The Incredible IDEO Global Chain Reaction Experience

Rube Goldberg gone IDEO Global

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There was a lot riding on the seven-inch pole-dancing doll. Tickle-Me Elmo made for another pressure point.

In fact, with eight worldwide locations, six time zones, and roughly fifty people involved, IDEO’s Global Chain Reaction looked more like a blueprint for possible points of failure than a functioning Rube Goldberg machine designed to run sequentially across three continents.

Even Jon Kaplan, the IDEO veteran behind the effort, had moments of doubt. But more than that, he had moments of disbelief: How could someone actually come up with that!? How could someone actually engineer a pole-dancing doll to spin around in silver garland, knock down a Phillippe Starck juicer, trigger a Gaussian gun, and topple a Tickle-Me Elmo, plastic eyes first, onto a computer mouse that then prints a document in Shanghai? All told, there were about ten other machine-based vignettes that lasted almost 20 minutes and spanned day and night, thanks to the fifteen-hour time difference between offices.

Unlike many Rube Goldberg machines, the goal wasn’t to turn on the lights or pour a glass of milk. Instead, Jon wanted to get people psyched about IDEO’s engineering capabilities and to broadcast the distributed contraption live for all to see. Of course, getting a hot dog in the Chicago office to dial a cell phone in Palo Alto for the sole purpose of pumping helium into a bucket of soap and water for a three-foot cylinder of bubbles did plenty to get people excited. When the Chicago team added flames to the mix, Jon didn’t flinch.

“I sent out rules and people either ignored them or followed them. The sense of humor part was great. Munich emailed early on and said, These rules are there for breaking, right?”


The San Francisco office waits patiently for the New York office to knock on their door


The New York office logs on


Elmo in Palo Alto sends a print to Shanghai


Munich maps out their multi-floor Rube Goldberg


The Boston team gets their machine ready amongst scenes of local history