Corporate Values: The Difference Between Posturing and Action with Sally Sosa of IDEO

Andy Cook
April 18, 2018
Interview with Sally Sosa

Company culture is a hot button issue at the moment. Organizations with toxic cultures find themselves under close scrutiny, while those with strong cultures are inundated with hundreds of job applications for every posted role.

IDEO falls into the latter category: they’re famous for the great work they do globally, but also for the creative and innovative culture they’ve designed. But, surprisingly, they only formalized these cultural values a few years ago. IDEO’s values include:

Sally Sosa, IDEO’s Global Talent Director of Culture and Communications, discusses the process of articulating these values. The outcomes are far reaching:

“There’s a shared understanding of what connects people across the organization…what can anchor the way they work together and the way they treat each other.”

IDEO’s approach differs from so many other organizations that pay lip service to values but don’t actually live them. This disconnect is dangerous: it keeps a company from performing at its best, and it can feel jarring to employees. Instead, IDEO seeks to live their values in everything they do.

But how did they gain consensus around these values, decades into the tenure of their company? Sally shares the story of how they published the The Little Book of IDEO and then leveraged their collaboration and ownership values by inviting participation from around the globe. They asked the entire team, across all offices, to give feedback.

“We invite the community along in that process. I really think things resonate more when people feel like they were a part of what was created or they have have co-authorship.”

This global initiative uncovered some inconsistencies that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. A few offices even created their own take on the values, to ensure they resonated in their specific countries and cultures. The outcome was better and more innovative, precisely because they’d lived their values throughout the process.

And yet, there are no shortcuts when it comes to cultural values. Sally is quick to distinguish between culture and the perks that are so often touted in Silicon Valley:

“There’s culture, and then there’s amenities…things like having your dry cleaning picked up, a bus take you to and from work, having five meals a day with ten types of kale…this doesn’t necessarily create culture. Culture comes down to how people treat each other, the permission people feel to be themselves and take risks, and the environment that’s created around people and the work that we do.”

For companies looking to define or uphold their own values, Sally underscores the importance of communication. The way you roll something out matters nearly as much as what you roll out. They design their communication strategy with intention and passion, in order to create a great employee experience that truly empowers people.

She shares guidance on how to live your values every day. Sally describes fostering a mix of big initiatives (like “IDEO Stories,” a coaching series on how to tell a great story) and everyday practices (like “flights” or mid-project check-ins.) This daily participation from everyone is key. The focus on making others successful is good for the individuals and good for the business.

She’s also benefited from strong internal advocacy: people who believe in the work and in doing the work in a way that aligns with IDEO’s values. This is especially important when there’s no top-down management culture. As Sally puts it, people become invested when you’re “bringing them along the journey.” Participation from everyone is key to the success of IDEO’s business and the strength of their culture.



Sally Sosa 00:00

The story goes that David Kelley at some point wrote on the back of a napkin a picture of a seesaw with a heart on one side and a dollar sign on the other. And this very much informs the work that we do in talent and across everything we do IDEO which is there has to be this balance between the commerce and the culture.

Jay Acunzo 00:18

You’re listening to the show for leaders who want to build and empower world class teams. I’m Jay Acunzo, and this is Org Uncharted.

Jay Acunzo 00:27

Hello again, and welcome to the show that believes, I believe what you believe. There’s a lot of beliefs here is what I’m trying to say. We believe in putting the customer first, in making decisions from the bottom up, and in fighting against top down leadership because quite frankly, that’s broken. It doesn’t make any sense. Clean it up. Replace it. Do it better. This is the official podcast of Tettra which makes knowledge management software that helps your team make better decisions faster. In other words, it empowers everybody on your team to do their best work. For more information, education, company culture decks, all kinds of goodness around the theme of both Tettra and this show, go to our website My dear friend, a quick word if I may, a quick aside. I think people are so much more than little shapes on an org chart. Even though a lot of companies try to shove people into those little cogs or little nodes. So let’s start today by venturing beyond that org chart and explore today’s theme. Values have value. Like seriously, values really matter. But I know what you might be thinking. The whole idea of values can feel a little warm and fuzzy, maybe even saccharine like some motivational poster of two dudes shaking hands with the headline, Teamwork Makes the Dream Work.

