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IDEO’s CEO is applying design thinking to find balance in the pandemic era

March 9, 2022, 9:15 PM UTC
IDEO ceo Sandy Speicher on Leadership Next.
Photography courtesy of IDEO

Humans crave equilibrium. But clearly, we don’t always get what we want. Right now disequilibrium is the way of the world. So, how can we sort through the upheaval of the pandemic years to regain a sense of stability?

According to IDEO CEO Sandy Speicher, now is the time to put design thinking to work. Yes, even for leaders who don’t normally think of themselves as creative types.

On this week’s episode of Fortune‘s Leadership Next podcast, co-hosts Alan Murray and Ellen McGirt talk with Speicher about putting design thinking to work to move companies toward new ideas for the future—instead of trying to rebuild the pre-pandemic past. Listen to the episode or read the full transcript below.


Alan Murray (0:07): Leadership Next is powered by the folks at Deloitte, who, like me, are super focused on how CEOs can lead in the context of disruption and evolving societal expectations.

Murray (00:21): Welcome to Leadership Next, the podcast about the changing rules of business leadership. I’m Alan Murray and I am here with my fantastic co-host, Ellen McGirt. Ellen, how are you?

Ellen McGirt (00:34): I am great. I’m happy to be back with you today. And I’m very excited about our conversation because I think there’s a lot of myths about the design world that need to be debunked.

Murray (00:42): Yeah, I’m with you on that. And I also, you know, I just got off of a call with about a dozen CEOs who were talking about what an extraordinary moment in business we live in, that there are so many kind of revolutions going on at the same time. We have a technology revolution. We have a purpose revolution—what is business about? What is business for? We have a revolution in how we work—what does it mean if everybody leaves the office? And all of those things are creating the opportunity to redesign business from top to bottom.

And frankly, it requires a degree of creativity that most business leaders aren’t taught in business school if they don’t have it when they show up. That’s what our guest today is a specialist in. She’s Sandy Speicher. She is the CEO of IDEO and, and Sandy, I think you should start by telling us what IDEO is and what it does, because that’s critical to the conversation.

Sandy Speicher (01:40): Sure, but first, I’d love to say hi. Thanks for having me here. I love the energy you introduce Ellen with and I hope that next time I come back, Alan, I get a similar momentum. It’s kind of like walk-on music, but it’s Alan.

I love the setup here: You’re singing my song, Alan, about the moment that we’re in. It’s great to start by talking about design and IDEO and you know, the role that we play in the world is really to help organizations innovate. Design is a really great way to innovate because what it’s about is looking at the world and saying how can we make it better by understanding people and their needs, engaging with people, asking people to co-design together the future? So what we’re really doing is saying what do we not yet know about how the world can be better and how can we go on a journey to make that better? And that involves empathy. It involves insight, involves imagination, synthesis, trying things out, learning, and iterating. And yeah, if it isn’t a moment for design, I don’t know what is.

McGirt (02:47): I’m very curious about your transition to CEO which happened right before the world shut down and some of the ways you imagined working within IDEO and then reimagined and redesigned how you work with your clients. But maybe we could just continue on with what you started with because I feel like design thinking and even innovation are terms that we throw around without even being quite sure that we understand what they are. I think you started to touch on them in your introductory remarks.

Speicher (03:15): Yeah, so we can go a little deeper on that. Design thinking is one of those words, I think, that everyone’s like, wait, I’m intrigued. You know, what is this and how can it help me?

Murray (03:26): I thought it was Post-it notes.

Speicher (03:35): Someday we could do a whole session on like, why Post-its became the icon of design thinking but of course, it’s not limited to Post-its, right? I think that sometimes it’s easier to understand it when you kind of equate it to, for instance, science and scientific thinking. We all went through school. We all learned science. We all learned to think like a scientist, right? What does it mean to see the world like a scientist? We all learned something called the scientific method as a way of understanding how a scientist thinks and works and that can apply into so many different areas—that can apply in chemistry or physics or biology.

Speicher (04:10): Design is a way of seeing the world and shaping the world just like sciences. And design thinking is really about the methods and mindset of a designer. It’s the orientation to the world and seeing the possibilities. You know, so many leaders today are asking the question, what comes next? How do we prepare ourselves for what we can’t even see yet? So many people are wondering, gosh, we know we have all of these problems and pains and opportunities, but how do we get to that next answer?

Well, that’s where design thinking comes in, to say, okay, I’m going to bring the orientation of a belief that a better future as possible. I’m going to bring the skills of listening and learning and imagining and making. And through that process, we’re going to find new solutions. And that can be about experiences, that can be about interactions, that could be about the design of organizations, that could be about how we collaborate as multiple organizations to evolve the way our systems function. That active design is core to all of those activities.

