Chief Culture Officer: Designing a Culture of Choice
A conversation with Lahav Gil, President and CEO, Kangaroo Design
Interview conducted by Elad Persov from Bezalel at the St. Andrews Church Hostel in Jerusalem.
Lahav Gil, President and CEO of Kangaroo Design, proposes how wellbeing at work can affect core fundamentals of an organization. Interviewed by Elad Persov from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Lahav begins by explaining how he transferred his “personal culture” of self-awareness into Kangaroo’s “organizational culture”. He explores examples of how wellbeing is applied to a work environment: into the eco-system and culture of the firm and in the values and guiding principles. Lahav proposes how wellbeing at work translates into product innovation, which is the core business of Kangaroo Design and Innovation Inc., through the invention and development of a system and product intended for the corporate work environment. The system returns to employees the control of their “own time” by allowing effortless shifting between disturbance-free mode and communication/collaboration mode. It facilitates a shift in the organizational culture to respect the space and time that an individual needs to be able to perform their work. As a part of developing the organizational culture at Kangaroo, Lahav explores factors which can interfere with wellbeing. These factors include: fear, politics, internal competition, as well as ego, and then discusses designing the thinking models and attitudes that empower a cultural transformation.
Lahav, I am interested in hearing how you perceive the concept of design for wellbeing and wellbeing at work.
Lahav: I’ve been struggling with the question of whether it’s even possible to design wellbeing. I think that products by majority do not create wellbeing. If wellbeing is a state of mind, then products can empower people to make that choice. When considering wellbeing in the context of modern society I can’t help but ask: How could the western world possibly take something as important as wellbeing and tuck it away in some dark corner, de-legitimized? From a business perspective, wellbeing is not regarded as something of high value. An entire culture is willing to sacrifice its wellbeing for the sake of the “economy of money?” People are willing to be offended, suppressed, corroded, eroded and you name it…to make a buck. We sacrifice so much for the sake of profit. How will the “Encyclopedia Galactica*” catalog us humans? “As the species that got obsessed with mobile communication devices” perhaps? It’s disheartening to see that kids form their sense of self-worth by relating to a…cell-phone. A species that is capable of such profound depth has been reduced to such a painful shallowness. And this shallowness comes at the expense of wellbeing. So we have traded off our wellbeing for material trinkets and “shiny stuff.”
Elad Persov: How would you define wellbeing?
Lahav: Lahav Gil: In my mind, wellbeing implies a healthy balance of “all systems humming away nicely” sort of state. A natural state, a sustainable state, that every living being has the right to experience. Looking at the Declaration of Independence, we see that it includes the right of every person to “the pursuit of happiness.” We could easily swap happiness with the term “wellbeing.” What does wellbeing encompass – happiness, love, compassion, a good feeling, sustenance, good health of body and mind… a state of balance? Perhaps it contains a measure of healthy excitement and inquisitiveness. Wellbeing is sweet not sharp.
Elad: Many designers would consider design for wellbeing as a discipline that aims to assist people who lack basic needs. Yet I understand that you have a different def inition.
Lahav: Lahav: For those who do not have enough food, dry warm clothes, or a roof over their heads – their living conditions can be re-shaped so that these basic needs are met, but this is not wellbeing. It is relief from suffering. If you are sleeping on the floor, we must make sure that that you have a comfortable mattress to sleep on before we have the moral right to talk of anything else. After the basics are there, then we can begin talking about wellbeing. I look at the world of consumerism and luxuries and ask myself if as a society we actually have wellbeing? Maybe we feel that all is well as long as we can go shopping on a Saturday to buy a new LED TV. Is that wellbeing?
“In my mind, wellbeing implies a healthy balance of ‘all systems humming away nicely.’ A natural state, a sustainable state, that every living being has the right to experience.”
Elad: So you’are saying that possessions cannot generate a state of wellbeing?
Lahav: Lahav: Not in the long run. Possessions create a temporary perceived satisfaction. Even products that are aimed at providing wellbeing, at their best can only provide for people an opportunity to choose to be in a state of wellbeing. The person still needs to make that choice, but more and more products in the world are not designed to empower towards that choice. Their aim is to make us feel that we are wanting for something, which will tempt us to purchase; “If you’re not feeling good, go shopping – buy something and you will feel better” we are told repeatedly. And we believe. When people feel good – they generally don’t buy extra stuff. Take for example, the iPod Touch – it’s a lovely product, but by majority it generates a feeling of excitement and desire, not wellbeing. I would guess that the product brief did not stipulate wellbeing as one of the key benefits to the user.