Jay Acunzo 02:08

Maybe you’ve come across your company’s values on the corporate website. Maybe they’re even painted on a wall. Maybe you, as a leader, have had a hand in crafting them. And you know the routine I’m sure. You walk past them every morning or you remember them on your way to the bathroom or you see them in an email, but you have no idea what they mean as you go about the nuances, the minutia, of your day to day work. Are they actually affecting any of that?

Jay Acunzo 02:34

And that reality is kind of sad because having values that actually mean something, having beliefs that are tangible and authentic is important to employees and to leaders alike. Not to mention, it seeps out into the world and affects people’s work with customers. And what is this show if not a study in how to be more customer-centric by empowering employees?

Jay Acunzo 02:55

Now I’m sure you’ve read more than your fair share of headlines that millennials care about purpose over profit. For example, according to a 2016 study by Gallup, millennials who know what their organization stands for tend to be way more engaged and they plan to stick around for much longer. But whether you’re young or old, new to a job or have been there forever, it’s not enough to just give people on a team a few nice words to believe in. No. It’s not enough to put some pretty words on a wall, absolutely not. And it’s certainly not enough to just tell employees that the organization cares about something more than the bottom line without actually acting on it. And that’s the rub, isn’t it?

Jay Acunzo 03:36

The real value of values is that when you actually live by them, they create alignment. And alignment is one of the hardest things in the world to achieve at organizations big or small. Alignment helps decisions get made. Alignment keeps everybody on the same page. Alignment affects the brand, the product, the customer support, you name it.

Jay Acunzo 03:57

And so, that brings us back to our theme today. Values have value. If you actually live by them.

Sally Sosa 04:08

The root of so much of what drives how we behave and how we work at IDEO is staying connected to our values.

Jay Acunzo 04:14

That is Sally Sosa. She’s the global talent director of culture and communications at IDEO. And if you’ve heard of IDEO before, you might be thinking oh yeah, that’s the design firm, I think, that’s super innovative and they do stuff. But I don’t really understand what the heck they do. Well, we’re going to dive into that in a little bit. But here’s the thing about IDEO, they’re not innovative solely because they champion creativity. They’re not innovative because they have this aura all around their company. In reality, they’re innovative because they understand their values and they ensure they are present in everything they do. And these values of theirs, there’s nothing all that unique about them, really. I’m sure you’ve heard few of them before in your own organization. Things like embrace ambiguity. Learn from failure. Talk less, do more. So yeah, not overly amazing or different, right? But that’s okay because what sets IDEO apart isn’t this simple fact that they have values. It’s the fact that they live by them and how.

Jay Acunzo 05:23

So Sally, there’s this phrase in your employee handbook that I’ve latched onto personally which is that IDEO is a human- centered organization. There’s even a section in this handbook titled A Peoply Weeply Organization. So as somebody who thinks about the employee experience a lot, such as yourself, I’m curious what is an organization at all if not human-centered? Like can you be anything other than that or is it just that people forget this idea somehow? Why is this something that you actually have to articulate overtly?

Sally Sosa 05:55

I think you absolutely can forget it. I came from the music business prior to this and I went into the music business because at my core, I was a music fan. It was in my bones through and through and I thought this is what I actually want to do with my career and with my life and I had some mentors and some friends who were in the business say don’t go into music. You’re too much a fan. It’s going to squelch your soul. You’ll never listen to music again. You’ll never want to go to a concert again.

Sally Sosa 06:21

And when I got into the business, I actually found a lot of that was true. It’s still a business and for the most part, it’s still very much about the bottom line and so, creativity gets squelched. It’s not necessarily about the art and things like that. And so, I do think many businesses are designed and set up for efficiency and to make money.

