17 February 2021

The Role of Purpose During Change | Is Purpose Working Podcast Episode 9

Dani Johnson
Co-founder & Principal Analyst

TL;DR

  • This is the 9th episode of our podcast season: Is Purpose Working?
  • In this episode, Stacia Garr of RedThread and Chris Pirie of Learning is the New Working interview Suzanne Howard Partner at IDEO + Founder, Dean & Managing Director of IDEO’s Learning Platform, IDEO U.
  • How IDEO interprets Purpose, as a way of helping align people towards what’s next for them.
  • The role of learning as a way to spark the engagement that’s the necessary precursor to successful, Purpose-driven engagement.
  • How 2020 brought Purpose to the surface for many people struggling to “keep pushing forward”
  • A special thanks to our season Sponsor, NovoEd for their support!

Listen

Listen to my podcast

Guest

Suzanne Howard, Partner at IDEO + Dean and Managing Director of IDEO's Learning Platform, IDEO U

DETAILS

First, there was IDEO, an award-winning global design firm that decided to take a human-centered, design-based approach to help organizations innovate and grow; you may or may not have encountered its unique approach if you’ve ever interacted with the Stanford d.school. And then in 2014 along came IDEO U (University), an online school promising to equip learners with the skills, mindsets, and tools to help us stay relevant and adaptive in our modern world.

Just on its own, IDEO U would be worth us looking at it as an example of successful online L&D, as it’s served over 50,000 learners in 100 countries, spawning a community connecting over 200,000 changemakers bringing increased creativity, innovation, and modern leadership into their work. But we know that the driving principle at IDEO is Design Thinking, which its chair Tim Brown says we should see as “a human-centered approach to innovation” that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success… so what is the connection, if any, between Design Thinking and Purpose? What role does Purpose play in what Suzanne’s been trying to do this past bumpy year of COVID as Managing Partner of that part of IDEO? Given that the organization specifically offers a Power of Purpose course (“A clear purpose guides people through change and motivates them to lead from wherever they are”), we knew we needed to know more. So in this episode in our ‘Is Purpose Working?’ odyssey we meet the latter’s Founder and Dean, Suzanne Gibbs Howard to try and find out.

Suzanne’s work at IDEO U caps a pretty amazing (she’ll tell more of a “crooked path:” we think you’ll disagree) personal and professional journey that involved Anthropology and associated fieldwork, as well as a dip into divinity school, usability and lengthy spells in China and Africa. We learn about that, as well as:

  • Why she ended up in San Francisco, CA
  • How IDEO interprets Purpose—as a way of helping align people toward what’s next for them
  • How 2020 brought Purpose to the surface for many people struggling to “keep pushing forward”
  • The role of learning as a way to spark the engagement that’s the necessary precursor to successful, Purpose-driven engagement
  • Why L&D needs to be a lot more than “just MOOCs and talking heads” from now on

Resources

  • Suzanne is on LinkedIn here, her employer IDEO is here and IDEO U, of which she is Dean, is here (and her personal IDEO page here)
  • Check out the IDEO ‘Power of Purpose’ online course here
  • RedThread’s on-going Purpose work

Webinar

This season will culminate in a live online gated experience (a webcast) where we'll review and debate what we've learned. Seats are limited. Secure your place today, over at www.novoed.com/purpose.

Partner

We're also thrilled to be partnering with Chris Pirie, CEO of Learning Futures Group and voice of the Learning Is the New Work podcast. Check them both out.

Season Sponsor

Global enterprises rely on its collaborative online learning platform to build high-value capabilities that result in real impact, with its customers working to deliver powerful, engaging learning that activates deep skill development, from leadership to design thinking and digital transformation, as well as driving measurable business outcomes.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Pirie:
You're listening to Learning Is The New Working—a podcast by the Learning Futures Group about the future of workplace learning, and the people helping define it.

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
So Purpose is such a fascinating concept. It's so important and aligning people toward what's next for them. We do teach a lot about Purpose, and one of the things that we focus on is the way that Purpose has a role in a larger system of change.

Chris Pirie:
That's Suzanne Gibbs Howard; she’s the Dean of IDEO University—a learning resource for customers, employees, and fans of the world-renowned Silicon Valley design firm IDEO.

And this is an episode in our ‘Is Purpose Working?' season—a collaboration with Dani and Stacia from RedThread Research. This episode is sponsored by NovoEd: global enterprises rely on NovoEd’s collaborative cohort-based learning platform to deliver high-value programs with real business impact.