Elad: If that’s the case, how can design contribute to wellbeing?
Lahav: I think that design can create the products, environments and tools with which people are able to choose to have wellbeing. Design can empower people. But not only is it up to the individual to make the choice, but also, we need to train ourselves to apply this choice and to sustain it. It requires a paradigm shift about what is important. It requires us to rethink the purpose of business.
Lahav: We can begin very simply by removing harmful substances from the environment, materials such as toxins and allergens and noise. Unhealthy food, bad water and air pollution. Physical discomfort does not give wellbeing much of a chance. This is the base line. From here it’s a question of attitude and mindset.
Elad: Is this in line with your belief that everything begins in the mind?
Lahav: really don’t know how to look at it differently. I don’t think you can produce wellbeing for someone. It’s an inner state. I believe that you can design attitudes and mental constructs, that if adopted could make wellbeing more accessible in the work environment, the domestic environment, and school environments. You can design the cultural fabric and the DNA of an organization and that will create opportunities for wellbeing. But people need to choose to adopt this new paradigm of the importance of their own wellbeing, and integrate it into their lives. Only then will it authentically diffuse into the organization.
Elad: Try to summarize your approach to wellbeing and focus on the work environment.
Lahav: I see an entire culture with little attention to wellbeing at work. It’s an accepted norm that at work you “work” and that is associated with something hard, even suffering. But I also see that this paradigm is beginning to shift. Some organizations take on the value of fun as core to the workplace. Some value personal greatness. If you study recent concepts from thought leaders such as Steven Covey and Jim Collins you will see the beginning of a trend. It is small, but it is evident.
Elad: As a founder and CEO of a design firm, what have you done to tackle this situation on your own turf?
Lahav: Kangaroo was established just over a decade ago. When I set up the company, I tried to remove certain elements from the work environment while adding in others. For example, we removed the concept of penalties. We inserted the concept of flex-time. These on their own were enough to significantly improve the wellbeing in our workplace.
“You can design the cultural fabric and the DNA of an organization and that will create opportunities for wellbeing. But people need to choose to adopt this new paradigm of the importance of their own wellbeing, and integrate it into their lives.”
Elad: Many of the well-known design firms develop different design processes that focus mainly outward toward understanding their client and final users. Yet at Kangaroo work processes also look inwards?
Lahav: Yes. We try to create a place that provides people with a greater opportunity to find their own niche, their own greatness. And also to explore zones that stretch beyond their comfort zone, if they want to.
Elad: What is the platform you created to leverage people’s skills and their enjoyment from their work? And how do you turn this inward looking process into a value to your customer?
Lahav: We have tried creating a relatively flat (non-hierarchical) ecosystem and have greatly reduced the ‘command and control’ approach. Our approach to management is based on giving service, not on giving orders. We chose to employ people who are self-motivated, who do not need too much supervision. Mostly they need direction and empowerment. Kangaroo’s structure goes beyond a matrix organization into what we call multi-matrix. The same people are involved in different parts of the matrix at the same time, each time wearing a different hat. One person could be the project manager of one project, while at the same time she is a designer on a second project, which is lead by someone else. Who could be working as a design engineer on the project where she leads the way. The person’s ability to understand their function within the team and the decision making process becomes key. This also creates opportunities for reflective processes and inner growth. It keeps ego quite low because the focus is on function and not on status. It helps people to not get entrenched in their “position” too much. On the one hand Kangaroo is a results-driven organization and on the other hand it is an organization that likes to look inwards to discover itself.
Elad: It is well-known that designers are motivated by their over-sized egos which detract from their ability to work in a team.
Lahav: We have reduced the need for people to compete with each other within our organization, which is of course, ultimately a matter of personal choice, maturity and desire. We encourage the team identity, and the team’s success. We talk a lot. You have to allocate time for talking when you have these kinds of goals. Through talking with each other we come closer to these ideas; ideas that require personal change and trust. We pass design concepts from one designer to another, effectively designing as a team. We believe in the value of “small-ego-culture.” We hire people who are inclined this way.
Elad: How do you know that competition within the organization has been reduced?
Lahav: I can’t measure it with a “competitionometer”. It’s a subjective assessment. But I know that there’s no need for competition; we don’t have a job-advancement model or reward system where one person needs to compete with another to be more visible or to reduce another person’s visibility. But even in a horizontal organization we cannot force any person to behave in this way – we can only provide them with the option to do so. We are trying to adopt the approach that will allow each person to be in the best possible place for him or her, where they can each be in their element. And we are trying to find a suitable recompensing model, which we are still developing.