Sally Sosa 06:42

And at IDEO, we have a bit of folklore that is the story goes that David Kelley at some point wrote on the back of a napkin a picture of a seesaw with a heart on one side and a dollar sign on the other. And this very much informs the work that we do in talent and across everything we do at IDEO which is there has to be this balance between the commerce and the culture or the emotional, intuitive human side of it with the business side and the efficiency and the productivity. And I think those two things are always intentioned. And that’s why they sit on a seesaw because they’re always going to be back and forth a little bit and at some point you may have to focus on one a little bit more than the other but both of them should always be considered in order to have a healthy organization and a healthy experience for your employees.

Jay Acunzo 07:32

I feel like the phrase employee experience is interpreted in lots of different way and maybe isn’t something people even think about that much but it would help if we could make that idea more practical. So can you put some substance behind the hype? This whole show is about empowering people on the frontlines to do their best work and a lot of that is providing the right employee experience but it’s such a broad topic as I’m sure you might agree. So again, as somebody who is a purveyor of the employee experience at your company, what does that phrase mean to you? And then, how do you actually execute on creating a great one?

Sally Sosa 08:07

I had an insight sometime in the last few years about this because we have offices around the world but we have two offices in the Bay Area sort of in proximity to Silicon Valley. And so, we are often competing for talent with some of the big tech companies which claim to have amazing employee culture and all of these incredible perks and they just take great care of these employee, their employees, and things like this. And I kind of had this ah-ha moment which was there’s culture and then there’s amenities. And I think things like having your dry cleaning picked up and a bus picking you up to take you to and from work and having five meals a day with 10 types of kale and four types of quinoa and all these things is actually amenities. It doesn’t necessarily create culture.

Sally Sosa 08:57

Culture comes down to how people treat each other. The sorts of permission they feel at work to actually be themselves and to take risks. And the environment that’s created around people in the work that we do.

Jay Acunzo 09:13

I’d be curious to know what you’ve tried in terms of internal communications that was a surprising success, maybe not that obvious. I think a lot of companies have internal newsletters and company all hands and maybe even some Q&As with the executive team. Is it Qs and A or Q&As? Question and answer sessions with the executive team. But here’s my question. Is there anything that isn’t as common that you’ve found really successful for you?

Sally Sosa 09:40

Yeah, I think as a design firm we’re constantly making things. It’s our way of making sense of the world is by getting tangible. And so, we try to design our communication streams and our platforms and our artifacts with the same intent and passion as we design for our clients. We invite the community along in that process. I really think things resonate a lot more when people feel like they were a part of what was created or like they have co-authorship. So we try to approach things that way rather than having these fully baked mandates that we send out as a sermon from the mount to share with the community. It’s more about prototyping things with the community. It’s more about inviting conversations. I can share a story of actually when The Little Book of IDEO which was created, which is the site that you referenced earlier. You know, IDEO had been around for three decades or so but we had never actually articulated what we believed our core values to be even though we were pretty sure that there was a lot of shared beliefs and shard behaviors across our communities. We’d never actually put a stake in the ground around what those were. So one of our folks in our Singapore office was doing a presentation, I think for the Singapore government at the time or something, and she was thinking about this and she wanted to put forward what she thought that these core values might be.

Sally Sosa 11:06

So she put together a deck and she shared them around with some folks and socialized them. And this grew into what became The Little Book of IDEO. We were, at the same time, taking a look at our career development process. And we had had the realization that when folks failed at IDEO or didn’t quite find the success that they wanted, it wasn’t because they were crap at their job at what you would call the hard skills. It was oftentimes because they were just a jerk and people didn’t want to work with them or it was more about the way that they were going about their work, how they were doing their work, rather than their actual technical skills.

Sally Sosa 11:47

And so, we realized we needed to have some way to have conversations, to have meaningful conversations, and a shared vocabulary around these behaviors and these values that we embody in our workplace. And so, we put a pen to paper and we put these values down and we socialized it. And as part of that process also speaking to the co-authorship that I mentioned earlier, we invited the global community to actually create videos bringing one of these values to life. We said what resonates with you? And invited them to actually bring it to life in any way that they chose.

