Becky Bermont on The Structure and Chaos of Organization Design

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Organization design – the attempt to structure systems to produce the outcomes we want – has been an established field for decades. But if you step back a bit, putting the two words “organization” and “design” next to each other is actually quite contradictory — the historical rigidity of a typical organization, next to the inherent complexity of the humans in that system, combined with the fluidity of design.

My career has always been characterized by juxtaposing two concepts that live uncomfortably together, and exploring the fertile ground for innovation that could result. A psychology major obsessed with why people behave the way they do, my interest was first piqued by the idea of “Change Management”: Can change really be managed? “Research Strategy” at the MIT Media Lab followed later: Can research truly be strategized, or is it better left to serendipity? Similarly, “Media + Partners” at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD): What can businesses learn from what goes on at an art school? And how can an insular academic institution open itself up to the world?

Like “organization design,” each coupling reveals a tension between chaos and structure; linearity and the non-linear; closed and open systems. I’ve come to see that innovation needs a bit of both.

As an organization designer at IDEO, much of what I’ve been asked to do is not just design organizations, but teach and coach our clients to work more innovatively. To that end, IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown recently launched an IDEO U course, “Leading for Creativity,” designed to help leaders enable creativity throughout their organizations.

A little more than a year into my journey at IDEO, here are some things that have struck me about what can be taught and to whom:

1/ Design Thinking can be taught to business people; learning Design is harder.

Design Thinking, as practiced at IDEO, strikes a wonderful balance between structure and chaos – it’s a messy process, but it’s also broken down into a set of linear, repeatable, and now well-known steps: Research, Synthesis, Design, Communication. In IDEO’s Cambridge studio, we’ve noticed a difference, however, between teaching this process to business people, and teaching them classical, or what we call “big D” Design; fields like graphic, interaction, or industrial design. The former is now taught in business schools the world over; the latter is the domain of art school.

As we have worked with clients who are increasingly “embedding” with design teams to learn our process, it’s more difficult to integrate them into the parts where more classical design takes hold. Yet just because it can’t be taught to all doesn’t diminish its value; to truly create something new, you need both Design Thinking and Design.

2/ All leaders can strive for a new set of creative mindsets.

Underlying the design thinking process is a set of mindsets that enable it, which can be embodied no matter the task at hand. John Maeda and I articulated these mindsets long ago as a way of understanding the leadership style he embodied as an artist and designer when president of RISD. Things like making ideas tangible quickly, learning from mistakes, being comfortable with ambiguity – when I arrived at IDEO, these mindsets were on full display.

Having worked in both traditionally run large corporations, and creatively run businesses like IDEO, the things people feel motivated by seem to be very different. Recognition fuels both worlds, but comes in different forms: climbing the ladder versus celebrated work. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but I’ve seen organizations differently optimized for each.

3/ Equally, creative people also need to lead.

Those who embody creative mindsets most naturally — artists and designers — bring important values to leadership. Witness the success of this generation of designer founders at companies like Airbnb, Etsy, and Kickstarter.

In my work with students at RISD, and with the Berklee College of Music at IDEO, I’ve seen firsthand how a creative education prepares graduates to chart unknown territory and create something new. What was most interesting to me about that work is that it wasn’t just employers that needed convincing of these students’ leadership abilities, it was the students themselves. I believe there is much to be gained by encouraging those who consider themselves “creatives” to inhabit the practice of leadership in a way that’s authentic to them — inspiring the next generation of designers who work alongside them.

I see the push and pull of navigating between structure and chaos in my work with organizations looking to be more innovative; I feel it myself in my own work. We all have moments where we want to retreat into the mode that’s most comfortable for us; it’s our collective challenge to push through that into the new.


❔ Whois

Becky Bermont is a Senior Organization Design Lead at IDEO Cambridge. She is passionate about the intersection of creativity and leadership, and how design-led approaches can help organizations thrive in a highly dynamic world. Prior to IDEO, Becky spent six years at the Rhode Island School of Design, leading the marketing and communications group and serving on the leadership team for the College. She has built out an organizational design strategy to advance innovation at eBay Inc., and has also lead innovation partnership programs between academia and corporations at the MIT Media Lab and RISD, and started a quantitative market research consulting practice at Forrester Research. Her obsession with understanding how people and organizations respond to change has motivated all of her work. Becky has an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a BA in Psychology from Wesleyan University. She co-authored the book Redesigning Leadership with John Maeda. She enjoys creative direction in the kitchen (though her husband does the cooking), and her weekly religion is yoga.

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