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R. Michael Hendrix is a Partner and Global Director of Design at IDEO. As a member of the senior executive team, he collaborates with the firm’s studio leaders and teams to advance IDEO’s creative culture and world-class design capabilities.
A natural trailblazer and collaborator, he co-founded an art school for high schoolers, a professional design curriculum for undergrads, two professional design clubs and three small businesses, the last of which, Tricycle, was recognized by Businessweek and Fortune as a thought leader for sustainable design, and purchased by Shaw Industries, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, in 2017. This diversity of experience has informed his leadership roles at IDEO and his work with leading brands and organizations including Target, Converse, Tempur+Sealy, Steelcase, the DIY Network, and the Department of Homeland Security. In 2015 he served as an advisor to the White House’s global entrepreneur initiative, SPARK.
He is an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music and a regular guest lecturer at universities including Harvard, Mass Art, RISD and his alma mater, the University of Tennessee.
As a graphic designer he has received more than 50 awards from major U.S. design associations and publications. He is an AIGA Fellow—acknowledging his contribution to raising the standards of excellence in graphic design, a Marshall Memorial Fellow, and a BMW Foundation Alumnus, both acknowledging Trans-Atlantic leadership for civic issues. He continues pursuing this interest as a board member of IDEO.org.
Lindsay Gearheart: I’d love to start off by asking: Who is IDEO?
Michael Hendrix: Sure, I don’t know if you know the history of IDEO here in the Boston area, but it actually goes back to the very first days of IDEO, which began in 1991. We began in Lexington and eventually moved to Cambridge around 2007. But the company itself has always been rooted in design, just varying expressions of it. We started in product engineering and then moved our way into product design, experience design, environments design, interaction design, and branding, so we’ve grown over the years and have subsequently grown the scope of work and the complexity we can tackle.
LG: To build on that, could you tell me about your background and how you found your way to IDEO?
MH: I started as a graphic designer and grew up in Tennessee. I worked in Tennessee for the first part of my career. Through that work, I started to realize that I loved working on systemic problems. For me, that started out in corporate identity and thinking about how one particular idea for a company could be expressed in many ways across the touchpoints of an organization, from its signage, to its letterhead, communication style, or online presence. And that got me interested in entrepreneurship.
Eventually, I started my own company, and I realized what I really enjoyed doing was working on those systemic things, and understanding what the vision for a company should be and designing that, so IDEO became a natural place for me to land because of the way we work with companies, which is helping them design new-to-the-world ventures and new-to-the-world experiences — and often times, the more complex the better. We’ve designed school systems, interactions in healthcare situations, voting experiences. I really love that broad application of design. I still love the graphic design part too, but I’ve realized through my own career the complexity of what we can do through design in the intangible space is as interesting to me as the design we can do in the traditional space.
LG: Thinking about design, as any artist knows, being creative all day, every day, is near impossible. How does IDEO encourage its employees in their pursuit of consistent innovation in design?
MH: I love that question because it’s true that being creative, as much as it’s a basic human trait, it’s something that has to be nurtured, developed, and taken care of. I think about it in terms of creative fluency. I use that word fluency like you would say fluency in a language because it requires regular practice of exercising those muscles. Within IDEO, and we suggest this to our clients too, you need to have some regular rituals for people to be exercising their creativity outside of the norm of the work. What that does is create mental habits and ways of problem solving. We have a weekly lunch here, for example, where we take on fictional challenges to keep the creative mind in that making space.
Equally as important is the culture you create within an organization. We have a lot of values we follow. We believe absolutely in the power of collaboration and the ability for multiple people to make something better than individuals, so we discourage individualism. We encourage collaborative creativity. We encourage the celebration of each other’s excellence. We say, “Make others successful.” Part of the idea there is in this world where it’s not about you being the smartest person in the room, or you being the person who’s the one with the ideas. What you’re really interested in is helping each other achieve more than you could’ve achieved on your own. You’re trying to help bring the best out of each other and challenge each other to do better work. Often, that coming together produces new ideas that neither of you would’ve had individually but you have collectively.
