it’s easier to get a new job, people stay in roles for a shorter amount of time, and mobile technology allow people to move around more easily. This has all lead to companies trying harder to retain great employees. As a result, we’ve seen workplace conversations become much more employee-centric. Thinking forward, I think this trend will blend with the growth of automation and AI in the workforce so that jobs will become increasingly less monotonous and more creative.  

 

Sarah is a HR and HR marketing and technology writer who analyzes and condenses cutting-edge research and data to help leaders and HR professionals develop their instincts and arrive at actionable insights for employee engagement and business performance. She loves to consider the possibilities of humanizing, organizing, and minimalizing all things HR.