Murray (05:09): I have to say most of the most of the business leaders that I know, or at least the preponderance of them, come from engineering backgrounds. And a lot of what they were trained in business school was how to fix processes. Like this is what we do as a company but we’re gonna make it more efficient. You know, you think about Six Sigma that was made famous by Jack Welch and General Electric. It was about how do we take what we’re doing and do it more efficiently and do it better, but it’s not about how do we rethink the way we add value to the world? It seems like that’s a big shift for people to make.

Speicher (05:44): Absolutely. And I also think that when there’s knowledge that you know, you can focus on optimizing. You know the outcomes you’re seeking, you know the processes that will help you get to those outcomes. But these shifts that we’re talking about now, they’re about getting to new outcomes. And so that’s where, again, design and innovation comes in. That’s where creativity comes in.

I fully believe that everybody out there is creative. We have that capacity built into us. But we also have a lifetime of conditioning that doesn’t always encourage us to center in that creativity, doesn’t help us know what to do with it, doesn’t help us know how to structure a process to allow the creativity to come out. And so it is a real skill set right now for leaders not just to be creative, but to bring creative energy, to foster creative energy in their groups—especially in these times where we’re all facing so much uncertainty and so much scarcity. That’s actually hard to see past today.

McGirt (05:46): So take us back to the early days of the pandemic. As I mentioned, you hadn’t been in the role for very long, but it strikes me as the ultimate case study in design thinking and the ideal way as imagining how to work together safely with each other and also how to serve your clients. What was it like?

Speicher (07:04): Ellen, thanks so much for that question. I think that for the next few years, we don’t really know yet what it’s like to be a CEO in these times. Actually, we’re all going through it, we’ll be able to reflect on it. And so I think there’s something cool that we’ll be able to pattern up but right now we’re living it. So I can tell you what happened for us right when we went into the pandemic.

First of all, I’ll say that before I stepped into this role, I had been at IDEO for quite some time and you know, it’s really important to me that when I stepped into the role, I kind of connected with every corner of IDEO, that I can represent all of the different angles of IDEO. And so I went on a listening tour, and that was about three months before I stepped into the role. My framing questions for that listening tour was who are we and who are we becoming? Where are we now? Where are we headed? And there are a set of things that really became clear that we’d be working on for the next decade. Things like how do we manage the abundance, there’s so much volume that’s coming in that we’re all dealing with? How do we increasingly diversify design? How do we make sure that more people from different backgrounds, different lived experiences are part of shaping solutions in the world? We knew that these things were all coming, right?

And then leading through the pandemic has really taken all of these, like I say there about seven or eight patterns, taken all of these and accelerated them. So there is a really cool moment of saying, we were all on a trajectory and this this has given us a great opportunity to say how do we really redesign our system to become the future that we’re all seeking? And Alan, I can feel you leaning in.

Murray (08:38): I am leaning in because I’m so fascinated by this conversation and really want to hear more about how do you do it. What’s the method? I mean, let’s say I’m a CEO. Well, I am a CEO. You can have this job any day, Ellen. Just come over here and I will let you move in. Okay, so I am a CEO, I’m dealing with the extraordinary change that comes from technology. I’m dealing with a purpose revolution. You know, how do I think about inventing the future, what the future needs to look like with the pressures of climate, etc. And I’m also having to rethink how my people work together because they used to all work together in an office and they’re not going to do that anymore. So that’s just a huge daunting challenge for me. How do I get started?

Speicher (09:34): Great question. Well you’re probably, Alan, already in the middle of it, right? So the thing is that we didn’t get started intentionally. We got started out of crisis, right? So we all went into a mode of asynchronous work, you know, remote collaboration. I think for a lot of organizations that was kind of an organic process to figure it out. But I think now the mode that we’re in is saying how do we get intentional about what we’re designing about the future? You know, we’ve seen over the last year, a lot of organizations are laying out policies and a few months later, a few weeks later, they’re revising those policies. We’re iterating on those policies all the time because we actually don’t know how things are changing.

So one of the things that we did was we said, let’s just have ongoing scope of work that really helps us ask ourselves what do we believe the future ways of working will be? First of all, recognizing there isn’t one answer. We’re not all trying to get to an ideal state of what is the future of work. And this then involves us bringing a lot of inspiration in, listening to people’s needs, understanding what people are looking for, asking people to co create with us, so not just sitting in the backroom, but actually engaging everybody in that process, and then setting out some really intentional experiments and timeframes around learning through those experiments so that we can all evolve toward the ways of working that we want to have in the future.

