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Ideologically speaking

With hyper-competition putting a premium on innovation and creativity, IDEO offers a design-led route forward. Stuart Crainer gets creative

By Stuart Crainer . 07 April 2015

With hyper-competition putting a premium on innovation and creativity, IDEO offers a design-led route forward. Stuart Crainer gets creative...


Ideo final

The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. “The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole,” observed Arthur Koestler.

Yet creativity maintains an air of abstract mystery in the world’s corporations. It is terra incognita, a largely unknown land way outside the comfort zone of most managers. Helping them navigate a way through the world of creativity are a handful of organisations; perhaps best known of these is the global design firm IDEO.

Though IDEO – and creativity in business generally – is often automatically associated with Silicon Valley, its roots are European as well as American.

Bill Moggridge (who died in 2012) founded his design firm in London in 1969,adding a second office in 1979 in Palo Alto. Moggridge’s designs were hugely important n creating the modern technology age. He designed the first laptop computer, the GRiD Compass, and pioneered interaction design as a discipline. In 1991 he merged his company with those of David Kelley and Mike Nuttall to form IDEO. Since then its headquarters has been in the United States, although the British influence remains strong, including current CEO Tim Brown.

“The funny thing is, even when we get described or describe ourselves as a Silicon Valley company, every one of the founders of the Silicon Valley father company came either from the mid-West or from the UK,” says Brown. “Bill Moggridge’s version of design was not traditional industrial design. That was always important and was woven together with Kelley’s view of creative, design-based engineering. And those two things together work so well and got us on the path of realising that we could bring this eclectic mix of people together and have them work on the same thing, called design. I’ve been in the privileged position of being able to expand that and take it to a slightly different place from where those guys started. But it’s very much continuing on from what they created.”

IDEO was highly successful through the 1980s and 1990s but felt removed from the corporate mainstream in a gilded niche. Its culture stuck closely to the creative environment stereotype: chinos, open plan, lots of coffee, a studio rather than an office, under-stated taste. But the company always had a serious and very commercial intent. Its people were smart; deliverers rather than creative dilettantes. It wanted to change the world. 

Employees today still sign up to this agenda. They are revolutionaries with a design aesthetic. Indeed, although I have interviewed a variety of IDEO employees over the last decade, I have never heard any mention of the usual corporate yardsticks – profits, ROI, market share. This is something I put to Brown when we spoke in London. He says: “the business thing has always been an outcome of doing everything else we want to do, rather than a sense of purpose in itself. If you’re going to make a place good for creative people to come, you don’t make that a place that talks about business and money all the time,” he says. “Creative people want to have an impact. Th¬ey want to see their ideas out in the world making a difference to people, because that’s why they went into the things that they do in the first place. That can include improving a business and nearly always does in fact. But in terms of our own business, we do good work and we’re constantly thinking about how what we do might evolve and figuring out how to be as impactful as possible. The business seems to take care of itself.”

These thoughts are echoed by Tom Hulme, a senior advisor to IDEO and director of OpenIDEO and OIEngine (see box on page 30). “If we were in a market where money was the primary motivator or primary incentive, obviously we would lose. There’s always going to be people paying signicantly more than us, so we have to compete on some other dimension and that is having a positive impact in the world. So if you were to ask very diverse people at IDEO why they’re there, that would be the common thread rather than cash. It’s a much better retention tool,” he says.


Going upstream


Tim Brown charts IDEO’s development: “When we first started off, designing products was pretty high up the value chain. When we were doing the first laptop and the mouse for the Mackintosh, that was whole industries just getting started and nobody knew how to do that stuff. But over time some of those activities became rather commoditised. But we discovered that we could apply what we did to the design of services, to the design of more of an integrated idea of what an experience is, particularly as the internet took off and there’s a digital version of everything. You can’t think of a product being just a physical thing any more. “And then we found ourselves working more and more often in service industries that are sub-systems of things, whether that be financial services or health care and now education, where we’re doing a lot of work. We found ourselves then starting to work in government. The breadth of application has broadened and, as that happens, inevitably you and yourself going upstream a little bit, because it takes quite a bit of forethought for an organisation to decide where it should be investing in these kinds of things. And we like to try and influence that a little bit and not just be there at the end to implement what somebody’s already decided to do.”

Over the last decade IDEO has been making inroads into its objective of changing the world. Innovation has become the number one item on any corporate agenda. Creativity is talked about in large corporations as never before and IDEO has increasingly led the debate about these subjects. It is centre stage.

This does not mean that the company has suddenly announced a huge expansion plan involving the creation of hundreds of new offices and the mass recruitment of smart creatives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it has gone out of its way not to seek expansion merely for expansion’s sake throughout its history. It now has over 600 employees and ten offices worldwide. “Growth has never been something we’ve focused on for the sake of growth,” declares Brown. Smallish is beautiful. ¬e result is that the renown of the IDEO brand is huge, but the actual organisation is small. “The metric that really matters to the organisation is impact. Design is an approach to deliver that market impact and it’s unclear that you could proportionately scale impact by scaling the organisation,” says Hulme. “We have to be so careful about choosing the right projects, putting the right teams on the right projects. In theory, saying yes to everyone that approaches the company for a project would be easy, but we’d dramatically drop the impact.”

