IDEO is one of the world’s most celebrated design consultancies. Based in Palo Alto California, with offices around the globe, IDEO is annually rated as one of the world’s most creative and innovative companies.

IDEO’s General Manger Tom Kelley — brother of the company’s founder David Kelley — helps us understand some of the secrets behind IDEO’s ongoing success in two fascinating books that offer a behind the scenes look at a mind-set, collection of methodologies, work practices, and an organizational culture and structure that constitute the very essence of innovation and a “bias  for action”:

“The Art of Innovation” : Lessons in Creativity From IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm (2001); and

“The Ten faces of Innovation”: IDEO’s Strategies For Beating the Devil’s Advocate & Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization (2005).

Both books make highly relevant reading for all managers who are searching for innovative ways to tackle difficult organizational challenges. They are lively, fun, and filled with stories and examples all of us can relate to. But their real power, in my view, lies in their insight into design thinking;  a systematic process as practiced at IDEO that is a far cry from the cautious, risk-averse, make it perfect first thinking that leads to the knowing-doing gap I discussed in my last blog.

I will leave it to you to explore the full gamut of Mr. Kelley’s insights on your own. For my part, I wish to highlight four topics here that you will find extensively covered in both books that hopefully will whet your appetite.

First, IDEO places a great premium on the power of visualizing real people in real work place situations to better understand how they work, what they actually might need that they don’t now have, and how something new might be applied to good use. They actually employ anthropologists to do some of this on the spot field work.  I believe this sort of visualization is all to often ignored in many of today’s companies and organizations, which helps explain why so many new management fads and technologies fall short of expectations when introduced into the workplace.

Second, IDEO’s approach to innovation is team-centric. Eschewing the “myth of the lone genius” Kelley writes, at IDEO, “quite simply, great projects are achieved by great teams” (P. 70, “The Art of Innovation”). And IDEO’s teams have energy, fun, passion, trust, and rigid deadlines for deliverables.

Third, IDEO has raised the practice of BRAINSTORMING to a very high art, or as Kelley describes it “a religion”. They have made this creative thought process an integral part of every client undertaking, not just an occasional, perfunctory activity. The process and rules they follow have broad application whether you manage in the public or private sector, and regardless of the challenges you face.

Finally, and here is the ultimate bias for action in action, at IDEO they are passionate about rapid or quick prototyping; learning by building, constructing, making, and doing things. I often describe this as the do-fix-do-fix-do-fix method of solving a problem. In Kelley’s words it’s “about acting before you’ve got all the answers, about taking chances, stumbling a little, but then making it right” (P. 107 “The Art of Innovation”).

I can personally vouch for the power of design thinking in my own professional experience. That the topic has become a hot focus in management circles over the past few years, indicates that interest is spreading. Everything about this mind-set is action oriented and geared toward innovative problem solution.

If you find you can’t get enough from Mr. Kelley’s books, or that you still need some convincing,  then you might consider the latest contribution by an advocate: “Change By Design”: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation (2009), written by Tim Brown, IDEO’s current CEO and President.  Or Check out Tim’s blog — Design Thinking when you have time.

Categories: Learning Managers, Managing & Leading, Self-Management

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