With NovoEd, you deliver powerful and engaging learning that activates deep skill development and drives measurable business outcomes. On March the 11th, at 10:00am Pacific time, NovoEd is hosting a live webinar where you can join RedThread Research founders Stacia Garr/Dani Johnson and myself to discuss what we've learned in our season exploring the implications for learning and talent management of Purpose-aligned organizations. We can't wait to meet you, and to get your questions and observations and experiences on the topic of Purpose alignment, as well as share our own reflections and research; we’re really looking forward to it. To register for your seat, submit questions and access lots of bonus material around all these episodes, including transcripts, please go to www.NovoEd.Com/Purpose.

Suzanne Gibbs Howard is a partner at IDEO, as well as the founder and Dean of IDEO U. It's a learning platform where anyone can learn to solve anything creatively. She describes it in our conversation as an “awesome mosh pit of learning and collaboration.” In five years, she's taken IDEO U from its initial concept to serving over 200,000 learners worldwide. As you'll hear, Suzanne arrived at IDEO via what she calls a “crooked path,” which involved anthropology, teaching English, working in tech startups, and pioneering many of the techniques at the forefront of IDEO’s practice today. She’s done innovation projects in public, private, and social sectors with clients, including the Gates Foundation, Ford, Google, P&G, and the Apollo Group. She hosts an acclaimed podcast called the Creative Confidence series, and she's a core design team member for Aspen Institute's First Movers Innovation Fellowship. She also serves as faculty for UC Berkeley Haas Business School’s Institute for Business & Social Impact.

In today's conversation, her passion for impact and change, education and innovation is writ large. We explore how Purpose and a mission to create a learning platform where anyone can learn to solve anything creatively shapes her work and her team, and scales the impact of IDEO to a worldwide community. We talk about the future of work, the future of learning, and the intersection between personal and organizational Purpose.

Let's listen in to our conversation with Suzanne Gibbs Howard.

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
Hi, my name is Suzanne Gibbs Howard. I am the founder and Dean of IDEO U, and I work for the larger company of IDEO.

Chris Pirie:
Suzanne, welcome to Learning Is the New Working. Thanks so much for your time and for sharing your insights with the audience today! I’m a huge IDEO fan, and the last three years of my life has been spent doing a lot of study around Design Thinking and that whole movement—it’s huge in the Learning space. So it's great to have you on the show.

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
Thank you; glad to be here!

Chris Pirie:
We're going to start with a few quick questions just to kind of sketch out your work practice for people, and Stacia is going to take the lead on that.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah, thank you, Chris. It's great to have you on the show today, Suzanne. I want to start by understanding what part of the world do you live in, and why?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
So I live in San Francisco, California; for me, it’s a very deliberate choice. I started off living here because I needed to be in a place where I could find the stimulation and the kinds of work that I wanted to find in life. And San Francisco is a pretty unique city in terms of the kinds of opportunities that present themselves, the kinds of community you find there. But for me, it's that delicate balance between finding ways to create an existence and impact in the world, and also being able to escape this city really easily and get out to nature! Before I lived in Chicago, which wasn't quite the same balance for being able to get outside, so San Francisco is unique in that.

Stacia Garr:
Moving on, what's your job title, and how would you describe the work that you do with IDEO U?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
My title, officially, is Dean of IDEO U. So I'm a partner in the larger IDEO enterprise, which means that I'm constantly collaborating with all sorts of other people and leaders and companies in order to try to have a positive impact on the world. But specifically, with the IDEO U, what I do is I lead the vision and the strategy for our online learning platform. So our platform is focused on adult-learning professionals who want to be more innovative, more creative, more impactful with their work. And then thinking about strategy and vision, I'm constantly thinking about the things we can do to push ourselves forward so that we can help other people do the best work of their lives.

Stacia Garr:
Great. And for folks who may not be familiar with you all, is it primarily businesses who bring their leaders to come to IDEO or to do the work with IDEO U, or is it individuals like me who might say that sounds amazing. I just want to join up and learn. How does it work?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
It is an awesome mosh pit of all of those things at once. So one of the things that we know as IDEO that's one of our collective superpowers is this convening power—this ability to pull together incredible numbers of diverse people in order to collaborate with, and work together with, each other. And so it's exactly that same vibe on the IDEO U platform, so there are absolutely individuals who are there, who, like, just decided to take a course themselves because they wanted to make a change in their lives; there are also lots of people who are sent through their work. One of the things that gets me most excited are the teams who decide they want to learn something together, and so they sign up as a small team. And I think that's such an amazing social dynamic for the best learning.