Along with that is a culture of trust. That requires respecting each other and respecting each other’s capabilities, but it also requires vulnerability to recognize when we’re not as strong as others in certain areas or knowledgeable in certain areas. Or when we might actually not feel the creative energy that day and need to rely on the others around us.
So it’s actually quite a complex answer to a simple question, but I think often the methods get focused on and like I said, we have the rituals here, but the culture that you build within an organization to make those methods effective is very important. I think IDEO has done a good job over the years of understanding how to do that.
LG: I’d love to know more about your direct experience, and ask what is one of the most impactful projects you’ve worked on for a client?
MH: That’s a really hard question to answer. I’ve been here almost 12 years now. There are some projects in the Boston area I’ve been excited about. One would be the Boston.gov redesign that we did, bringing a citizen-centric perspective to the digital experience of the City of Boston. I don’t know if you’ve looked at that site, but the main thing is this is based upon the use cases of citizens versus the departments of the municipality. If you look at a typical city website, it will be divided by department normally, but what we did was look at what people needed to know to live in a city. So if I own a car for example, what are all the things I need to know about owning a car in Boston? That’s everything from where I get my registration to where I can park, what to do during snow emergencies, how to pay my tickets; that should all be in one place around car ownership. The site’s designed to work in that way with the citizens’ needs in mind first and you’re guided to the right part of the city to help you get what you need.
I’ve worked with Berklee College of Music now for a number of years, and we had the opportunity several years ago in a class that I teach to work with the students in that class to teach them how to redesign the career services at Berklee. That was very exciting because in the course of helping Berklee as an institution, we could redefine how it approached career readiness and career services, and we could actually work with the students themselves to help them understand the methodologies and the skills we were bringing to the problem and then train them to do it. It was a really interesting way to co-design the future of Berklee with the students themselves. That was very powerful because in working through the students, we were able to have deeper conversations within the institution of Berklee with the faculty and administration and get to some outcomes that I think we were all very proud of.
LG: I love that example of Boston.gov. I’ve been on the site many times, and I can see what you’re saying. It’s such a smart approach to think about citizens first, what do they need to know all about one subject rather than the different siloed departments.
MH: Yeah, it’s a philosophy. If you had to break down IDEO into a philosophy, we would say it’s human-centered design. That’s basically always putting the person experiencing the result of the design into the forefront, whether it’s citizen-centered or student-centered. We do it in healthcare too. We worked with an area hospital that was redesigning the patient experience. We build our institutions with the best intentions in mind, and over time as they grow, they start to build behaviors and habits that support themselves so they can scale. That’s always the tension: how do you build organizations that continue to scale but that don’t lose sight of the very people they’re serving?
LG: Since you mentioned Berklee, I wanted to ask what you’ve learned from your students that’s helped push you forward in your own career?
MH: I learn things all the time teaching. It’s one of the joys of teaching, I think. I’ve taught at Berklee now several years. When I lived in Tennessee, I taught design at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, as well as working professionally. What’s been most interesting to me about working with the students is recognizing that the creative process that we use as designers or that the Berklee students use as musicians, composers, or dancers, if they’re in the conservatory, all have some fundamentally similar roots. The end expression and the end mastery of that creativity is obviously different, I mean dance is very different than design, but I think the way we’re inspired, the way we work together, the way we collaborate with one another, is all rooted in very much the same thing.
The class I teach at Berklee is in the music business school, and it’s looking at how some of these fundamental creative behaviors are rooted in entrepreneurial ideas. What I’ve enjoyed in teaching that class with the students is I’m realizing that the approaches that we’re all using are rooted in foundational creative mindsets. For me personally, that’s been encouraging, and I’ve built more confidence in myself.
Have you heard of the terminology of the “slash generation,” meaning I’m not this or that, I’m both? It’s rooted in the idea of fluidity, too. I could be a musician and a designer. I could be a doctor and an entrepreneur. It’s this idea that you’re not confined to one particular role. For me, the students have done that, they’ve helped me recognize that I’m a creative person first, and there’s many different expressions that I have that I can feel confident about claiming, so to speak. Honestly I was very nervous about calling myself a musician when I started teaching at Berklee. *laughs* They’re all so much more talented than me in that space, but I started to realize that there was actually a lot that we had in common, though our masteries are different. I’m very curious about this idea, I’ve started writing a book on it. I did a podcast late last year with IDEO U on the topic. For me, it’s freeing, I hope that’s the message for a lot of people. They are more than they’ve been willing to claim, so to speak.
