IDEO is very likely the best known and most respected design consultancy on earth. And while hundreds of thousands of words have been penned in attempts to sort out how they got there, we're putting our money on a simple explanation: they hire astonishing talent.
You can argue about process and brand identity and consumer focus if you like, but a few moments discussion with pretty much any IDEO employee conveys a sense that they are the real reason; that together they comprise a sort of supergroup, radiating competence, skill, enthusiasm and thoughtfulness, and that none of those other strategies would be worth a damn without such talent available to implement them.
Finding and attracting such professionals is an incredibly difficult job, but keeping them engaged and productive even more so. As IDEO's Head of Talent and Organization, John Foster is responsible for both tasks. We've been fortunate enough to secure his presence on the discussion panel at next month's Creative Employment Confab in San Francisco, and to get a few preliminary minutes of his time to ask some basic creative hiring questions. Whether you're an employer or aspiring designer, this is worth reading.
1. IDEO's gained a reputation for putting together extremely diversified teams to solve problems that might otherwise have been handled by a monolithic group: just designers, say, or just engineers or researchers. What sorts of cues do you look for in an applicant's history or character that indicate they'll be able to thrive in such a multi-disciplinary environment?
The best cues we know come when someone describes his/her work on a past project. We look for references to collaboration with others and how much energy they exhibit and other non-verbal signs that they value working with others and including different perspectives in their work. An extreme case we would avoid, even if the work examples were compelling, is someone who keeps using the phrase, "I did this... I did that..." and is proud of overcoming the others surrounding the situation. In reality, it's a lot more subtle, but pretty clear when someone is inclined to work in a collaborative setting versus a more individual mode. "I like to get away by myself so I can focus and get in the zone" might be a caution flag for us to explore.
No single comment or phrase would be an issue, it's the whole demeanor of a person that we consider. We often do group interviews and explore real client situations together and see how well a person plays along.
2. Your position is a bit different from the typical HR or recruiter job, in that you also put a lot of effort into keeping recent hires engaged and productive. Why is this post-hire period so important? And how exactly do you keep them engaged?
We see coming to IDEO as a journey...it starts long before a hiring decision or an offer and really never ends. IDEO is not structured like most business or creative organizations. There are formal structures, but they are more like eBay's market environment than a typical company structure. It's hard to understand (and takes quite a while) if you don't have somebody to show you what's going on. So we are constantly working on new ways to help people understand how we work and how to succeed.
We ran a design project on IDEO to deepen our own insights about ourselves and came up with "Five Keys to IDEO." These keys are now built into our position advertisements, interview process, and a structured on-boarding process. After the initial "arrival" type orientation, we have a dedicated coach help each new person establish a success plan and we meet them to check in at 30-60-90 day intervals to see how it's going. The plan includes helping them "tell their story" to IDEO, establish a list of people to meet and connect with on work interests, and get hooked up with some client work projects right away.
3. You've mentioned that some of IDEO's best talent are people who've been in contact for months or even years before the subject of employment was broached. Where do these relationships form, typically? And are they cultivated with hiring in mind, or simply happy accidents?
We have designers actively participating in all sorts of activities outside of IDEO from teaching classes to speaking at conferences, to working on pro-bono design challenges. We meet lots of cool people along the way and are pretty open about "keeping in touch" for potential or future work with/at IDEO. Sometimes we "test drive" a relationship by having a person do contract work for awhile. We do internships, host dozens of student groups and company tours. We think we need to be as open as possible so we can meet the right people and get to know them over time. That takes a lot of pressure off the interview process itself and helps us get a long term view of a person.
Foster, along with directors and recruiters from LinkedIn, 24 Seven and Aquent, will form the core of the San Francisco Confab, a day-long informational and networking event for designers, creative directors and recruiters from the product, media, branding and interaction design fields. Check out the Confab page for details and registration info.