Stacia Garr:
I think what's so cool about that is we were speaking with somebody who's at the D School for a different session, and one of my questions for that person was, you know, how do you scale what's amazing at the D School? And it sounds like in many ways, IDEO U is scaling what's amazing about IDEO and making it more broadly available?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
Absolutely: that was really the impetus for doing this was that we were feeling extraordinarily limited. We saw such a hunger out in the world to learn more about these ways of working, and we couldn't meet the need or come anywhere close to it. And the kinds of experiences that we were creating for a small group weren't even the best; they were great experiences, but there were better ways to design for longer-term more deeper learning. And so that's why we wanted to get into this.

Stacia Garr:
Very cool. Well, you said that you are both a partner and the founder of IDEO U. How did you get there? What were your career steps to get to this current role?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
I always describe my career journey as a crooked path, and I think that speaks to a lot of people whose journeys are crooked and don't make sense until you get to wherever you end up. But I started off studying cultural anthropology. I don't know why: I just loved studying people and culture, it was always a thing for me, and I was in a situation where I just could go deep on that. Especially what I liked studying was situations of high change, so in the cultural anthropology world, that ended up taking me to places like Zimbabwe, just post-Apartheid, a lot of change happening there. Situations in China and Tibet as China's economy was completely changing and Tibet was being pulled into a whirlwind of change situations, and the Middle East. So I've looked at all of those kinds of situations and thought a lot about how does change happen in a good way, in a not so healthy way, what helps to make people successful?

I did that for a long time and then realized that an academic career path wasn't quite right for me—it wasn't a place of high change. And I found myself out in Silicon Valley, right at the beginning of the early dot.com wave. So mid- to late-nineties, and fortunately, a crooked step on my path was I just saw that they were hiring anthropologists and people who could help with the study of people and culture to design hopefully better technologies. That was a way that I saw I could combine all of my passions, got on that train, worked in a couple of startups, eventually found my way to IDEO, and shockingly to myself, I've ended up at IDEO for 20 years, and I think that's because IDEO’s kept changing. So at first I did a lot of design research studying people and culture. Then I led a business unit where we thought about systems change; in the end it all culminated in the last six or seven years, where I could see something that took me back to my roots in wanting to teach and learn through the study of people, and I pitched IDEO to create IDEO U. And they said yes!

Stacia Garr:
That's amazing. Well, maybe taking that as a context, we'd love to know a little bit about IDEO and its relationship to Purpose, because that's what we're talking about on this season. So could you talk a little bit about, does IDEO have an explicit Purpose statement? And if so, what is that?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
IDEO is a Purpose-driven company, though the things that all 700 of us at IDEO think about are making change in the world in a more human-centered and designer-ly way. You know, we want to have a disproportionate amount of impact for the small group that we are with and through partnerships with others.

IDEO has been around for 40 years. We've worked on so many things—early days it was about what now seemed like simple technologies, like the first mouse, the first laptop. And as we wanted to tackle bigger and bigger problems and think about where design could actually help, we started to get into more systemic challenges, so how organizations need to change, how can we redesign the ways that people vote, not just the machines, but all of the systems around them, which is kind of a hot button issue right now. And so, IDEO was constantly changing. IDEO U is one of those things that was birthed out of IDEO. And so IDEO U’s Purpose as a result is to help us amplify and enable and unlock greater numbers of people so that they can solve their own challenges more creatively. You can see how our Purpose is intimately interconnected to the larger Purpose of IDEO.

Stacia Garr:
Right. All that very much so hits on something we've been talking about in this season, which is the connection between individual Purpose—so like you just said, unlocking people's capabilities and ability to solve their own problems—with this broader sense of Purpose of the mission of the organization and what it's trying to do.

Chris Pirie:
How does Purpose play out in the culture and the day-to-day operations and running of IDEO U?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
So with the IDEO U, we think a lot about how do we simultaneously catalyze our amazing team forward, and yet give them the freedom to do what they know is right, and yet have us all aligned. And so Purpose is really central in that: making sure that we think a lot about keeping people motivated. I mean, my goodness, over this last year, that's just so hard for everyone to stay motivated, to keep pushing forward, to keep carrying your work for it. The larger Purpose is central in that. So for us, it's all about our Learners and the people who are on our platform. This year, we broke a hundred thousand people having come and learned with us at IDEO U. And yet at the same time while that number is meaningful, it's really the stories of the individuals—when we see the shift that it's bringing to their lives, that keep us motivated, keep us aligned, keep us wanting to do our work.

So every week, we try to share Learner stories. One of the ones that really struck me recently is a woman who was in a storytelling for influence course, and her name is Geniah Stevens, she’s got this amazing not-for-profit in Wisconsin that is on fire to help people of color start their own businesses. And of course, even more so with all of the things that have happened with the next wave of social rights and civil rights in this country. And so when I hear Geniah’s story, and we all hear Geniah’s story and the things that she's doing and how she's putting that together, and the fact that our courses are helping to keep her fire lit, that’s what keeps us all going.

So culturally, we share stories like that one about Geniah regularly. And then operationally, we work really hard to translate that into critical metrics. You know, we are one of the most data-driven parts of IDEO because we have a digital product, and we can track so much. And so we're thinking constantly about what are meaningful metrics that show us that not only people came and consumed and signed up, but that they actually are learning something. So we spend a lot of times on those metrics each quarter, each year, trying to make sure that they're meaningful and aligned with our larger Purpose.

Chris Pirie:
I love it. I have a question to hear about illustrations and stories about your level of commitment to Purpose?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
Yeah. Purpose always comes out strongest when there's a moment of strife. And this last year, of course, has been challenging for everyone. And so, you know, especially, whatever, nine months ago, when we all started working at home and it was a time where a lot of organizations around us were throwing up their hands and saying like, ah, give it up for the next few months—nobody’s going to get anything done! And we really challenged ourselves to go the opposite direction and to say, yes, we know extraordinary numbers of us have kids at home and are studying; we know that people are taking care of their parents right now; we know that not everyone has the right tack or physical setup at home.

At the same time, we have to do something to help our community. Fortunately, we were in a great position to do that because we are online learning. And so a couple of the things that we really lit a fire under ourselves to do, to stay aligned with our Purpose, were around finding the right way that we could make even more of our educational resources free for a certain time. So we have an introductory course to Design Thinking: we knew a lot of people, especially educators, needed that extra boost, so we made it free for a couple of months and have literally over 10,000 people, majority educators, coming in and taking this course from us so that they could just keep thinking about better ways they could redesign their classrooms.

Other things we've done: we’ve always had a scholarship program. That's always been important to us, because we wanted to be a for-profit social venture. And so we knew we needed it to be sustainable, but we knew there would always be people who couldn't afford our courses, even though they're the most accessible part of IDEO. And so our scholarship program is really dialing up to the next level, inspired by this last year. And especially, we're working to focus it on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the space of innovation.

Chris Pirie:
Just an aside here; it's been an incredible year for online learning. I think maybe 12, 14 months ago, many of us were evangelists, like trying to say, no, it can be good and it can be engaging, and it allows you to do all these things that you can't do by getting people physically together. Then all of a sudden we didn't have to evangelize anymore, because it was the only option for people. And we did see an incredible uptake on people taking MOOCs, and people just instinctively knowing that when in times of change, it's a good idea to get smart.

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
Definitely. I am sometimes just in processing mode and thinking about what is the right thing to do, and I think I was personally struggling with, yes, this is the time, but, Oh my God, it's so hard. And so when I did a bunch of reading and studying on things like the Bubonic Plague and looked at the fact that during the Plague, there were, yes, horrible strife, lots of death, but it was also the beginning of huge pivotal things like a public health system and medical ethics that really changed the face of the way society functions. And I do believe that this pandemic is that kind of opportunity, and especially in the space of learning and the ways we work,

Chris Pirie:
I guess the anthropologist in you must be going crazy right now. It's like so much is going, so much change is coming as a result of that.

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
Hi, I'm Geekily excited to see what happens next.

Stacia Garr:
So I want to talk a little bit about Design and Purpose, and so I want to understand how designers at IDEO, and specifically in the IDEO U context, focus on Purpose and its role in change.

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
So Purpose is such a fascinating concept. It's so important in aligning people toward what's next for them.

We do teach a lot about Purpose, and one of the things that we focus on is the way that Purpose has a role in a larger system of change. Start with the way change normally happens; in a lot of organizations, change is very stressful and leaders have a lot of anxiety, and so they just want to get to the answer as fast as possible. Typically, the way that plays out in the organization is a restructuring of the org chart. ‘You used to report to him, now you report to her,’ all those kinds of things, new processes, and all of that can work.

But the problem that it has is that people aren't always bought in, most people don't want to change. And so you're kind of like playing with this rubber band and you're stretching it out as far as it can go. And as soon as you let go, it's going to snap back into shape because people aren't emotionally bought in. As Designers, one of the things that we think about is how do we get people emotionally engaged in that change. And so the way we do that is to study people, understand what it is that's making them tick—look for evidence in the organization where there are hot spots of positivity and great alignment, great motivation. We just instill all of that into a really simple statement that can mobilize and inspire people. And then we start people acting toward that statement. Before shifting the entire organization, we often have events, we have campaigns or contests to get new behaviors going, and have tangible examples of what good looks like.

Only after we start to get that, and we get people motivated, we get people mobilized, then does the organization shift. One of our best examples is with the company we were working with in India called Dr. Reddy’s: they are a huge pharma company, they had grown really fast, and as that happens, when you're successful, things were a little bit out of control, right? They had 20,000 people all around the globe, all these different divisions, all these different departments.