Sally Sosa 12:22

And so, we had this incredible set of videos made by the community for the community and it was a really interesting way for our community to digest them, to grapple with them, to debate them. To see what feels right, what doesn’t feel right. What feels like it’s intention rather than just slapping these things up on a wall and saying this is what we believe. It actually was much more of a conversation and a co-creation.

Jay Acunzo 12:49

Oh man, I love that, right? So often values will come from the top down. The CEO will say something like this is what we believe in, dammit. And everyone else is just expected to follow along. What’s also really interesting about IDEO’s process in creating The Little Book was the way they invited the entire global organization to take part.

Sally Sosa 13:11

Being a global organization, we realized that we have different cultures represented and different cultural norms in some of our different studios. And we wanted to … We really wanted these values to feel resonate and authentic with everyone across all of our studios, not just in the United States. And so, we led a project there in our Shanghai office to actually pick apart The Little Book and to look at it and say does this feel right? Does this not feel right? Rather than just straight translating it into the local language, they dissected it and studied it and found places where actually the American language or some of the slang didn’t quite resonate.

Sally Sosa 13:50

For example, one of our values is be optimistic. And so, when that is translated straight into Mandarin, it has more of a naïve, rose- colored glasses message to it which is actually not what we mean by that value. And so, they added a little bit of language to add the measuredness that we mean when we talk about being optimistic rather than just being naïve. So they then went and created their own version that felt much more resonate and authentic for their community as well.

Jay Acunzo 14:21

I’ve experienced a lot of work done to create employee handbooks or culture codes and I’ve noticed that there’s this temptation for executives to kind of present it to the team. And the team is looking sideways at each other saying yeah, that’s your perspective, guy, but you don’t get what actually goes on here on the front lines. And so, it’s great to hear that you guys actually handed over this handbook, this directive, or set of beliefs to a larger community. We had this one moment at one company I worked for, just as one example, where one of the core values was very obviously idealistic or aspirational and it wasn’t currently being implemented. That’s what I saw as a mid level manager and that’s what my team saw and we had hundreds of other people around the business talking about this. This is an idealistic way of looking at the business.

Jay Acunzo 15:09

And a few people were actually willing to give the founder that feedback and he actually said we’re going to keep it in there but we’re going to tag it with a little asterisk as we aspire to be this versus we are this. So in The Little Book of IDEO, how much of that is aspirational, the stuff where you’re like we want to be this versus the reality, the stuff that you are? And then, what actions can you take to close that gap?

Sally Sosa 15:34

I think and I hope that it’s a little bit of both. When we created them, there definitely was a desire for them to be authentic and I believe that they are. There was some good healthy dialog around what that means. Not everyone is going to feel like every single one of them is 100% spot on but there’s healthy tension there and I think that that’s really valuable. But I also think that because our organization … as our organization grows and scales and reacts to the changes in the world, we will have to work to keep these values authentic. As any business grows as you’ve mentioned and as I’m sure you learn a lot about in these conversations, it’s challenging to scale a culture as an organization grows. And so, how do you keep these things true?

Sally Sosa 16:17

I was actually thinking about this as I was reflecting on some of these ideas in advance of this conversation and saying okay, I know that was true five years ago. Is that true now? And you know, are we working to keep it fresh? If so, how are we doing that?

Jay Acunzo 16:37

All right. We are in uncharted territory now. So let’s dive even deeper away from this old idea of the org chart and into this concept of values having real value. And let’s see if we can’t find a few buried treasures that we can use back in our work to execute better.

Jay Acunzo 16:54

So far today, we’ve learned that when it comes to building a values-driven organization, participation from the entire community is key. But how do you keep those value fresh? How do you live by them day in and day out? IDEO does it through both big initiatives and everyday practices.

