Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving, examining the best places to work among social good businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Denver: And for this edition of Better Than Most, we will be visiting the New York offices of ideas42, an organization dedicated to using behavioral science for social good. We’ll begin with their Executive Director, Josh Wright and then hear from some of the other members of the team.
Josh: Who’s most aware that they want and need feedback? It’s the person receiving the feedback. Yes, we train the manager to give feedback. But equally, we train and encourage people to ask for the feedback because that’s critical. It’s on their mind. They have the moment of action, as we talked about before. So, it’s very much within our culture to say, “Hey, can you give me feedback on this thing?” And then the manager wants to give feedback. They don’t have the moment of action in their mind. It creates the moment of action, and feedback is given at a much higher rate.
Sriram: But my pod is awesome because it also reflects the diversity of experience and expertise. There is one person who is a talent manager. The chief innovation officer sits right next to me in the pod, and then there’s a senior associate working on a vastly different domain setting right opposite me. So, people working on vastly different things, bringing in vastly different experiences to the pod every day. It’s a lot of fun.
Anthony: If there’s one thing that I think really characterizes all of the people that work here is that we really geek out on the stuff that we do and get obsessive and love to learn more. This is one of the things that I learned really quickly here is that people here won’t take things at face value. They’ll read all the papers and the bibliography for something, and tear apart methods, and also go out and learn new stuff constantly. So, there’s a real culture of learning that underlies our nerdiness, and it’s just great to be in that intellectual atmosphere all the time where people are pushing their own knowledge, learning more, teaching each other. Love the spirit.
Uyhun: I think the other thing that I think of when I think about our corporate culture is that, I feel that we’re scrappy. There’s a lot of work to be done, and everyone really hops in and gets involved— whether it’s helping on a project that you’re technically not allocated to… or helping to just clean up the office, or helping to put on the giant Behavioral Summit that we just did. Everyone is really all hands on deck. You’re not a junior or a senior to get involved with anything you want to be a part of.
Jackie: Training was essentially a binder when I started. Now, they’ve provided such a support system and structure with the training, the starting cohorts, and you really feel like you’re more of the community when you start out. So, that’s one big improvement that I’ve noticed. The degree to which they get all team members involved, so everyone gives presentations, whether it’s on our methodology, our core values. It could be an associate giving these presentations or our executive director.
Alex: I think that’s something that we strive for all the time – really making sure that when we’re thinking about our internal processes, or when we’re applying things to our work, that we’re being very thoughtful about asking the right questions, because if we don’t, we’re going to end up going down pathways that are not going to lead to the impact that we ultimately want. So, that’s a really important guiding principle for us here.
Vivien: Whereas, I feel like whenever a project starts, there’s a moment where the team discusses what the project’s going to be, what people are interested in developing into what role they see themselves in the future, and we have that space to develop our roles and to figure out what’s exciting and interesting and new and challenging to us, and who can support us in getting there. And we can really take that initiative and go there and develop into the professionals and people that we want to be, and have the support system around us so that we don’t crash and burn, but we’re still challenged and we still find ourselves really growing towards something. It keeps us all engaged and excited because no one person— unless you want to keep doing the same thing, or you feel like doing the same thing as a way to keep refining your skills— you don’t have to be doing the same thing. And it means that teams are constantly in conversation about the roles, what they’re learning, what’s challenging to them, and you end up relying on your team, and it’s a lot.
Liana: We celebrate on Twitter with #behavioralvalentines. These are Valentines that are from a behavioral scientist. So, people who are active on Twitter ideas42 participate. We tweet from ideas42 but even more than that, it’s actually the whole behavioral science community. They get ingrained in your head because they rhyme. I think there’s one that was something like, “Chocolates and flowers are very nice, but nothing’s better than a commitment device.
Rahin: Something about ideas42 that no one would know unless they work here is I think the extent to which our organization is like a mullet. We’re very business in the front but party in the back. I think by business in the front, we do a lot of rigorous work. A lot of our work follows intense methodologies. A lot of evaluation goes into the designs that we create. Even when we present a finished product, it’s very professional, clean, and polished. But then when you go behind the scenes of what happened to create such high-quality work, you see that it is actually a lot of fun. There’s a lot of brainstorming, design sessions that are happening, free-thinking, thinking outside of the box and we’re doing it in a fun way, which I think does contribute to the high-quality work that we have. But it’s something that people wouldn’t realize the extent to which we’re a mullet.
