As an IDEO Partner and a Managing Director in the Tokyo office, Mike Peng has developed an ability to collaborate with all kinds of teams across many cultures and markets. With a background in neuroscience and wide-ranging personal interests including hip-hop dance, tennis, and the occasional reality TV show, Mike sources inspiration from many places. Leading up to the launch of our Cultivating Creative Collaboration online course, which Mike teaches, we caught up with him to chat about his passion for understanding human motivations, the role of creativity in teamwork, and what’s inspiring him lately.
Could you share a little bit about yourself, what led you to work in this field, and how you got to where you are now?
I studied cognitive neuroscience in school, and I was always really interested in the brain. I went in thinking I was going to be a doctor, but later realized I was actually more interested in how the brain works than the physical or anatomical parts.
Neuroscience was one of these up-and-coming fields where not only would you take courses on the anatomy of the brain, but you would also do psychology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, and linguistics to get a holistic view of why we do the things we do. I was always interested in that aspect of people.
After I graduated, I started working for Johnson & Johnson. I was part of a two-year management leadership program where every eight months you would rotate to a different operating company within Johnson & Johnson to get a different view on health care. Then I began working with scientists to better understand how they work and introduce new technologies to enable more collaboration and innovation.
I was having lunch with one of my coworkers one day and she asked, "What's your dream job?" And I said, "One day I'm going to work for this company called IDEO.” Turns out, she had a friend who worked at IDEO and she introduced me. I took a tour, and that’s how it all started.
What made you want to work at IDEO?
I was always really interested in designing and creating new solutions, but I wanted to do it within a context of really knowing people. Sophomore year of undergrad, my roommate came home with a VHS tape of the IDEO shopping cart video, and he said, "I have your dream job here." I was watching the video, and it amazed me that this was a creative design firm and they were looking for neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, psychologists, and anthropologists, in addition to traditional designers. It was the first time I realized that's exactly what I wanted to do.
What I love about working here is that everyone is incredibly humble, but everyone is brilliant at the same time. Part of that brilliance comes from having a shared value set. It’s not about “my idea”—we all believe in working together and that creativity and design can be really powerful for society.
The magic of IDEO happens not because each person is the best at what they do, but because of what happens when everyone comes together. I really believe in that. I think that’s the same for other businesses too. Obviously, you want to have brilliant people in the room, but the magic actually happens when you combine forces and one plus one equals more than two.
You moved to Japan from New York to found and lead IDEO’s Tokyo office. How did that experience inform your approach to collaboration?
When I was asked to help lead the Tokyo office, I was pretty nervous. I was young by Japanese standards to be in such a position of authority, and I knew that it would be a challenge to blend the IDEO culture with the Japanese culture and find a new way of being that felt really authentic and good for this office. But there was also so much energy and opportunity kind of bubbling up at this intersection and it was so exciting to be a part of it.
I learned how important it is to build a strong foundation for your team culture and how that enables people to step outside their comfort zones, not just interpersonally with each other, but also when you’re working on really tough challenges for clients. We have a lot of rituals in the Toyko office that we created by listening to people’s needs, observing behaviors around the office, and finding ways to disrupt limiting norms, like the aversion to failure that is common in Asian cultures.
Maintaining culture is something that takes a lot of ongoing effort and thoughtfulness. It can’t just be one off. I really took this to heart as part of my approach to guiding teams on project work—establishing that foundation in the beginning of a project and giving people the room to be vulnerable is critical. You can’t skip over this step.
You’re an experienced tennis player and an amateur hip-hop dancer. Is there anything you’ve learned through those experiences that has informed or enhanced your ability to lead collaboration at work?
In anything I do, I'm always interested in how to be the highest performer of that particular activity. I played tennis all through my youth, and it was so much about the training. Hours on the court practicing led to great performance at game time. Because you know your stroke so well, you're able to make game-time decisions that may be a bit different than you’d practiced. You’re able to adapt and be creative in the moment with that base layer of expertise.
It’s similar with dance. I danced throughout college and I ended up choreographing dances for others just as much as I was dancing in them. I saw how these routines I was creating enabled dancers to move together, improve their skill, and use the constraints of the choreography as a building block for flourishes and moves—which often ended up being the most interesting parts of the performance.
“Obviously, you want to have brilliant people in the room, but the magic actually happens when you combine forces and one plus one equals more than two.”
Creative collaboration has a similar feel. Yes, it feels magical in the moment, but in order to do it well, you have to go through the process many times and practice guiding the same types of diverging and converging meetings. So when the moment comes that you need to do it really well, you know all the tricks, you know all the watch outs, and you know how to guide a conversation second handedly.
The prep is such an important part of what I do. Creating the structure, the environment, and the conditions is essential so that everyone can perform accordingly.
Is there anything that you're working on right now with respect to your leadership style?
I like to work alongside people, but I also realize that people might want a little bit more guidance and direction at times. So I’m thinking about, “What's the right level of direction to set that gives people the north star to follow without dictating the path to get there?” My goal is to become more of a compass and less of a map. It’s that balance of trying to create the vision that everyone aligns to, yet still finding ways to work alongside people.
I’m always trying to grow and be a better leader, but for me, it's less about improving a particular style of leadership and more about knowing when to use what type of leadership at what moment. Every team dynamic is different, every person's different, and every situation is a little bit different.
Why is creativity more important now than ever?
I really do feel that the world is changing, and part of that is because there are new technologies that are popping up that make things happen faster. With the amount of people that you can reach in such a short period of time, there are both challenges and opportunities. And this has huge implications for businesses. People are able to message to their customers faster, but with that also comes a lot of risks too. The world's getting more complicated, things are happening faster, and so we need a different way of thinking in order to create something that hasn't been created before.
How does creativity manifest for you? If you’re feeling really creative, what does that look like?
For me, creativity means being able to constantly create new sparks through inspiration—and inspiration can come from a variety of sources. A wise person once told me that you should leave a job when you stop learning or developing new skills. I truly believe in this because when you stop experiencing new things, you stop getting inspired. And the ability to create something that is new (or in many cases, combining different aspects of different ideas to make the context new) can only happen if you have a constant set of new inspiration to work with.
“I love that feeling of building on each other's ideas to come up with something that you wouldn't have thought of yourself.”
Are there times when working alone is more effective than working collaboratively with a team?
I don’t want people to think they need to do everything in teams. There are many moments where you need your own time to make sense of your thoughts and be able to present some of those synthesized thoughts back to a larger group. There are other times where you're trying to form that idea and you need a team to help give input into imagining what it could be.
Depending on the situation, then you need to decide if this a moment for creative collaboration or if it’s a moment for individual work.
It's not about either/or. It's about both—using different modes of working at different times. Most people can probably understand why having a group would help you diverge and come up with new ideas. I could see how people might think that the convergent moment is something you could do alone or with fewer people, but that’s also a misconception. Bringing people together to help synthesize can be very powerful.
What is your favorite part of the whole creative collaboration process?
The part that makes me feel the best is when I initially come up with an idea—maybe it was good, maybe it was bad—but then someone says something that makes me think of an even better idea. I love to find the threads that connect disparate things, like dance and design. I found that happens a lot, especially in diverging moments with teams.
When people throw out ideas, it gets you thinking in different directions, and I love that feeling of building on each other's ideas to come up with something that you wouldn't have thought of yourself.
Want to learn more about IDEO’s style of creative collaboration? Check out our 5-week online course, Cultivating Creative Collaboration, taught by Mike Peng. You’ll learn how to set the conditions for creative thinking and guide a team through the process of generating bold new ideas.