JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Creating a truly collaborative environment in your organization is no easy task, but we can learn from the experience at the design firm, IDEO, in building a “culture of helping.” In the January-February 2014 Harvard Business Review, Teresa Amabile, Colin Fisher, and Julianna Pillemer report on the study they conducted of the unique helping culture fostered at IDEO.

The authors tracked the helping network at one of IDEO’s offices. With only 47 people at the location, the number of who identified one another as helpers is astounding. The helping connections included everyone in the company, with helping relationships extending from the most junior to the most senior staff members.

IDEO is well known for its highly innovative design work, including everything from medical devices, consumer electronics, and furniture. Their designers work on projects with serious support through collaboration with the entire staff. Tim Brown, the CEO, argues that “the more complex the problem, the more help you need.” The executives themselves are part of the helping team, participating in brainstorming sessions and being available to help anyone who asks. Low-level people will approach people at the top for help; high-level people also ask for help from people several levels down.

Is your organizational culture open to building a helping environment? Your answer might be “no” if asking for help is seen as a weakness—or, if people are afraid of going for assistance to people outside their own small team. A helping, collaborative environment needs to ensure that all the doors are open and helping is viewed as a serious responsibility if the organization hopes to do its best work and find innovative solutions to challenges.

The authors point out that it can be a challenge for someone to figure out whom to approach for help. The research showed that it is not always the person with the most expertise who is the best helper. They discovered that the most popular helpers had high marks on three characteristics: trust, accessibility, and competence.

Trust—”how comfortable the help seeker is sharing thoughts and feelings”

Accessibility—”how easy it is to get help from that person”

Competence—”how good the person is at the job”

People rated their helpers pretty equally in terms of competence, even thought this might seem to be the most important criterion. It was not. People rated the best helpers highest for trust and accessibility, which turned out to be more important than pure competence.

Because asking for help may be challenging, people ask for help from people they feel comfortable with and who are accessible when the need for help arises. At IDEO, people recognize that giving help is important to the success of all the company’s projects. That means that they try to be as accessible as possible.

The authors discovered to their amazement that nearly every individual in the company showed up on someone’s list of valued helpers. Clearly helping is a crucial part of the company’s culture. But is it easy to develop a helping culture?

IDEO makes helping part of its entire design process. They run brainstorming sessions, have design reviews, and actually make helping an explicit role. They have a role they call “design community leaders (DCLs).” The project teams are encouraged to have formal and informal meetings with their DCLs. In fact, the team members gave the informal meetings higher marks for effectiveness.

In addition, the project teams have one or more senior people assigned to them as helpers. A helper might be an expert in a particular design area. He or she might have a lot of experience with a particular client. Or, the individual might just be regarded as a good helper.

Besides helping it maintain its reputation as a highly innovative design organization, IDEO has also found that a helping culture is more efficient. To encourage helping, they give employees time in their schedules to help. The company avoids overloading people with tasks.

The conclusion that authors reach is significant: “Time that might be spent on billable client work is made available to facilitate ad hoc assistance.”

That might seem pretty expensive in an organization where we always seem to have more work than people. But if you want to encourage a creative process rather than a heads-down focus on grinding out more content, you need to take the idea of some slack time seriously. If you want people to work collaborative and truly help one another be more creative, you need to ensure that help occurs as an everyday part of your organization.

IDEO’s Brown points out that they pay attention to helpfulness during the interview process for new team members. They listen for the word “we” rather than “I”. They also credit helpfulness in promoting people. But mostly they find that giving and receiving help boosts morale.

What can a helping culture achieve for your organization? To quote,

“If you want your employees to keep finding ways to improve what they do, ways to serve your customers better, ways to more effectively execute your strategy, then you need them to be engaging in collaborative help. They should not only pitch into balance one another’s workloads but also examine, challenge, build, and refine one another’s ideas.”

Amabile, Fisher, and Pillemer offer several steps toward moving your organization to a helping culture:

  • Be clear that helpfulness will result in better outcomes than competition.
  • Be helpful yourself and ask for help.
  • Campaign for more help seeking and giving.
  • Communicate that you believe giving help is a valued activity in your organization.
  • Promote helping people build a high level of trust. That means not blaming people who ask for help, tamping down the political battles, and encouraging managers to admit failures.
  • Develop training to help people build a helping relationship.
  • Assign people as helpers to project teams but not too many.
  • Include helping in job descriptions.
  • Don’t overload people so that they can’t be accessible.
  • Allow for slack time.

What can you expect by following these recommendations? People who find themselves in a creative, collaborative environment are more satisfied with their work and are more highly motivated to do their best.