Designing teamwork: an interview with Dana Cho of IDEO

This story appears in the debut issue of Wavelength, a publication for teams who aspire to do great things together through a mindful, purposeful approach.

Dana Cho of IDEO

As an architecture student, Dana Cho fell in love.

“Architecture is such an amazing practice,” Dana says. “I loved architectural education because everyday you’re basically forced to create something from nothing.”

But when Dana started working as an architect, she felt constrained by the practical emphasis on the built environment. The parts of the design process that Dana loved as a student — understanding and shaping the interactions that make up human experience — were missing.

So Dana took a leap and joined the design firm IDEO, a pioneer of design thinking and human-centered approaches to creative problem solving, in 2001. “IDEO was the first place I worked as an architect where I was able to fully apply the design process that I had trained in and fell in love with,” Dana says.

Fifteen years later, Dana is now a Partner and Executive Creative Director of IDEO Palo Alto. During her career, Dana has pioneered the firm’s work in retail and hospitality and led projects for clients like Mayo Clinic, Virgin Australia, The Ritz-Carlton.

Just as her work for clients focuses on rethinking human interactions in both the physical and digital realms, Dana’s approach to teamwork centers on the internal interactions that lead to creative collaboration. Here’s what we learned from Dana about how project leaders at IDEO embrace autonomy, get comfortable with ambiguity, and foster a mindset of working together.

It starts with autonomy

IDEO is not like most companies. It’s evident as soon as you step inside one of their offices, from the open workspaces and prototypes to the ubiquitous presence of the design thinker’s favorite tool for creative brainstorming: Post-It notes in a range of bright colors.

And unlike corporations that are organized according to a rigid management hierarchy, IDEO has what Dana describes as a “very loose governance structure.” Business operations do happen at the global, regional, and studio levels, but “if you boil it down to where decisions get made, it happens at a project team level.” In practice, it means no two project teams operate in the exact same way. And when one project ends, team members reshuffle and join new projects.

“Every project team at IDEO has complete autonomy and authority to set the agenda, to redefine the design brief, to engage the right people, to manage to their right budget, and to do what it takes to get to what they think is going to be high-impact design,” says Dana.

Top-down hierarchy suggests that people at the top have more information than the people they’re managing.

“That’s definitely not lip service. This is actually what happens. One thing I hear at IDEO all the time is the level of surprise from project leaders of how much autonomy they have and the shots they get to call.”

This level of autonomy is uncommon in companies with more hierarchical structures, but it’s an essential ingredient for getting truly innovative results. After all, how can anyone be expected to take creative risks if solutions are mandated from the top?

Top-down hierarchy suggests that people at the top have more information than the people they’re managing,” Dana says. “Design thinking, by definition, is about being exploratory enough so that you can get to a non-obvious solution. And in order to do that you have to assume that really amazing ideas can come from anywhere.”

Comfort with ambiguity

With high autonomy comes ambiguity. Clients typically come to IDEO with an aspiration or idea of where they’re headed next, but nothing is predetermined. “They’re questioning their hunches. They’re questioning their data points. They’re questioning whether or not they really understand the consumer,” says Dana.

So at the beginning of a project, plans aren’t always completely defined. It’s up to the project leader to figure things out, from who to bring onto the team to what the final deliverables will be. Sometimes, it also means nailing down the problem that clients are trying to solve in the first place.

For those who aren’t accustomed to having a high degree of autonomy and authority, facing all these unknowns can be a bit unnerving.

“One of our values is comfort with ambiguity. That’s a really hard one when you start off at IDEO because — maybe it’s just human nature — we want someone to answer the question, ‘What am I supposed to do? Just tell me.’”

But in order to get to non-obvious solutions, the key is not knowing all the answers right away. Maintaining a sense of openness helps project leaders — and their teams — feel more comfortable with the ebbs and flows of a project, whether it lasts six weeks or a year (or several years).

“The way that you define your contribution is an iterative thing because you have to put something out there and see if it works with the chemistry of skill sets that are on the table,” says Dana.

Creating a collaborative mindset

The skillsets available to a project leader can be varied and unexpected. That’s because IDEO takes a multidisciplinary approach to building project teams, drawing from wide range of fields such as engineering, industrial and interaction design, anthropology, and many others. So while project leaders are accountable for the success of the team’s work, they’re not always the subject matter expert in every scenario.

“For example, we could be working on product development for an energy company and it could be run by an architect,” says Dana. The project team would also likely include specialists and non-specialists to expand the pool of potential solutions. “You want to make sure you’re not leaving fresh ideas off the table and sometimes that comes from other industries, other expertise, different perspectives.”

Given the diversity of viewpoints, disagreements are only natural. For Dana, this isn’t a bad thing. “Collaboration doesn’t actually mean everyone gets along all the time. Creative tension is actually what makes really great outcomes.”

That leaves one important question: How are decisions made when everyone has a unique take to offer? In a traditional management hierarchy, a senior exec might weigh input from a team of advisors and then make a final call.

The way that you define your contribution is an iterative thing.

But this approach to decision making emphasizes individual authority over collective exploration. Instead, Dana focuses on fostering a collaborative mindset throughout the course of a project. She has two strategies for doing so.

The first is agreeing on a general process. Because innovation can be unpredictable, the project journey isn’t always a linear path of successive milestones leading toward an end goal. Weeks or months into exploring one set of ideas, the team might land on an insight that uncovers an entirely different — and better — approach. “Everyone understands generally that’s what’s going to happen, so you don’t freak out when someone suddenly starts to open up the playing field again after you’ve gotten some focus.”

The other is to ground decisions in deep curiosity about the user. Whether teams are working on consumer electronics, transportation, or retail projects, user insights become the source of truth for guiding and simplifying the decision making process.

“If we agree on that, then decision making is not about opinions and it’s not about me versus you,” says Dana. “We can always filter it back to: Does this sit well with what we know about the user?”

A path to success

At IDEO, project leaders ultimately succeed when they embody another company value: enable the success of others. For Dana, this means finding ways to unlock the expertise and confidence of your team.

“We have this idea that if you try to do good work you might get there. If you try to be profitable you might get there,” Dana says. “But 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.”


Special thanks to Dana Cho and IDEO, an Asana customer, for contributing to this story.

For more articles, stories, and advice on leadership and teamwork, visit wavelength.com.