McGirt (10:55): So you mentioned diversity earlier on and I’m wondering if this co-creation process is where established teams or organizations get diversity wrong? What have you learned about making sure that new or unexpected collaborators or people with different backgrounds and expertise, feel welcome during these conversations?

Speicher (11:17): Yeah, I think the idea of co-creation has really exploded lately. So I think that we’re going to see over the next couple of years a real explosion of clarity on co creation methods, how you create safe environments, how you create open communication. It’s making me think of a collaboration we have with the [Ford Foundation] around how we activate the voice of frontline workers in the decisions that the central office of an organization might be making. And so we brought together three different types of organizations—an airline, a health system, and a port authority. And we we said let’s focus this on questions of technology. These are all really big systems that run on a lot of technology systems, and these technology systems your frontline workers have to interface with but you’re making those decisions for them.

So we stood up these design circles of frontline workers to actually design out the technology they wish for, to actually solve the problems they know that they have to deal with every day. What are the systems they would design to address their needs most, I guess you could say efficiently and also effectively in the moment, and those design solutions then become the basis of briefs for what they might decide about technology projects. So as you can see there is how you’re not just listening or just kind of like co-design in an okay, you own the problem kind of way, but how design in that case becomes a way to have a dialogue about needs. It becomes a way to see things that would be even more effective than anybody could have ever known because they’re not on the front line. It’s a different type of respect for colleagues, which is really a different frame than a relationship with an employee.

Murray (13:06): And that requires a change in the culture of the organization. I mean, I would think from from your point of view and your company’s point of view, that’s pretty difficult. I mean, the organization has to be willing to change before you can really start this process.

Speicher (13:22): That’s absolutely right. And so that that willingness, that interest has to be there, and also along the way you really learn about what can be different. Right now we have a organizational paradigm that we all exist within, right? And so part of the arc of change, part of the journey that we’re all going on is first of all, we have to see how the future can be different. And that can be in theory or that can be in practice. The example I just showed you was a way of working. That wasn’t just to fill a brief or make a decision. It was a new way of working together.

And then through that process of seeing a different way of working, seeing a new type of relationship, you start to say then how do we build the organization to routinely support that kind of interaction? How do we design different communication flows, different job expectations, different role descriptions, for instance? How do we design the system to do this more routinely? And then eventually how does this become common practice? And how do we keep listening to know how to keep evolving?


Murray (14:23): I’m here with Joe Ucuzoglu, who is CEO of Deloitte US, and had the good sense to sponsor this podcast. Joe, thanks for being with us. And thanks for your support.

Joe Ucuzoglu (14:32): Thanks, Alan. Pleasure to be here.

Murray (14:34): So Joe, business leadership used to be about setting strategy in the C-suite and then giving orders to everybody down the line, telling them what they need to do to implement the strategy. But today, things are moving too fast for that kind of a top-down approach. How do you be an effective leader in that kind of rapidly changing environment?

Ucuzoglu (14:54): You hit the nail on the head, Alan. We’ve actually given a lot of thought recently to adjusting our own leadership frameworks in terms of the attributes that are necessary to serve as an effective enterprise leader. In this environment the long-standing hierarchical pyramid with orders coming down from the top simply cannot effectively deal with the pace of change. Being a great leader in this environment requires a lot of listening, empowering one’s people, setting the tone for a culture of innovation in strategic risk taking, because the end of the day, you can’t be involved in every interaction with the customers, with your employees, with your regulators. You have to instill in your professionals a sense of values to drive the way in which they’ll make those on the spot decisions on behalf of the organization.

Murray (15:44): Thank you, Joe.

Ucuzoglu (15:45): Alan, it’s a real pleasure.


McGirt (15:55): I feel like this is a perfect time to get you to define another term which you touched on an article I read recently, which was eye opening for me called disequilibrium.

Speicher (16:07): Oh, I love that you said that.

McGirt (16:08): I had to practice saying it. It doesn’t quite roll off my tongue. But I feel like as a concept, it helps explain the moment that we’re in now as individuals, as families, communities, companies and a society. Could you walk us through what that is, please?

Speicher (16:24): Absolutely. And this is I’m disclaiming that this is me getting a little nerdy here because I think that we’re all going through something and it’s hard to know what we’re going through. We’re finding so many new words to describe it. And the words that we use shape the way we’re processing our experience and I find the word disequilibrium quite useful to understand. Basically in order to know something, we have a mental model of it. Right? I have a mental model of the way organizations work or I have a mental model of what a podcast is like, right? And in order to learn, you actually have information that comes in that tells you the thing you know, the mental model you have isn’t quite complete. There’s more to know. So then inside of ourselves we become open to that learning. And that state where the mental model that we had before it starts to break down—but we don’t have a new one yet—that’s called disequilibrium.