Jay Acunzo 17:12

First, there’s the big initiatives. One example is this program called IDEO Stories. Sally says a few years ago some folks came up with this idea to host storytelling events at the organization. But the stories that they tell aren’t about client work or even their own work, they’re personal stories. And what’s especially cool about this initiative is how collaborative it is. IDEOers, people at IDEO, with really storytelling shops, go through this six week process getting coaching and coaching others to identify a story, craft the story, and learn what it takes to get on stage and tell it. It’s fun. It builds community. And it authentically connects to IDEO’s values.

Sally Sosa 17:57

There’s this idea of making others successful which is really embedded in that effort which helping people be better storytellers, building confidence in front of groups, having confidence in their point of view and their story to tell I think is really powerful and it’s good for the business as well. I think that’s important. I also think it was so bottom up. It was the passion of a couple of people in one of our studios who were great storytellers and were interested in storytelling that said I want to build some of these skills in my colleagues and make others successful in this way. And here’s an interesting way that we might go about it rather than, again, using stories about client work to coach these people, we said let’s take the human-centered approach. Let’s talk about ourselves. Let’s use stories about ourselves and each other to go down this journey. And so, I think that’s what really resonated.

Jay Acunzo 18:53

And so, that’s the big initiatives from Sally and IDEO. Now when it comes to the more everyday practices to uphold and live out their values, one of the way IDEO does that is through the Flights Program. Flights are these essentially meetings or moments when teams come together before a project begins, as it’s happening, and after it’s ended. So before, during, and after. Now the mid and the post-project phases, they might seem the most familiar to most of us even if we don’t have them quite as well articulated as IDEO. See, the mid and post project phases of Flights are all about giving and getting feedback and reflecting on what’s working and what isn’t. So you can think of them as mid-project check-ins and postmortems. Those are I’m to articulate and crystallize a little bit more than most of us do but still, that seems somewhat familiar.

Jay Acunzo 19:41

But then, there’s these pre-project Flights that are all about building alignment. There’s that word again, alignment. And also, creating agreements. So if someone on the team is say, a new parent, they have the opportunity to let the team know look, I have to leave every day at 4:00 to get my kid from preschool. And this gives the entire team a chance to establish that there won’t be any resentment of misunderstandings down the line. So from personal to professional, quirks, ticks, and preferences, it’s all aired out, it’s all laid out. And now, you can be better aligned.

Jay Acunzo 20:13

Sally says that these meetings, these Flights, have helped employees create a culture of feedback and radical candor which is super important at IDEO. She also says that by living this value and making it authentic, they’ve also empowered people to be more efficient and do their best work.

Sally Sosa 20:29

Previously in our career development process at the end of the year as we went through this cycle, everyone would reach out to folks they’d worked with to try to collect feedback and it would be this overwhelming inbox full of feedback requests that would bring the business to a screeching halt. And so, we said what if this was a more recurring thing that happened throughout the year in the moments of learning, in the moments of working with these different teammates, that you could actually have those conversations in the context of the work. And so, that’s what we were trying to do there.

Jay Acunzo 21:02

How do you roll something like that out to an entire organization? Is it finding a couple of true believers to say we have this idea. Here’s the just of it and will you try it and champion it? Or is it a mandate on high, so to speak? I guess how does it go from an idea to the reality of how others operate?

Sally Sosa 21:20

Yeah, definitely not a mandate. And it’s funny you asked that question because the process of rolling something out at IDEO, it’s a huge part of my job and it’s always a challenge because we’re not a top down management culture, we can’t just hand over something to folks and say you need to do this. So it is, I think, about finding advocates, finding folks who believe in the work, who see the need for it. I think also to the point earlier, it’s about bringing people along the journey. So when we designed this program, it was actually about casting a really wide net to all of our studios to learn things that were already happening in this space. And they were happening. There were tons of experiments and a lot of different approaches to this end.