“Kangaroo’s structure goes beyond a matrix organization into what we call multi-matrix. The same people are involved in different parts of the matrix at the same time, each time wearing a different hat.”
Elad: One of the best def initions for strategy is that it is the deployment of resources. Henry Mintzberg correctly asked which resources and for what purposes?” I understand that you aim to create a work environment free of fear, yet what are the resources that you deploy in order to achieve that?
Lahav: The principle of “giving people the freedom to make a mistake” begins with memorizing the concept, chanting it again and again, and then repeatedly explaining it – and moreover, you prove this by example and by showing people that although mistakes have been made, people have not been asked to endure pain for their mistakes. But this is not enough. One of the most important things is to budget for possible mistakes (time and money).
Elad: Is it not customary Project Management practice to say a project will take 15 days when you know it will only take 10?
Lahav: What you describe is a defensive tactic used by PMs in an environment that does not tolerate mistakes – so they lie, creating a buffer. In my world everything hangs on motive, and on transparency and agreement. So we add the buffer in full transparency and full agreement because we believe it’s an essential part of the ‘quality management plan.” because we believe in errors as an inherent part of creative work. If you do not build in these buffers, then people become scared to voice their opinion, to report an error to try something new, or to take risks. A culture of concealment ensues. You get people who are afraid to say “no, I don’t understand”, or who smile even though they feel bad. I want to work with people who feel free to be themselves, and aren’t afraid to show imperfections. Because they know that it’s safe and will not be used against them in any way. I also want this freedom to be imperfect.
Elad: In your opinion, does this have any effect on the level of innovation in Kangaroo’s products?
Lahav: Yes, it has a critical effect on freedom of expression, and even more so, on freedom of thought, because by removing from the work environment the need to fear, you are giving the designers an opportunity to be far more creative. They are able to talk nonsense, knowing that they will not be judged; and it is right at this point that we sometimes find the breakthrough solutions. Your ability not to be ashamed to share crude ideas during the design process invites wide-ranging cooperation from your other team members. This sort of freedom is critical to a design and innovation environment. “Protectivism” invites mental constipation. We are experimenting with these kind of ideas.
Elad: The work environment in a design studio is intensive and brimming with excitement. I get the impression that you are looking for a fundamental calm which from here looks to be a long way off.
Lahav: Wellbeing involves our ability to move between states of calm and excitement, and to sustain an inner balance. When you go hunting the mammoth, you set off on the hunt full of excitement, adrenaline and energy. When the hunt is over, you return to the tribe with the catch. For the next few months, you will live with the tribe, exposed to the world of the women and the children, to the family, processing the parts of the beast, community rituals, etc. I see these processes as part of a person’s wellbeing. If someone needs to hunt a mammoth every day because his own psyche needs constant excitement, I don’t think they will ever reach a state of wellbeing, and after X years they will burn out.
Elad: This professional agenda has evolved into a product that aims to assist wellbeing in work environments.
Lahav: The idea for the system evolved out of my need to enable myself and others to be in a state of wellbeing at work. It is based on the understanding that in a person’s life, and particularly in their work environment, there are three sources of disruption – the physical work environment, digital technology, and the person themselves. In the physical work environment, and particularly in a collaborative one, people come to you wanting something (work-related, human contact, or something else) and this also includes the telephone. Then we have the digital disturbances such as Skype, email, ICQ, etc. And then we have a whole world of inner disruptions that reduce the ability to concentrate – all of a sudden I want to browse the Internet, or I get up to chat with someone, or feel the urge to check my email. By end of day, with all the telephones, meetings and ICQs, you realize that you have been accumulating tasks but have not done most of them. This “over-availability syndrome” causes people to come in to work three hours before everyone else or stay three hours after them. Or perhaps they take work home. It was clear to me that neither a product nor a gadget could solve this problem – and this generated a new work norm that respects the individual’s right to control their ”own time” or “time on task” as it is sometimes referred to, that improves his or her productivity and that of the organization.
“Wellbeing involves our ability to move between states of calm and excitement, and to sustain an inner balance.”
Elad: How does it work?