Anthony: The way that we go about doing that is by having a behaviorally-informed hiring process that also builds in some equity lenses to the way that we talk about hiring. As everyone I think in the room can attest to, our hiring process is long and maybe painful at times, but it’s designed in that way so that we can be sure that we’re selecting the right folks. It’s not 100% hit rate, but it’s important to us that people invest in coming here. So it’s a four-stage process. Everything is Rubric-screened and oriented towards the competencies that we know are needed for people to succeed here. Including people giving us a piece of work in miniature when they’re asked to do a case study. We make sure that people, to the best capacity that we can, come here equipped to do the work, including fitting into the culture.
Uyhun: part of the reason that we do that is that we know that through the hiring process, certain human biases can creep in where we begin to evaluate people not on their ability or merit but by other factors that may not matter to how well they’re actually doing their job. And Rubric scoring during these steps in our process is the way we actually mitigate those biases creeping in. This is just an example. We’re a behavioral design firm, and we’re applying the research in behavioral science to everything that we’re doing.
Jackie: This is particularly how we deal with conflict. To provide an anecdote, four years ago in one of our retreats, it had surfaced that some junior team members wanted a better way to express issues and bring up problems to the senior team. They spent a long time defining what exactly is the problem here, then diagnosing what are the factors— behavioral or structural— behind this issue, talking about potential solutions, and then actually testing them out. What they came up with was office hours. They now send out every week the sign-up sheet for all of the senior team members. You can sign up to have these office hour sessions and just talk with a senior team.
Liana: That said, it’s also really nice that we get things like a fitness reimbursement each month to take care of ourselves— for fitness classes or a gym membership or a bike or whatever you want to use that for. So, I really like that balance of doing good for others and then taking care of our own health by the organization. Sriram: Something that I noticed during hiring. Before starting, but after getting an offer, was salaries and the general back and forth that happens, except that there wasn’t a back and forth, which I really appreciated because I’m a philosophy nerd, and I have strong ideals about how we should not only be transparent but also avoid biases in how we’re remunerating people. And ideas42 has a published Rubric that everybody can see what everybody is paid depending on their rank. There is no leeway on that matter. These are set numbers.
Rahin: So I would love it when we’d get into the test phase and then I could just sit and try to figure out how to run code or what not. But it really forced me because for most of the projects, one person is involved through all the stages, it forced me to get out of my comfort zone and learn how to do qualitative interviews, how to speak with people, how to manage partner relationships. It really set the stage for me to be more confident and better in my work and really see the different aspects involved a project and not get siloed in just one skill set.
Alex: I think that our mission often is not to focus on the individuals within the teams but to think really about the progress of the project itself. When the team succeeds everybody does succeed. We can all congratulate ourselves. But I also think, the flipside of this is in terms of our own personal development, we’re often really seeking out criticism not because we think that criticizing people is good inherently but because in order for us to make those changes and learn, it’s really important for us to be able to receive that kind of feedback. One of the other thing that’s great about this organization is that we are trying to engender a culture of psychological safety that enables that to occur in a fluid way, so that when criticism is provided, it’s not about as being a constructive piece of personal development as opposed to sniping or something.
Vivien: This happens I think constantly through emails. When someone else has done something, and I’m sharing it, I mention their name. It’s not my work, and we always make sure that during calls and we’re talking with partners, where we’re talking about developments, the person who owns that and who is responsible for it is the one who’s going to talk about it …and sort of get to experience that moment of other people being excited about the work you’re doing, or having more questions, or wanting to know more because I think that that’s sort of where you get the most enjoyment out of your own work… but also the way that you can get recognized across the organization. And this happens at presentations too. We always have people present the work they’ve done, and we always mention the rest of our team.
Denver: I wanna thanks Mitra Salasel for arranging my visit and to all those who participate in this piece: Liana Johnson, Sriram Sridharan, Rahin Khandker, Anthony Barrows, Uyhun Ung, Jackie Lefkowitz, Alex Blau, and Vivien Caetano. To hear this again, read the transcript, or see pictures of the participants and the offices, just come to denver-frederick.com and where we’ll have a link there to my full interview with Josh Wright the Executive Director of Ideas42.
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