How the little things can be big for your culture


What makes an organization tick? I learned a lot about IDEO’s culture via the tiny care package pictured above. You can learn big things about a group of people by looking at the little things they create.

I received it while visiting IDEO’s studio in Boston (I work out of our offices in California). I had a packed week of meetings on opposite ends of Boston, and was bouncing from place to place, always on the go. While dashing out the door to catch a train, I was stopped by one of my IDEO colleagues, who handed me this tiny bokja and said “You look like you could use some energy on the road—take care and good luck with everything!” It was a brief encounter, but everything about our culture sits within it. Let me show you why.

In the course of my work for clients at IDEO, we get to experience many different company cultures. In order to be as effective as possible, it’s critical for us to understand what’s important to the organizations we’re collaborating with. To that end, I turn to the three-tiered model of organizational culture developed by MIT professor Edgar Schein. For Schein, the organizational culture happens at three levels:

  1. Artifacts found around the workplace, from your dress code to your furniture
  2. Your Espoused Values—the intangibles your organization publicly declares as important, from strategy to personal behaviors
  3. A set of Basic Assumptions which drive fundamental decision-making at a deep, even unconscious level

Moving from tangible to ethereal, all three can be used to describe any company culture. While values and assumptions can sometimes be fuzzy, artifacts are relatively easy to spot and read, and can reveal a lot of cultural secrets. So I’m always on the lookout for a tasty cultural artifact. It’s kind of fun, in fact.

Back to that care package: some gum, a chocolate truffle, an energy bar, and a packet of very choice Boston Baked Beans. All painstakingly wrapped in cellophane and finished with a handwritten note. What does it say about IDEO?:

  • The Artifact: pragmatic (I ate the energy bar the next day while running to a meeting, then chewed some gum) yet vivacious and a little out there (Boston Baked Beans!). Creatively yet expertly executed, all with a strong point of view and a crisp, empathic design intent: bring a little joy and relief to a colleague who is away from home.
  • Espoused Values: optimism, a sense that a fellow employee is either your friend or could be your friend, a deep desire to help everyone be the best they can be, and a commitment to enjoy the design process as a reward in itself. Plus, a belief in asking for forgiveness rather than permission, and the guts to try out new things to see how they work. Believe me, we don’t have a “Care Package” committee or department—people dream up and create things like this care package because our values encourage them to do what they think is right.
  • Basic Assumptions: we are here to be creative, we deeply value each other, and above all, we ship stuff in order to learn and grow.

That’s IDEO in a nutshell. Or a care package.

When we understand what makes a culture sing, we can focus our energy to preserve its key elements, diminish those which are a drag, and create and improve others through a process of conscious design and innovation.


(a version of this post appeared on my LinkedIn Influencers page)

1 thought on “How the little things can be big for your culture

  1. Diego, love the new blog. Small suggestion, there’s a WordPress setting called “pretty permalinks”. It makes a big difference to usability, readability and findability. Basically it would change the link for this post “?p=1425″ to something like /2013/06/how-the-little-things…”. Piper and Katie both use this setting on their blogs so I’m sure they could fix it for you.

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