Lahav: The product works in conjunction with a shift in the company culture, adopting some of Steven Covey’s ideas about the four quadrants of spending one’s time for example. It is somewhat similar to hanging a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door handle of your hotel room. The product is actually a big toggle installed on your desk, which when pressed toggles between two modes: Green means I am free and able to work collaboratively. Red means please do not disturb me. Respect my need to be focused. This toggle connects to a computer and a light above the door/cubicle wall. When the light is on red, everyone in the work environment knows that I am focusing on something. If someone walks down the hallway and wants to talk to me, they see that the light is on red and continue past my office. When on red, it automatically diverts all digital communication to voice mail and inboxes without alerting me. My presence is displayed to all members of the work-group on their desktop client application. The toggle also addresses the last form of disruption –me– because when I see that I am on red, it is easier for me to be called back into focus, which I’ve committed to earlier. It gives me a sense of control.
Elad: This is actually a form of anti-technology, like theTV Be Gone, which enables people to turn off television sets that disturb them in public places.
Lahav: Yes, that’s right. Perhaps it belongs to the new generation of products that are trying to protect us from the wonders of technology. We are enabling a work climate that is a little more refined. The product does not do this by itself. It merely serves people and organizations that wish to make changes in their organizational culture and “personal culture.”
Elad: I am not familiar with the concept “personal culture.”
Lahav: This is a term that I recently began using and which is provocative to a certain degree. It draws attention to the idea that there is no such thing as organizational culture on its own. After all, organizational culture is actually based on the “personal culture” of each and every one of us and the interaction that develops between us all. The product enables people to deal with the third form of disruption – the one that each of us generates for him or herself. The change within the organization is possible because each user gets to practice using the system while focusing on their work whenever the light is on red. The change that occurs within the organization is a direct outcome of the change that occurs within each individual using the system.
Elad: In our previous conversation you told me about yourself and how you began your career as someone trying “to save the world”, how you would walk around garbage dumps trying to deal with all the garbage.…
Lahav: I have always felt the need to be a positive influence, to do something useful and meaningful. I want to be part of this quiet revolution in which we improve the world, in which we give things a new significance, in which we do something that contributes to the broader concept of sustainability that will enable the human species and other creatures living on this earth to maintain a sane and meaningful existence. At the beginning of my career as a designer, I was interested in ecological sustainability: what we should do with garbage, how to deal with Life Cycle Analysis, and so on. When I was 13, I would go to the dump station to catch doves for my dovecote. That was my first exposure to solid waste. That’s when I realized that every time I throw something into the garbage bin, it makes its way to the garbage dump – and that’s how this mountain of garbage gets created. One day when I was older, I did this mind simulation exercise and imagined as if we had resolved all the world’s ecological problems and then I discovered that the problem that remained was us, the humans; human attitudes and conduct were the worst pollutants. If a person hits their children or is aggressive on the road or at work, if they are habitually worried or fearful, then the world is still heavily polluted, even if the air is clean. That’s when I realized that if I want to clean up the world, I need to start with the pollution inside people’s heads. And that the honorable thing to do is to try to begin with my own head. I think that much of these thoughts can be summarized by the famous Frankel quote about man’s last freedom to choose his response to the circumstances he finds himself in, to choose his attitude, his way.
CATALYST INSIGHTS:STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
How to design wellbeing and innovation into an organization
Create a reward system and remove penalties.
Encourage employees and coworkers to nurture their own greatness.
Discourage competition amongst employees and coworkers.
Encourage team identity by focusing on functions.
Give people the room to be imperfect.
Embrace mistakes as learning.
Provide Freedom to share crude ideas.
About the Authors:
Lahav Gil is the CEO and founder of Kangaroo Design and Innovation Inc., a Toronto-based innovation firm offering product development services to the medical devices and diagnostics industries operating in Canada, US, Europe, Israel and the Far East. As CEO and Director of Design at Kangaroo, Lahav’s main responsibilities are Business Development, Organizational Development, and Design Leadership and Strategy.Kangaroo upholds a values-driven work environment and principles-based leadership as core to its ideology and culture. In addition to founding and leading Kangaroo, Lahav is also the co-founder of a number of technology startups (BeFocused Inc., Inventions That Matter Inc., CertoLabs Inc.,) where he holds a lead role in product strategy, design strategy and product development.
Elad Persov, a graduate of the DMP at Pratt institute, is the Coordinator of the Design Management at the M.Des Program at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem, Israel, and a PhD student at the Porter School for Environmental Studies at the Tel Aviv University. His research topic is “managing design for sustainability: the designers role in the new management paradigm”
1 The 7 habits of highly effective people, By Steven Covey
2. Good to Great, by Jim Collins
4. Man’s search for meaning, by Victor Frankel