9 Valuable Lessons We Learned in 2020

9 Valuable Lessons We Learned in 2020

As this unprecedented, challenging year comes to a close, it’s an understatement to say that we’ve learned a lot. We’ve transitioned to remote work in the midst of a pandemic and embraced the ambiguity that comes with it. All the while, we’ve been interviewing leaders on our Creative Confidence Podcast, who have taught us everything from the relationship between space exploration and creativity to how to have difficult conversations

We spent some time reflecting on the most impactful lessons and skills we’ve gained from our podcast guests, learners, and IDEO U instructors in 2020 and wanted to share these back with you.

1. How to Work Remotely With Your Team

Across the globe, many of us have had to quickly transition into remote work, which brought its own set of challenges. We found the guidance of Sacha Connor, Founder and CEO of Virtual Work Insider. She reminded us that strong communication with our teams is key, because we don’t have as many opportunities to read body language cues when we are not together in person. As a result, it’s important to be clear in your expectations and align on needs ahead of time—even the most fancy digital tools won’t help if you don’t have a foundation of trust. (If you’re looking to build trust with your team, here’s an activity you can try.)

Sacha also gave advice for how to influence across distances. For example, you can stay in touch with your team by creating virtual water cooler moments, replicating the serendipity of running into each other in the office. Even a simple action like sending a ‘“good morning” message can make a difference. She also shared some tips for virtual meeting design, so your team can make the most of their time together.

2. How to Embrace Tension

Here in the US, we’ve encountered our fair share of tension this year, from racial injustice and civil unrest to a tumultuous election. During this time, we've learned ways to reframe tension as a force that can strengthen us overall. Instead of staying in safe spaces, we should move to brave spaces, where we embrace the fact that different backgrounds will lead to contrasting opinions and perspectives, and diversity needs to include all forms of difference. These brave spaces help people learn and teams evolve and grow.

 We also learned the value of having tough conversations at work. IDEO Chief of Staff Lauren Collins taught us how to create space for open, honest dialogue around the complex topics on our minds. It may feel difficult, but it’s worth it to create shared understanding, so that we can expand our perspectives and be more empathetic with each other.


“Tension is a hallmark of innovative organizations. When you have different perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences, you have new ideas.”
Heather Currier Hunt


3. How to Lead by Empowering your Employees

We interviewed Jim Keane, President and CEO of Steelcase, about his leadership style and the power of asking questions. He shared a story from the midst of the pandemic, where he woke up to surprising news: a decision had been made to shut down one of his manufacturing plants while he slept. Rather than feeling upset for being left out of such a vital business decision, he felt proud of his employees. His goal as a leader was always to empower others to lead, and he shared some advice about how to help others make decisions in the face of ambiguity.

4. How to Create Engaging, Online Experiences

Many educators, from preschool teachers to college professors, have had to shift to this way of working, so we shared techniques we use to design human-centered, online learning experiences. We’ve learned to make the most of shared moments, ground our learnings in our students’ contexts, engage the senses (beyond the screen), and create transitions that allow for down time. 

We also felt deeply inspired by our IDEO U learners, who have made an impact in their physical communities after taking our online courses. From hosting storytelling workshops in the Middle East to addressing health disparities for women living in DC, our students have shown us the power of translating digital learnings into actionable next steps. 


5. How to Be Resilient

We reflected on 9 skills to be resilient this year, which included adopting an iterative mindset, asking better questions, and practicing self-reflection and compassion. And, of course, just having fun! 

As author Jake Knapp reminds us, we should all find moments to be playful, even if it means giving up a bit of productivity. “Maybe it's letting yourself geek out on some nerdy part of your job that you secretly love,” he says. “Maybe it's asking for a high five once a day, even though you might get branded ‘that high five guy.’ Maybe it's being playful with a task instead of treating everything seriously.”

Venture capitalist Alex Lazarow also shared with us the mindsets of resilient entrepreneurs. They focus on creation, embracing constraints, and building businesses for the long game.


“Let yourself geek out on some nerdy part of your job that you secretly love.”
Jake Knapp


6. How to Practice Design Thinking Virtually

Although it’s been a difficult year, a silver lining has been the ability to share our craft with others around the world. We feel grateful for the chance to teach and learn alongside our students, to inspire them to use design to improve the lives of people around them. 

We hosted an Ask Me Anything session on design thinking with IDEO partners and IDEO U leaders Suzanne Gibbs Howard and Coe Leta Stafford, where they shared ideas for virtual design thinking exercises. 

For inspiration, Coe recommends trying “Digital Diaries,” where you ask people to submit photos and videos of what’s happening in their world and then follow-up with a conversation. For ideation, our team has been going deep with remote brainstorms using digital tools. They make clustering and voting easier, reduce the waste, and store more easily for reference. One tip for facilitators is to prepare in advance, give pre-homework and ask people to think about the brainstorm topic before the session, and also design for the pacing and energy of it. For prototyping, you can try a technique called parallel prototyping. You give all the people the same templates, everyone does their own prototype design in parallel, and then you get together and share: here's what each of us came up with. 

7. How to Be Patient Toward Change

For those who want to make an impact in the world, it’s natural to want to create change immediately. However, in an interview with Laszlo Bock, CEO and Co-Founder of Humu, we were reminded that change happens from taking one step at a time, and small shifts can lead to big outcomes.

And when we’re not feeling patient about change, author Karen Holst taught us how to move things forward in an organization and navigate blockers. Organizational psychologist Bob Sutton also reminded us that we need to set the right tempo for change. Change requires momentum and moderation at different points in the journey, so leaders need to understand the dangers of moving too fast or too slow. 


“Everybody has the right to be ambitious, and we don’t need to apologize for it.”
Shellye Archambeau


8. How to Build Courage

Emily Pilloton founded a nonprofit called Girls Garage, which supports and equips girls to build the world they want to see. Through this process, she learned that “Fear is an extremely important and useful thing for us to feel and understand.” Understanding the shape of our fear helps us work through it. 

At Girls Garage, Emily often talks about bravery as a muscle we can learn to exercise. In our Creative Confidence Podcast, Emily shared her insights into the power of making, tips for designing brave and inclusive spaces, and why building within your community is so meaningful.

Similarly, podcaster Debbie Millman shared her definition of courage. In her mind, courage is more important than confidence, because “courage is taking that first step without knowing whether or not it's going to be successful.”

9. How to Embrace your Ambition

We were inspired by author Shellye Archambeau, who joined our podcast to discuss why everyone deserves to be unapologetically ambitious. As one of the few female African American CEOs in Silicon Valley, she knows what it means to own her career, and shared many valuable insights for thriving in your career. Her advice? Set a crystal clear vision, share what you want, and build your village—the community of people in your network who will help you out even when it’s not convenient for them.

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