Now we all crave equilibrium, despite the fact that we’re in disequilibrium all the time. We all crave to kind of settle down, to have everything be clear. So there’s a journey that we go through from that state of disequilibrium back to equilibrium. We can either give up and say I just want things to be the way they always were, I want to rely on my old mental models, or we can say, actually, it’s time for me to create a new mental model. Collectively, I think in society, as business leaders, that’s the work we’re doing right now. We’re all in a version of disequilibrium. The state that I understood is no longer true. Actually, it keeps showing me that it wasn’t working, wasn’t great. There’s a lot that we need to change. There’s a lot of revolutions happening. And to get through that, we have to learn and grow and be open to new mental models and create those mental models for others to understand.

Murray (18:19): Yeah, it kind of reminds me of Satya Nadella’s change at Microsoft where he said we’re going to go from being a know-it-all organization to a learn-it-all organization. I mean, you’ve used the word openness many times here. That’s really a big part of it, right?

Speicher (18:33): Yeah. And I think you know, receptive. There’s a lot coming in. There’s a lot of layers, a lot of unknowns. There’s got to be a real kind of joy and love for navigating the unknown. There is, I think, that kind of embrace of creative energy that’s sort of like how do I find in me as a leader the ability to create the space so that others can also create? Because that’s the only way we’re going to get to the future. We’re not just waiting to get back to the past. We’ve got to create the future. We’ve got to use this moment to get through some of the parts of the systems that we’ve created in the past that aren’t going to take us forward.

Murray (19:08): So big question for you, Sandy, based on what you’ve learned over the last two years, how important is direct face-to-face human interaction to the kind of creativity and design effort you’re talking about? I’ve heard such great debates on this issue. Some people say no we’re doing we can do it even better virtually—particularly some of the virtual tool manufacturers. And other people say, no, we’re social animals, we’ve got to be there face-to-face. What’s your bottom line?

Speicher (19:37): My bottom line on that is…it is both, Alan. Mostly what it is, is we have to understand affordances. This technology gives us certain affordances, in-person gives us certain affordances. So different modes are optimized for different things. One of the things that we have started learning, for instance, as we couldn’t travel around the world to do research, is we started hiring researchers in countries around the world and we connected with them around what they were learning. We found that that was actually an incredible way to learn. That was an incredible way to gain insight about what’s happening in different communities. In fact, probably in some cases, we got further as a result.

But yet when we had ideas that we wanted to try out and get feedback on, it was really actually more helpful for us to be in that context, to be able to see the micro-expressions on people’s faces as they were responding to things, for instance. So I would say that from a creativity perspective, the reality is that we cannot replace the relationship that forms, like, when we’re in relationship with each other, we are able to create a safer space and safer spaces actually really allow ideas to flow a little bit more easily. You’re more comfortable sharing things you haven’t fully baked or haven’t fully thought through. But in social spaces, actually, we don’t always have that processing time and processing time is an important part of creativity too. So I think there are advantages to both and that’s where this kind of hybrid work is going to teach us a lot about how we want to optimize for the future.

McGirt (21:05): I have a big question too and then I’ve got a couple of really small ones. So let’s start with the big question. I’m going to stick with the topic of disequilibrium because I think it’s such a powerful tool for thinking about the world. In this case, I’m thinking about the society in the U.S. We’re clearly in a period of massive disequilibrium as we talk about race and history and all of that stuff, and it’s having a tremendous impact on the kinds of conversations we’re having about all of this—our shared history and equity in schools, and of course the conversations we can have in the workplace. I would desperately love to ask you to solve this problem, but I don’t have that budget to hire you to do it. But any advice you have for the CEOs and leaders who are listeners who are thinking very carefully about where they need to weigh in on pressing social issues that matter to their employees, that matter to their other stakeholders? This is an important moment, and it’s hard to figure out a way in and maybe it’s just some pre-thinking or it’s a tone that you take or it’s the questions that you ask any advice there?

Speicher (22:10): This is a conversation that should be foundational to everything that every leader is thinking about as they’re doing their work every day. This question of equity and inclusion—who is not at the table? How do we reconcile the past with the future? How do we design our system to rebalance our relationships and actually create opportunity for everybody? These are questions that really are foundational and if a leader today is not thinking about how that applies to their work, they’re not creating the future. So this is for all of us to be solving. You know, we’re looking at that within IDEO. We’re looking at that in the work that we do across all sectors of work. And sometimes it’s something as simple as asking yourself who’s not in the conversation. You know, who should I be learning from? Who should I be listening to to make sure that I understand a broader point of view? To make sure that I’m not building up a mental model that is incomplete about what the future can be? That question that you asked is one we have to keep asking everybody all the time and talking about it. It is actually the work of our time and how lucky we are that we get to work on that.

McGirt (23:22): Yes, and to find partners to co-process it with is just one of the blessings of this kind of work. So we’re asking all of our CEO guests for a rapid-fire ending round where we ask people what’s top of mind for them in three specific areas. Just a couple of sentences will do. The first one—what is top of mind for you when it comes to COVID?

Speicher (23:42): Well I think the biggest thing top of mind for me with COVID is that we have been in a lockdown state for so long, and it’s not just kind of in our homes or in our physicality, but actually in our minds. And you know, all around the world we’ve been separated from each other, from our work, from our families, and it really feels like this year is an inflection point on that. We’re all starting to think about how do we step back out into the world? How are we sitting in meetings together, learning together? You know, how are we going back to school together? So how do we build in the time and the compassion that’s really needed to design the transition back into a set of experiences that we used to know that are going to feel quite different as we step back into them?

McGirt (24:23): Perfect. What’s top of mind for you when you think about the economy going forward?

Speicher (24:27): Well, you know, there is a pretty big gap between what our data shows right now about the economy and what people feel about it. I think the numbers can leave us feeling really good about where things are, but inequality, distrust, lack of long-term thinking are still so pervasive in how we’re all operating. And so I guess, how do we ensure that we’re listening underneath the numbers, not just being kind of self satisfied by what the numbers are showing? And maintain the energy of focusing our attention on the innovations that are needed to rebalance the inequities in our society, rebalance our relationship with the planet, do all the hard work of leading the revolutions that Alan kicked this conversation off with?

McGirt (25:07): And last but certainly not least, what’s top of mind for you personally as a leader?

Speicher (25:12): Well, one of my burning questions really is what can design accomplish? So how are we making sure that we are all creating a world where we create progress today, but also leaving that world better for future generations? And so I guess with so many needs for innovation right now, there’s more work to do then any of us can really handle. So I think a lot about how I can help my organization and our clients and our partners really stay centered in that purpose and design the shifts that are really needed to embrace the change that this time is about. And that’s both in our organization and in the world. So you know how do we maintain this energy and momentum when there is actually a lot of exhaustion while we care for people in the process so we can all really navigate this pretty heavy complicated time?

Murray (25:58): Speicher, powerfully put. Thank you for that but before we let you go, I gotta go back to the sticky notes. Like, yeah, how did sticky notes become the meme for design thinking? Where did that come from?

Speicher (26:11): Okay, here’s what I’ve got for you on that. This is my belief. We all have a million thoughts in our heads and we have like these ideas of possibility and actually they’re very hard to sort out in your head alone and lay out a perfectly thoughtful sentence. So if you allow yourself permission to go one sentence at a time, one idea at a time, and you can take them out of your head, put them on a piece of paper, put them on a wall and stare at them with other people and start to group them, move them around, we get to something bigger that we can corroborate, that we can collaborate around, and we can we can build towards. And Post-it notes are a great tool to do that. They’re a great technology for micro thinking becoming macro thinking. Now, are they overused as a meme? Absolutely. Because I think the visual of it is you know what we’re all responding to…

Murray (27:07): …to organize collective thinking. I really like that. I’m going to go back to sticky notes. Ellen, you and I are going to do a Leadership Next sticky-note exercise. This is great. Designing the future is such an important and powerful conversation for every business leader to listen to. Let’s hope they all do. Speicher, thanks for being with us.

Speicher (27:23): All right, thanks so much, Alan. Thanks, Ellen. Great to have a conversation today.

MurrayLeadership Next is edited by Nicole Vergalla, written by me, Alan Murray, along with my amazing colleagues, Ellen McGirt and Megan Arnold. Our theme is by Jason Snell. Executive producers are Mason Cohn and Megan Arnold. Leadership Next is a production of Fortune MediaLeadership Next episodes are produced by Fortune‘s editorial team.

The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel. Nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the episodes.

Update, March 16, 2021: In the podcast interview, Sandy Speicher attributed IDEO’s partnership with the Ford Foundation to a different organization. It has been corrected in the transcript (timestamp 11:17 above).

Check out Fortune’s Brainstorm Design Conference, taking place May 23-24 in Brooklyn, N.Y. For more details and to apply to attend, click here.