Amongst the most influential people in the way I think about creativity, ideas and design are Tim Brown and David Kelley. They run a company called IDEO, the largest and most recognized innovation consultancy company in the world. Its rich portfolio of creative solutions (like Apple’s ‘mouse’) have made it the leading brand for innovation today.
What surprised me when I researched IDEO is how transparent they are about the ‘blueprint’ of their success. Like other modern companies, IDEO lectures, writes and trains in ideation, and in doing so have been a big inspiration for me ever since I first saw founder and chairman David Kelley’s presentation on TED in 2005.
This article is about the things I’ve learned from IDEO as a company, and how to apply their success into your idea development through a process called Design Thinking.
The process of Innovation
As an innovation company, IDEO focuses on new concepts for commercial brands. This wasn’t a new concept when the company started, but the approach of founders David Kelley and Tim Brown was different from others in one, big way.
When we look at the three big ‘push’ factors of innovation they are:
- Technology Driven Innovation
New technology enables new products and services
- Business Driven Innovation
Business explores a market and looks for the proverbial gap by analyzing current supply and demand
- People Driven Innovation
New or changing demands by the consumers themselves
Technology driven innovation is usually done in technology environments, places that explore the current boundaries of technology and seek to cross those borders. They create new technology first, then seek a marketplace to sell their products. Typical technological innovations are broadband internet, flatscreen TV’s and the DVD player.
The second type of innovation is the business innovation. This is, traditionally, the domain of marketers. Marketers research the current market, analyze competition and seek mismatches by what is offered, and what people want, within the context of the existing product or company. Typical business driven innovations are extra chunky peanut butter, the X-box and online banking.
However, before IDEO the business and technology innovation were perceived to be the only 2 viable options. Marketers employed focus groups to ask consumers what they want – but the problem is these rarely resulted in original ideas. Intercepting problems (resulting in demand) and finding real solutions is a craft, not something random peope in focus groups can do for you. This notion changed with IDEO’s Design Thinking theory. In this third field of innovations it were not the marketers or technicians that got to innovate, but the designers.
This ended up being IDEO’s golden formula and their one-way ticket to success. The Design thinking theory consists of four simple reasons why designers innovate through the people perspective:
1. Designers turn Problems into Projects
Designers think of every ‘problem’ as a project. When they stumble upon something they need, they recognise the problem, and have the urge to fix it. Inherent to turning it into a project is having a clear definition of (A) the current situation, (B) the goal of solving the problem and the process of getting from A to B.
2. Designers look for insights in the outside world
Because design is rarely an exact science, a good designer is more open to inspiration from outside of their own experiences and ‘truths’. Design Thinking translates this open minded view in dealing with problems such as company innovation. This in contrast with the often predetermined mind of a scientist or economist who regards their solution as a single truth because they’ve been taught it is.
3. Designers make ideas tangible
The third qualification of Design Thinking is to make ideas tangible. This enables you to show and collaborate with others around you more practically. It is also an important part of being able to experience the idea before it goes into development, instead of the idea being just a conceptual thought or written plan somewhere.
Designers want to look at their ideas, feel them, see how people react to them, instead of looking at solutions like math, where 1 + 1 is always 2 no matter how many times you look at it.
4. Designers are able to tell stories about ideas
Last is the creative ability to imagine a scenario – a story – about your idea and communicate this effectively. To motivate people and get them to stand behind your idea is not always a matter of cold facts, it is a process of persuasion. The lion share of ideas gets tackled before they even reach the market because of the failure to convey an idea properly to a client or other decision makers.
The method of Design Thinking
The mindset as Tim Brown describes it is the way you look at a problem. The method is how Design Thinking is actually employed by companies such as Procter & Gamble, Microsoft and Motorola to innovate their companies. Design Thinking at its core can be summarized in seven steps from problem to solution:
- Define the problem (scoping)
- Research the problem (get inspired)
- Generate ideas (divergent thinking)
- Prototype ideas (collaborate and share ideas)
- Choose amongst the solutions (convergent thinking)
- Implement the solution (convince and execute)
- Learn from your solution (feedback)
The essence of Design Thinking is a process of creating value by combining the human perspective and creativity. The method of idea creation, evaluation and development Design Thinking teaches is in my experience a universal formula for developing Great Ideas within any context. IDEO uses the context of product innovation, but it could just as well be software development, brand building or writing.
I leave you with the presentation I mentioned earlier. A presentation at the TED conference that got me interested in product development and using creative thinking as a source of value: