The Gates Foundation came to IDEO with a pressing question — how might it redesign its internal culture so that it could execute more effectively on its external strategy. Over the years, Gates had hired a hundred management consultants to create a thousand different strategies and a thousand different frameworks. What the organization needed definitely wasn’t yet another strategy or framework. So we set about designing a new approach that would be persuasive to both the hearts and minds of foundation employees.
The Gates Foundation is an organization dominated by rigorous quantitative thinking. As part of this program, we used human storytelling to connect employees in ways that were quite new (and sometimes uncomfortable) for foundation employees. We always had a logical framework for what we were doing, but we helped the foundation understand that human stories can help to prove an argument in ways that an Excel spreadsheet never quite can.
We learned early on that the foundation is not the sort of place where one can tap a colleague on the shoulder and ask, “Hey, can I get your opinion on something quickly?” Instead, everything at the foundation traditionally has to be “bulletproof” and colleagues show that they care by being as rigorously critical as possible (this cultural behavior starts right at the top with Bill Gates, and flows down from there). With this context in mind, we worked hard to show the foundation how to prototype, how to fail in ways that were safe, how to share in-progress work and ask for input along the way.
I was the design director who led this program. This meant that I scoped and guided each of the design sprints that we did with the Gates Foundation. I also led the strategic relationship with leadership at the foundation, which included weekly (and often daily) interaction with the CEO's office.