LG: I think a lot of us have so-called imposter syndrome, and I think you’re right that we’re in a time now where we’re being given permission — and we can give ourselves permission — to claim those things.
MH: I don’t know exactly, but my hunch is that technology has democratized a lot of things. One, it’s democratized the tools that we’re using. So the places we wouldn’t have had previously to gain information or learn technique are no longer off-limits to us. Even in the music space, if I showed you the software interface for Photoshop and the software interface for Apple Logic, one’s for photo editing and one’s for music editing, and they look exactly alike. If you’re a digital native and you have access to these tools, you’re already much further ahead than generations before you. Add to that skill sharing and knowledge on places like YouTube and other platforms, now you’re getting access to how to use those tools. Before you know it, you’ve built a pretty broad library of interesting capabilities that you can pursue. There really does not feel like a need to define you by any one of them anymore.
LG: Right, we can all learn so much so easily nowadays, we can all become generalists in so many different areas. I know you referenced the book you’re co-authoring, so would you mind giving an overview about the topic of the shared mindsets of musicians and designers? How do musical abilities align with design?
MH: The book is based of my class at Berklee that I teach, which is largely based on initially my own observations as a creative person, as a designer and a musician, but developed over time as we’ve talked to more musicians and entrepreneurs associated with Berklee, recognizing that we’re all working from a similar core, like I spoke about earlier.
For example, the way we think about teamwork and collaboration. A collaborative mindset is a bit different than how we think about teamwork. We’re taught that teams are about each of us playing our roles, each of us executing on those roles toward a master plan, and if we all do that together in the right way, we will succeed. Sports seems like an easy place for us to recognize that. In the creative space, when you think about collaboration, there’s actually a lot of differences. For one, the roles are interchangeable, they’re changing quite often depending on who has the knowledge in that particular moment. The outcomes aren’t easily defined either. Often, you’re not trying to win, you’re trying to create. So there’s a lot of ambiguity into where you’re going, but there’s a lot of confidence in that working together you will build it, you will discover something new.
The reason I point that out is because often when we think about our work lives and we think about being good team players, often times I think that’s used as a negative in a workplace, that can mean “stay in your lane.” But actually, what we’re trying to say in the entrepreneurial world, and as emphasized in the music and design space, is actually staying in your lane is the last thing you need to be doing. You actually need to know when to switch lanes often and to do that in an orchestrated way.
LG: What advice do you have for business leaders who want to meaningfully implement a design thinking approach?
MH: I think my first belief goes back to what we were talking about in regard to IDEO itself, which is that culture is the key and the methodologies are effective in that culture. So if someone approaches design thinking and believes that it can be implemented as a set of rules or a set of methods to be followed without having the culture of trust, collaboration, and patience to let ideas develop and iterate, they’re unlikely to see the fruits of their investment into design thinking. That’s hard because I think we’re in a business climate that wants to see results rapidly and doesn’t want to have to change a lot about the culture, because, again, we’ve designed these businesses often to be very efficient, and creativity’s not an efficient act, so it’s directly in conflict from the beginning. But if you build the right culture to allow those conditions that I talk about, then you will see the results. That’s my biggest recommendation.
LG: I love that you mention patience, because I think that is often forgotten in today’s got-to-have-it-now business environment.
MH: Yeah, and often the first idea is not the right idea. I’ve seen it happen a lot where someone will have the right conditions, they’ll have the right pilot idea, but if it doesn’t go exactly how they expect when they launch it, they’ll just kill the program. What you need to do is have an iterative mindset and recognize that that pilot needs to have a version 1, and a version 1.1, a version 1.2, a version 1.3, to get a 2, etc. That’s how you actually build it to adapt to the market and adapt to the changing needs around you. I think it’s more of a digital way of thinking in which we’re in a world of abundance versus scarcity, and we have a lot of opportunity to continue to evolve and change things, but it’s culturally different than what we’ve had for the last 100 years.
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