And so we worked with them to study hundreds of people and say, what is it that drives you all? Magically we distilled a statement that could work for everyone, ‘good health can’t wait’—and that got to like the immediacy and the urgency that they needed to reconnect with in order to get by all of those silos and boundaries that had gotten in the way of good stuff happening. And then we had a bit of a contest, a bit of a campaign to help light up new behaviors. And those new behaviors really started to kick in. First, it was small ways like people just stepping across boundaries, stepping out of their individual contributor, domain of expertise, R&D people getting so excited that they didn't wait for the process to bring a new medical technology to bear. And then over time, the systems developed and came in place so that those things could scale and truly impact a larger number of innovations that they could bring into the marketplace.

And so it's just those kinds of stuff: start with the humans, understand what they need, mobilize them around a common Purpose, let the behaviors follow. And then you shift the organization and the structures and the processes.

Stacia Garr:
Great. I want to understand a little bit more on that motivations piece, because I think that's a big part of what we've talked through this season with Purpose. As you all have done that work, how much of that focus on motivations has been kind of at the individual's Purpose level versus, I mean, we all have lots of different motivations, so versus kind of other types of motivations?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
It's that cascading effect of—as you were talking about at the beginning—there’s the individual and they're wrapped up in their team and they're part of the organization and that ladders up to the whole enterprise. Clearly, it needs to connect to something out in the world. And so I think what we're looking for in a lot of those situations is something that's more meaningful than just profit, clearly. But that can align across all of those different concentric circles. And so that's really the trick of it all—talking to enough people, prototyping, different statements, seeing what can strike a common chord across all of those realms.

Stacia Garr:
I'm curious to what extent do you all do that on a consistent basis with your own folks, particularly like you mentioned the difficulty of COVID and you know, everything you're doing and you know, the availability of one of your courses, like that's very Purpose-driven, right? So how do you all kind of intermingle what you do with folks outside the organization with what you do internally to keep people focused on Purpose and their connection and enabling that?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
Yeah, that's a great question. It's lumpy, and I think it should be—right? I think if you were like, okay, it's Wednesday, it's time to check in with our Purpose. People would be really tired and they would expect that, right? So I think there's this creative and sensing process of knowing when things are out of whack and when it's time to check back in on those larger things, and at what level.

So for me personally, I think about it at an individual level. Like there are the people who I'm officially taking care of in our organization, and then there's just the whole team and their lives. And I'm a carer and a nurturer and a Mom, and so, you know, I'm constantly paying attention to people and thinking ‘who needs what?’ And I also have taken courses myself in coaching. So I love having coaching conversations with people.

So that's at the individual’s level, you know, what do they need? Are they feeling aligned? Is this the right time for them to step up and take on more in our organization? Or is this the time for them to leave and go onto something else? I think all of those things are valuable and great.

So there's individual level, then there's the level of the team and the group, and then the level of the organization, and those come up at different times. So for us inside of IDEO and IDEO U, we were already in a year of change anyway: we have a new CEO and a new COO. They are awesome, but that is a trigger for a moment of realignment and recentering on Purpose, and they're running that process. With IDEO U, we are growing and taking on more and more. And so it was an important time for us to say, is our Purpose still right? Is there something else that we need to get into?

And so we're just kind of figuring out the right times. This year was probably heavier on self-reflection on all of those three levels. And it's pretty hard to do it all at once. But I think as a result, 2021 is going to feel a lot more solid and stable.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah, we’ve been talking about that: how there has probably been a greater focus on Purpose, particularly given how long we've all been working remotely and the pandemic and everything else that's gone on and how that seems to be kind of resulting in some pretty major shifts for a lot of people.

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
I think so many people as a result of being more isolated are reflecting more. There's a lot of existential crisis happening, understandably. And I think society's shifting, I mean the cultural anthropologist in me thinks that our Purpose was more driven through the workplace, and now that work is going to be much more remote, all that's up for grabs: identity, what’s the epicenter of your identity is going to shift, and where you get your Purpose is going to shift. I think the workplace is going to have to compete a lot more for attention from people if they're living in—I mean, I was talking yesterday to one of my employees, he's living at in Kauai and I'm like more power to you when there's a great set of waves out there or another course to design, how do I know what she's going to want to do most.

Chris Pirie:
This is one of the most interesting things that I've learned through this set of conversations is as we've all become sort of untethered to the physical places where we work, a lot of people are thinking about Purpose as the kind of glue that ties teams and organizations together. It used to be the physical building or the campus where we could express ourselves and be in our tribe, so to speak: now, people, I think, are experimenting a little bit around our Purpose and our cause. And our mission becomes really more important as you don't get to spend physical time in physical spaces together.