Sally Sosa 22:06

And so, we collect all that sort of stuff. We rolled it up and basically designed it as this series of best practices with a narrative around why this matters for IDEO. So I think it’s about bringing people along, helping them see why it matters and how it will make their lives better and what effect it will have on them and their teams. It certainly didn’t happen overnight. I mean, I think we actually published the work two or three years ago and it’s still, in some places, just starting to take hold. So it’s definitely you have to see the long game and be patient with it and know that it’s not just going to be an overnight thing.

Jay Acunzo 22:39

So when you have a big, new idea, how do you disseminate it around to a lot of people? It could be a big cultural change or something that’s process-oriented like Flights, I guess, but I would ask you how important is internal documentation to all of this? And how do you actually get people to adhere to that stuff instead of what I think happens in most organizations which is like oh, I know that stuff exists written down somewhere but I’m not really sure if I’m going to access it at all. One example is I started my career at Google and we had this internal wiki that was so dense and so full of stuff that most people just ignored it. And it sounds like you guys are really able to take an idea, run with it across a few teams or one location, and then get it out to the whole company to make it just the way you operate. So my question is how? How does that happen?

Sally Sosa 23:28

Well, we’ve had the same struggles that you mentioned. We have a tool that’s essentially our internet which we just can’t seem to actually crack the code of how to get people to put content there. So we certainly have not … We have not found the holy grail of it. But I think to the point earlier about bringing people along in the process, I think that that’s really important because especially at IDEO, in a community of creative people and designers, they will always be looking at how things can be better or how we can build on things and so bringing them along in the journey gives them the opportunity to feel ownership and to feel invested.

Sally Sosa 24:04

Also, with Flights we’ve learned that not being super prescriptive but essentially designing a tool that people can take and make their own based on their local context and their local needs. I know that Flights are run many different ways across our studios but always through the same lens of people development and as a learning and development tool. And so, whatever they need to do locally to make it their own is great. But we just want it to be kept through the lens of how do we support our people in learning and developing from project to project.

Jay Acunzo 24:36

So my final question is, if you entered another organization which was trying to build a better corporate culture, trying to improve their employee’s experience, so to speak, and certainly trying to align the business and they say Sally, we love the work you’ve done at IDEO. Come here and own the same function. Make this company great. Make this employee base happy and informed. What would be the first thing you would do at that organization that say, doesn’t have the infrastructure or the history or the culture yet like IDEO?

Sally Sosa 25:05

I would want to understand the organizational values. I would want to understand the company’s purpose and their values. And if those didn’t exist, I would want them to figure it out. But that’s certainly the root of everything that we do on my team and the root of so much of what drives how we behave and how we work at IDEO is staying connected to our values. And so, I think that would be the first thing I would look for.

Jay Acunzo 25:33

Okay, so once an organization has defined those values and articulated them, what’s the power in that? What changes?

Sally Sosa 25:41

I think there’s a shared understanding now of what connects people across the organization and what can anchor the way that they work together, what can anchor how they treat each other, or the way that talent and other infrastructure groups design experiences for the community. I think it can help in career development because it can point to places where people are struggling. Maybe outside of their quote/unquote day job or their hard skills. Are people struggling in their behaviors or the way that they’re working together? And it can bring clarity to that. I think it can help with hiring. You can look beyond the intuitive and often biased sense of oh, that person’s just not the right fit and actually look at what are the values that you’re trying to hire for and what are the attributes that folks who hold those values might have so that they can join this organization and really have an impact.

Jay Acunzo 26:39

Big thanks to Sally Sosa with all that wisdom today. Thank you also to Tettra because this is their show. And if you like this show, you should go check out what Tettra is building to help employees make better decisions faster with their knowledge management software. You can go to to learn more. That’s Tettra, with two Ts, .co.

Jay Acunzo 26:59

This show is a production of Unthinkable Media, makers of refreshingly entertaining shows about work. It’s hosted by me, Jay Acunzo, and produced by Annie [Sinziba 00:27:08]. On behalf of everybody at Tettra, I want to say thank you for listening and I’ll talk to you again in two weeks on another episode of Org Uncharted. Bye-bye.

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