Five Things IDEO Taught The Feds About Design Thinking

IDEO goes to Washington!

Metropolis magazine has a good feature this month about IDEO's Tet Offensive against Washington bureaucracy. Peter Hall reports that the feds, inspired by President Obama's push to demystify big government, have tapped the innovation whizzes at IDEO to take on everything from web design for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to greening federal buildings. The ultimate goal: Make government more humane.

Which sounds pretty soft and fuzzy for an army of agencies charged with running an entire country. (What's the end point: Kumbaya singalongs at the IRS? Trust falls at the CIA?) Well, it seems to be working. As Hall writes, IDEO has helped agencies figure out how to recruit employees, prototype a better SSA website, and develop a proposal for building tenants to design their own efficiency standards. But perhaps the most remarkable influence here is cultural. IDEO is teaching the government to stop acting so insufferably governmental. Here's how:

Screw science

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) had a problem. It needed "to make working for the government cool again, bringing young, tech-savvy people into the aging federal workforce," Hall writes. So IDEO came along and convened a day-long workshop that totally ignored the usual process by which the government solves a predicament: polls. 'The value of that engagement went far beyond the deliverables,' Matthew Collier, senior advisor to the OPM's director, said. "The real value has been a shift in thinking." He admitted that IDEO's research method was 'unscientific' but also "a really good way to extract deep insights."

Conduct a meeting that isn't absurdly regimented

When IDEO first held a meeting with the Social Security Administration, the mucky mucks took a seat at the big boardroom table (or sent proxies), while junior staff sat lamely behind them. IDEO loosened things up. They trotted out Post-it notes, mini tables, and mock-ups, and soon, "everyone was sitting with everyone," IDEO's Fred Dust said. "The dynamic shifted quite radically. We also had the problem that everyone wanted to come to the meetings."

Treat people like human beings

This example comes from IDEO's governmental work in Singapore, also covered in Hall's story. IDEO helped the government transform its deeply uninviting Employment Pass Service Center, which processes visas, into a friendly space, with a few simple design moves: upholstered chairs, designated areas for families, and screens that call visitors by name instead of number, to name a few.

Talk (and write) like human beings

Again from Singapore: The visa agency's written communications were so dense, they sounded like legal briefs. IDEO prototyped something leaps and bounds clearer. If your work permit gets approved, you receive a letter that says simply, "You can come to Singapore."

Think like designers

Design thinking is messy, intuitive, and people-centric. Which was exactly what the GSA needed to address a vexing issue: It had ramped up on the tech necessary to meet Obama's goal of slashing energy consumption in federal buildings 30% by 2015, but it was still missing its targets, because employees weren't doing basic things like switching off computers and air-conditioning. The GSA was thinking like a technocrat. It had to think like a designer. One of IDEO's proposed solutions: Ask tenants to develop their own eco standards. That way they'd have a direct stake in the outcome and be more inclined to flip off the lights at night.

[Read more about the process at Metropolis; Top image: Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington]

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  • Enjoyed the article - always interesting to see how a little change in routine (e.g., how meetings are run) can unlock the creative potential all of us have. The meta issue remains: why does it take folks from the outside (and I'm a big fan of IDEO and FastCompany) to get the creativity/change ball rolling?

  • Sina Mossayeb

    A Faithful Reader, it seems like you have a gripe against IDEO and secondly Fast Company. That aside, coming from someone who works intimately with government (US) to introduce so-called innovation, believe me when I say that what you're calling common sense is decades of advancement that is lacking in the big bureaucratic machine. What you're calling "innovation" I would simply call novelty or newness--which the USG would most likely ride off as too hazardous and risky (sadly). Innovation really is about introducing new ways of doing things--so that's relevant to your starting point. If you are starting with 1980s systems, 1990s systems IS innovation. So I'm going to agree here with Manju. 

    Also I think it's sort of petty to just hate on a company because it is (a) big or (b) has been covered before. Yes, innovation has a wide range of faces. The fact that IDEO is probably accommodating a very slow moving mechanism (i.e., USG agency and protocol) is meritorious--something many of my "innovative" compatriots would just reject and move on.

  • Andres Castaneda

    WOW! Tough crowd... but the disparaging remarks aside, they do have a point. 

  • A Faithful Reader

    Cheesus: Will you PLEASE stop giving IDEO editorial fellatio? ENOUGH. You could NEVER COVER THEM AGAIN and still cover an endless supply of truly innovative stuff. This wild crush you have on them is gross. And uncritical. IDEO's suggestions to gov't aren't 'innovative' -- they're common sense.

  • Peter Kale

    "editorial fellatio"? How tasteless... Or could it be you have a major case of genius envy?

    One of the things that makes this newsworthy is the shear audacity of pursuing government as a client in the design and innovation space. Who else would think of it, let alone take it on?

    If your goal is to make the world a better place, it makes perfect sense because so many of the biggest problems are either things the marketplace isn't geared to deal with or actually the result of the ill advised government attempts to fix them. Having worked government projects with them in the recent past, I can attest to the difficulty of the challenges as well as their remarkable ability to generate fresh new thinking, even in the most mundane and constrained circumstances.

  • Dwayne King

    One of the things that makes this newsworthy is the shear audacity of pursuing government as a client in the design and innovation space. Who else would think of it, let alone take it on?"
    Us 5 years ago. We started working with the Department of Defense in 2006 on bringing a design thinking approach to projects around land management.  

  • Manju Lee

    I think there are two different stories/points here that need to be separated out. One is strictly about the coverage on IDEO, the other is about impacting change in the government space. Having worked in the government space before, the latter is extremely difficult, as it would be with any large organization comprised of many layers of process and protocol (even more so for government). Yes, these changes might all seem like common sense, but it's actually surprising how hard it is to embed them on that scale. There are a lot of working variables that make this a very complex environment to modify and navigate. Besides, it all depends on how we're defining "innovative"... which doesn't have to be so radical to be effective.


    I would appreciate more specifics in the article because the lack of them does make it seem like a puff piece. However, as Voltaire said, "common sense is not so common."

  • Larry Motz

    @ A Faithful Reader - How about any real facts to support your claims?  Why don't you expand and give us the critical details that are missing in the article.  Give us one example of innovative Federal government work that is more deserving of press coverage and why.  Otherwise your comments are just diarrhea of the mouth.