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
I completely agree. I think the thing that I'm stuck on, and that I will fully admit I don't know how to do yet is how to bring people together. And so I think that's really the trick is yes, we need more centering on Purpose that can align with people's lives, even if they're not in the same physical place… but how do we do that when people are tired of virtual happy hours and don't want another Zoom?

Literally yesterday, I was talking with a woman who's our chief of staff and who really cares for our culture about, ‘okay, how do we design a day or a week that is just pure fuel for people to keep them inspired and centered on the things we care about?’

Chris Pirie:
Can we pivot and talk a little bit about learning? Do you teach customers or do you teach customers, partners, and IDEO employees as well?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
It's all of them. So that epicenter, the place that we focus on most, is a community that's adjacent to our clients. I think that's the largest unserved population; they are a group of people who are hungry for learning who, for whatever reasons are not connecting to IDEO for consulting, whether they're, often times they're in a part of the world that we just can't field the team to get to or whatever reason they're not the kind of organization that hires consultants, great.

So that's the dominant group. At the same time, we also serve groups that are our clients. Some of the most exciting things for me are when we have a team, a consulting team, that's working with a client organization—we did this with our Purpose course fairly recently—they were aligning that organization around a larger Purpose. They knew they needed to collaborate with the client team very, very closely. And so to kick it all off, they took our Power of Purpose course. So then it's just like flipping the classroom. The conversation immediately gets to a higher level and they can work together better, and so that's something that we do and in some of our best cases.

And then once we got past making the basic courses, the foundations of Design Thinking series, we got to start making things that were the more cutting-edge sides of IDEO—so designing a business, designing strategy, cultivating creative collaboration. We’re creating a course right now on projects that take you through an epicenter of complexity—Purpose.

These are the things that our IDEO employees want to take as well. And so of course we can open them up to our own internal community all at the same time,

Chris Pirie:
I'm really interested generally in organizations and for-profit organizations that use learning as a way to, you know, share their goodness around their Purpose with a broader customer base. Do you think part of IDEO U's role is evangelism and sort of carrying the flag for the Purpose of IDEO?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
It is a part of what we're trying to do. The way we think about it is we want to be one of the most porous boundaries of IDEO, is the way we've often talked about it. We want it to be the most affordable, the most accessible, and still extraordinarily high quality.

In the beginning of this, it was very much about a for-profit social venture. That's a kind of a business model that I'm extraordinarily passionate about, because I think it's scalable/sustainable for the long haul. So while there are many aspects of IDEO that are more evangelical and straight-up brand and marketing, we're really trying to do something that spans a larger space and really truly the centerpiece of what we do is about enabling others so that they can do it themselves.

Chris Pirie:
I think once you teach somebody something or you learn alongside somebody, it creates a real special kind of relationship. Do you have a sort of alumni crowd out there?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
Absolutely. Some of the things that make me the happiest are those kinds of relationships. And for me, just caring most deeply at my core about people and culture, I try to reach out to people when their story strikes me, so that I can hear a little bit more and those really natural dialogues.

So I keep conversations going. Yesterday, I was talking with one of my favorites, a gentleman who leads innovation in Saudi Arabia and a country over there who I would never know otherwise. We’re dialing up some new things for IDEO U that will work better with enterprise, so I'm using it as an excuse to reach back out to some of my favorite folks over the years. And really the center for us, like the ultimate heart of our endeavor, is a group that is our teaching team. In our courses, we have a group of about 25 people who like spanning the boundary. They're not full-time IDEO employees, or IDEO U employees: they are the instructors inside of our courses, live, facilitating the community, making sure things hum. And they are all around the world.

And so that community for me is one of the most fascinating groups that we can hear what journey they're going on, as well as, through them, understand the journeys of the hundreds of people inside of the courses.

Chris Pirie:
How do you think about the future of Learning and are there approaches or technologies that you're would like to experiment with?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
Absolutely. Technically when I think about the future of learning, I mean the simple starting place, is that online is here to stay, right? We know that face-to-face is amazing. I thrive personally and face-to-face learning experiences, but it's not sustainable. The business model of K-12 education of Higher Ed and of professional development has been broken for a long time. And this last year really put the nail in the coffin, right, for all of those things.

And so now the good news is we can push things forward. It has to be a lot more than just MOOCs and recorded talking heads. We need to find the ways to truly, deeply engage people, because engagement is the precursor to learning. And that's why I land on community. It's not only community, but designs that bring community that brings social learning into that space are fascinating to me.

Technologically, I think there are going to be all sorts of innovations in the ways we can integrate data to inspire and motivate people in the right ways. I think it's a long way off, but I think AI will come in to provide more customized and personalized coaching for those experiences. I hope I'm here when that gets here, but I think it's going to be a really long time. Until then, it's going to be a lot of instructors and educators learning how to leverage the technology, the community, and the data, to truly deliver an experience that is tight, engaging, and yet moves people toward new behaviors.

So that's a lot of what I think about on the tech side; there’s a whole slew of other things on the career path.

Chris Pirie:
I think you have a cohort model for certainly some of your programs. There’s something special about learning alongside other people. What's the cohort experience been like for you?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
The cohorts are amazing. We definitely have courses that you can take anytime you want, and we know we needed those too. But I think that the super deep experience that we can provide is multiple times a year, we run each of our courses. We've studied them rigorously to know what people want or tend to want at certain times of the year. And so even though everyone will always say, “I just want it when I want it and I want you to have it available and I need to do it on my own schedule,” the fact is that we've seen time and time people don't show up unless there's a deadline.

And so we use a deadline for two Purposes. One is because it kicks people over the edge to actually start their learning experience. And the second reason is because then we can get a group of people who want to do it together. There's usually anywhere from like a few hundred people come together; the beauty of that is that they are all over the globe, but have a really similar mindset. They're all changemakers. They're all people who are on a path to make change. They all want to make a difference in the world.

And so that community really hums inside of the course. Our pedagogy, we talk about a cycle from see to try, to share, to reflect. In that share, we always say, go ahead, do your own work, but we really want you to share it back into our gallery and into our platform, and that's where the beautiful conversation unfolds. And so that's sometimes it's the teaching team, a lot of times it's the community, and they're giving each other feedback and connecting about what good looks like and how they can push forward together.

Stacia Garr:
It strikes me in just listening to what we're talking about is how we're now, what, 10, 15 years, maybe a little bit longer after that book Bowling Alone was published? And it feels like this connection to community and these cohorts is yes, it's filling a learning need, but it's also feeling a broader need that we have for connection with others. Who what you just said, you know, you said these people are all over the globe, all changemakers, they've got this community and by sharing, they're contributing to this community, they're building it; it’s not just that they're there, but they're building it together in a way that I would imagine, you know, connects them and really capitalizes on the technology and the capability that we have now, as opposed to kind of the other side, which is this, you know, increasing isolation of these times. So it really strikes me how this is a solution for this moment in many ways.

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
Absolutely. And it's also just good fortune for us; I think we often talked about the people who were resonating the most with their learning experience as these Lone Wolf innovators but we know that Innovation and Design Thinking are so great when you have a community around you, but there are so many more people around the world that don't have the community around them, and that want to make change then are living in these little communities.

And so, how do we help to unite that collective across the planet? I think that has been when I literally just got tingles thinking about that—that these are the people who can come together and they're stronger because they have other folks with them that have their backs. That is one of the most common stories we hear from people is that I thought I came for the learning, but where they really took away was the community. And now I have these new people around the globe who are with me through my career, not just through a five-week course.

Stacia Garr:
We're starting to get a little close on time, but we did want to make sure we talked about kind of what has happened this year. And I know we've woven it into this discussion, but, maybe go at it a little bit more directly. As you think about the COVID-19 pandemic, the calls for social justice, the social strife that we especially have had here in the United States, how have you seen those events impact your operations and your work?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
I mean, where haven't they? Right? In our work, I think one of the shifts that started to happen was before, before coronavirus, before all of the chaos that is 2020, we really thought a lot about the epicenter of what we were teaching was Design Thinking, Innovation and Leadership. We always knew that we had a slew of larger skills that were kind of abstractly about things that'll keep the modern workforce successful, you know, so we call these the power skills. They're all the things like creative problem solving, collaboration, communication, empathy, and one of the things that I talk about like a broken record is navigating ambiguity. You know, that we always know like the pathway to innovation, the pathway to doing good work is being able to know how to make progress even when the path is unclear and nobody's ever done it before.

And oh my God, 2020 has just brought that to the center—so instead of that being something that we talk about on this side, we know now that people, no matter what they do, no matter where they are, no matter what they're working on, and especially if they're working on issues related to the pandemic or this next wave of civil rights, they need to know how to navigate ambiguity.

They need to know how to collaborate with an extraordinarily diverse community of partners, and that's the only way that they're going to make progress. And so we've really dialed-up those kinds of courses in our portfolio—things like cultivating creative collaboration are really, really popular right now. Things like looking at yourself in the Power of Purpose are also incredibly popular. Those are the types of things that we're trying to pull to the front of our efforts so that we can help people who are on the forefront of these super-tough challenges.

Stacia Garr:
I love that you pulled out that it's one of these power skills is collaborating with diverse communities of partners. We do a lot of work on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, and we've been kind of overlapping that with some of our skills research and some of these other areas. And so we've been talking about how do we enable, cross-organization, exactly that—that collaboration with diverse partners whether they're in your organization, outside your organization, et cetera. And so to hear you say, you know, that's what you're hearing too, is kind of one of these superpowers that we need to have, is I think really reinforcing what we're seeing in the research.

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
Absolutely. I mean, I think that's, again, one of those things that we know and then the how to do it is still so hard. We know a lot about how to bring those communities together, how to invite them to participate. I think the next wave on things truly being more equitable is those subtle dynamics of how we work together, making sure that all voices aren't only heard but truly integrated.

That's a huge space where I know I have a lot of learning to do in the coming year, and we're starting to design some learning experiences around that, first for ourselves. Hopefully, it's something we can benefit from and start to bring out to the larger world as well.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah, I think that touches nicely into another question we had, which is as you look at these changes and you'd said earlier (beautifully) that, you know, you stayed at IDEO for 20 years because IDEO has changed; it’s been a place of change and obviously you have changed too. So as you think about the next year, next couple of years, what changes do you foresee kind of impacting the future of your job or the type of work that you do?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
I guess a couple of things come up. For me personally, some of the things that I know we've talked about a little bit already, that I think how we bring community together when one thing I feel very confident about is nobody's going to return to the office for a 40- to 60-hour work week.

I think businesses are going to be all over the place with that. I think our community will work in waves. I think we'll come together at certain times; we’ll be apart at certain times. And so I am fascinated with how that's going to come together. I'm clueless about how to navigate it well, but I think that's going to be a huge learning path.

And then I think for myself personally, I know that I need to just keep checking in with my own Purpose: keep aligning with that, keep understanding where it's going to take me next. And so I think I'm very open on some of those things, because the world around us is changing so fast.

Stacia Garr:
Well, that brings us to one of our final questions in a beautiful way, which is about your personal Purpose. So we want to know why did you choose this line of work that you do? You kind of talked about the crooked path, but like if you kind of step back and think about today, from where you are, what is it that keeps you doing what you do and what kind of inspired you to want to do it?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
I do spend time with myself thinking about these kinds of things. I have something that I kind of call my “personal blueprint,” that is literally taped up on the walls of my little office at home. I ask myself a set of questions again, not every year, but at times of great change or when I feel a little off-centered, and so those questions I share with lots of other people. So I ask myself, you know, what do I value—has that shifted at all? I asked myself, what am I amazing at? And I think for most of us being humble, it's better to ask that to other people and have them tell us what we're amazing at. I asked myself, what can’t I help myself from doing no matter what my job really is supposed to be? Everyone has that—you might have a completely different job title, but you're going to do some of the things exactly the same way.

And then the last question is what don't I want to do? I could do it or maybe I suck at it, so I just don't want to do that. And so those four questions about values/superpowers/can’t help it/No-Gos are a series that I check in with pretty regularly. And so I came up with those a couple of years ago when I was starting to think about, is it time for me to leave IDEO, or is there something there for me? And these four questions eventually led me to starting IDEO U. And so they also helped me drop out of a PhD program, so they can help you right your crooked path.

Stacia Garr:
That’s wonderful. Is there anything we missed, anything we should have asked you about your current work or past work or anything that relates to organizational Purpose that you want to share?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
I think we've covered everything. I think it's just all about finding that shared alignment between your own personal Purpose, the Purpose of the immediate group around you, that you're working with on a daily basis, and the Purpose of that larger organization.

And I think the goal of most people in their career path beyond just surviving and making enough money to get by, hopefully, is around finding the places where they can hum on all of those levels at once. I guess that's the gift, if you can get it all right.

Chris Pirie:
Amen to that. Suzanne, thank you so much for your time today and your insights. What a cool job you have!

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
Thanks.

Chris Pirie:
Where can people find out more about your work?

Suzanne Gibbs Howard:
The best place to go to is IDEOU.com; there are plenty of free resources there. We blog a lot, and I also have a podcast called the Creative Confidence series. Those are all free to anybody, anywhere. On top of that, we do have a bunch of courses! We just started a round of our cohort courses yesterday; the next set will be running in early March. And I think for this crew, the Power of Purpose is one of our courses that's always available, so people can come and check that one out. If you're interested in more things about finding your own personal Purpose, finding the Purpose of your team or your organization, I think that course can be very helpful.

Stacia Garr:
Wonderful—we can put a link to it on the website and help people find it. Thank you so much.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

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