IDEO says of itself that it creates “positive impact through design by taking a human centred approach to helping organisations in the public and private sectors innovate, grow, and bring to market new ideas”. “I just describe it as a company that uses design to help organisations achieve their goals in the world,” says Brown. “It used to be we talked about how we designed products for people, but now we design everything from products to systems to organisations, so by the time you’ve reeled off the list of everything we work on it gets a bit long. Design can be used to make all kind of change happen, and that’s what we try and help people do.”


Designed to think


The methodology long championed by the company is design thinking. This is an approach to solving problems which argues that you should initially invest time in
framing the question well, because if you frame the question badly the only certainty is that you’re going to get bad answers. Typically, companies under-invest in getting
the question right. “Design thinking is really about applying design methodologies to a much broader set of challenges in the world,” Brown explains. “I have never yet seen an interesting creative idea that didn’t come from an interesting creative question. So you might think about what are the kinds of questions that you can ask in an organisation that inspire people to think differently, to question things in new ways, to discover new possibilities?”

Diversity of approach is key to design thinking. Once the question is decided, a diverse team is assembled to solve it. It used to be that IDEO was populated by designers, engineers and social scientists; now it is also home to film-makers, writers and skilled story tellers. “It’s increasingly true that we need diverse problem solvers because the simple sorts of problems that lone geniuses might solve are diminishing. -There’s less of them out there, so we bring diverse teams together to truly collaborate,” says Hulme.

“Design can be used to make all kind of change happen and that’s what we try and help people do” Brown has mapped the changing makeup of the competencies IDEO brings to the table, identifying ¬ve disciplines that didn’t exist at the company a few years ago: the designer coder, the design entrepreneur, the hybrid design researcher, the business designer and the social innovator. There may well be others. “We don’t just randomly hire eclectic people. We hire eclectic, self-reliant people who’ve got amazing drive. They also collaborate incredibly well. So it’s a weird mix of people with a lot of energy and drive who like to collaborate,” he explains. To Brown, this is part of the process of broadening the scope and remit of design. “We tried to broaden the definition of what design is but also who a designer is, because when I became a designer there really only was one way to become a designer and that was to go to art school. And I think what I and a lot of my colleagues believe is that that’s not enough; that doesn’t actually get us where we need to go. It doesn’t give us the rich set of perspectives we need to tackle the kinds of creative challenges we have in the world today. So I’m really interested in the idea of as many people as possible being a designer.” Another central tenet of the IDEO way is to prototype early. Too often companies try and optimise things behind closed doors instead of getting them out in front of customers for real feedback earlier in the process and co-creating with them. All of this means that IDEO gets to work on some interesting projects. Its assignments include designing whole new agencies for the US federal government, designing a new school system for Peru, rethinking how Singapore delivers services to its citizens, redesigning how kids in San Francisco  experience school lunch, reconceiving the way in which the Royal Academy expresses itself in a digital world and much more. The remit of design is ever-widening: “There’s loads of opportunity for design to be applied to interesting new problems in the world and to create a positive impact,” says Brown. The current riff emerging from the company is the notion of “creative confidence”. IDEO’s David and Tom Kelley define creative coincidence as “the natural ability we have to come up with new ideas, combined with the confidence to act on them”. It is about overcoming the fear that people often have of being creative; the willingness to venture into unknown territory.


Creative confidence


“When you can unlock creative confidence and you can combine it with the tools of design thinking, then you have a powerful set of capabilities to experiment and to bring new things into the world. The underlying principles are very simple. They’re sometimes hard to enact but they’re not hard to understand,” says Brown.

Creative confidence champions a focus on what people need rather than the smartness of the technology or business model. Then the emphasis is on going from thinking to doing as quickly as possible. “What I notice among people who come and collaborate with us on projects is the thing they’re often most scared of is actually making their idea real – building it, describing it, making it. They’re not scared of having ideas, they’re scared of making them real,” observes Brown.

He is keen to apply the idea to leadership and points to a survey of 1,500 CEOs which asked what was the most important quality for dealing with a complex world. Creativity was ranked top. “In today’s uncertain, volatile, rapidly changing world, creative leadership may just be the most important form of leadership there is,” he asserts. “We think of leadership as about having the right answers, but if you really want to unleash the creativity of an organisation, that’s not the most important thing at all.

In fact, it can actually be an impediment if you think that your job as a leader is to have the best ideas.”

Creative leadership requires that leaders develop a sense of purpose in the organisation, ask great questions and create a great stage for others to perform on. “If you do those things well, you really do have a chance of unlocking not only your own creative potential but the creative potential of all those people that you lead or that are around you, and that can be a pretty powerful way of making change happen in the world.” It can be done. IDEO has worked extensively with Procter & Gamble, for example, and Brown points to the change in the organisation under CEO AG Lafley to one where it prototypes ideas and products much more quickly than previously, when only finalised and polished ideas and concepts were brought in front of the CEO.

The high-profile and long-standing relationships like the one IDEO has with P&G suggest it has carved out a unique space. Brown says: “The biggest advantage we’ve always had is that our clients keep us fresh, because they bring in new challenges to us all the time. It might be about new technology, it might be about new kinds of business, it might be about going to new parts of the world.” 

As many traditional consultancies converge on the innovation space, IDEO increasingly faces competition. In the future, large companies may well outsource innovation and potentially use consulting firms like McKinsey. Corporations are also routinely acquiring small, smart and highly innovative companies in the hope that their creative juices can be imported. 

This confirms that appreciation of the importance of innovation and creativity is at a high. The mistake is to believe that they can be easily imported and the box marked creativity ticked. 

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