The Art of Innovation

To commemorate David Kelley (co-founder of IDEO) being awarded the Edison Achievement Award for his “pioneering contributions to the design of breakthrough products, services, and experiences for consumers, as well as his development of an innovative culture that has broad impact”, Fast Company have published a series of articles on the man and his company.

They are well worth reading, particularly the interview with him.

As the article states, IDEO aren’t designers but design thinkers. They use a tested and trusted methodology to redesign customer experience; not only in terms of the product but also in terms of the culture of the companies they work with. By transforming the business environment, the changes are made more sustainable in the long term. This is because the process never completes – there is always room for improvements and new prototypes.

Kelley says that “I can give our methodology away because I know we can come up with a better idea tomorrow.”

The Art of Innovation by Tom KelleyAnd indeed, it has been given away. His brother Tom Kelley published The Art of Innovation: Success through Innovation the IDEO way in 2002.

I’ve read it. And I would recommend that you do to. Below is an outline of the IDEO method, but to appreciate the nuance and to be truly inspired you really do need to read the book.

The core methodology has five steps.

Step 1: Understand the market, client, technology and perceived constraints

Ethnography is now a word overused and misused. But IDEO were pioneers of the anthropological approach and that it has now been so widely adopted speaks volumes. Of course, doing it properly is easier said than done.

Step 2: Observe real people in real-life situations to see what makes them tick

We are all now familiar with the problems of rationalised attitudes or behaviours. But again, IDEO recognised this before many. They believe observation gets to the root of the problem quicker. Small observations lead to small improvements, but over time these build into an impressive body of change. The key to observation is empathy – the observer must strive to infer the motivations and emotions of the participant.

Step 3: Visualise new concepts and the customers that would use them

This is really the power of the brainstorm. Kelley believes brainstorming should be taken seriously, and that there are ways to make them work more effectively. He finds that sixty minutes is the optimum length but within this, there should be a sharp focus. Not all ideas need to be written down but those that are should be numbered, allowing people to build and jump upon them. Although brainstorms shouldn’t be taken too seriously, they should also not be too meritocratic or too hierarchical. Everyone has ideas worth espousing, whether they are an expert or the boss or not, but it doesn’t mean that the group should go around in circles getting the opinions of everyone.

Step 4: Evaluate and refine prototypes in a series of quick iterations

Kelley refers to prototyping as a state of mind. It doesn’t matter if you have failures – you fail often to success sooner and you can often fall forwards. However, there is a balance. Fresh approaches work and rule breakers can change processes, but there needs to be a careful evaluation. Going too far “out of the box” can be counter-productive.

Step 5: Implement the new concept for commercialisation

Concepts should tell stories and make a human connection. Working with verbs and not nouns helps this. Kelley advocates a T-shirt test to ensure that new experiences or designs aren’t complex or difficult – the concept should boil down to a slogan that will fit on a t-shirt. Interestingly, he says that the best designers focus on the parts that are used the most e.g. the Play button on a DVD remote control.

However, these five steps only work because of the way IDEO is structured. Within the company, they cherish two factors above all – people and space.

Kelley says that lone geniuses are myths; you need a good team, and a mixed team, to succeed. He finds that characters build companies – his typology of characters includes visionaries, troubleshooters, iconoclasts, pulse takers, craftsmen, technologists, entrepreneurs and cross-dressers. This team should be dedicated, time-pushed, non-hierarchical, respectful of diversity, open and empowered. The dynamics are vital – camaraderie should be established, achievement celebrated and, importantly, a company shouldn’t be afraid of spending money to build morale.

His seven tips for cross-pollination include:

  • Subscribe and surf as much as possible
  • Play film director
  • Hold an open house to spread best disciplines
  • Inspire advocates
  • Hire outsiders
  • Change hats
  • Cross-train

IDEO look to establish “neighbourhoods” to facilitate team dynamics, and this concept of community and space is integral to fostering innovation. He advocates a blend of openness and privacy, with people having complete autonomy to personalise their space. To quote Kelley, “space is often the least considered, most overlooked tool in innovation toolbox”.

Ultimately, practice makes perfect. But the top tips to take away include:

  • Watch customers and non-customers – especially enthusiasts
  • Play with physical workplace to send positive body language to employees and visitors
  • Think verbs not nouns in products and services to create wonderful experiences
  • Break rules and fail forward so that change is part of culture
  • Stay human and scale organisational element so room for teams to emerge and thrive
  • Build bridges – between departments, to customers and to future

A follow-up book, The Ten Faces of Innovation, has also been published (the website with an overview is here), but for an outlay of less than two pints of lager, I really do recommend reading this book.

sk

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