Interview with Tom Kelley, General Manager of IDEO

By Vern Burkhardt

Vern Burkhardt (VB): What are some of the most interesting and exciting parts of your job as General Manager of IDEO?

Tom Kelley: The most interesting and exciting are tapping into the collective brain of the 530 people who work at IDEO. I am not a designer, engineer, or anthropologist so I don’t generate the source material at IDEO. I am the lucky guy who gets to tap into the reservoir of great insights that are being generated there every day.

I recently spent three days at an off-site meeting where most of the participants were IDEO people from around the world. They shared new insights about healthcare, green technology, and media entertainment projects we are working on. Wow, it was an incredible download because there’s a lot of interesting ‘stuff’ going on. Being a part of that community is one of the most interesting aspects of my job.

VB: It’s a highly creative environment.

Tom Kelley: Since we are members of the same family at IDEO open sharing occurs. It’s fun to see the latest things. It’s the future because these are innovations that haven’t yet been announced to the world.

VB: You say if you could choose just one persona it would be the Anthropologist. No doubt because you are adept at one of the hardest parts of the innovation process – “seeing with fresh eyes”. Which one or two of the other nine personas do you especially enjoy playing in terms of “being innovative?” [Vern’s note: Tom Kelley describes ten ‘roles’ – the ‘personas’ – various members of an innovation team may choose to take on. They are the learning personas (Anthropologist, Experimenter, and Cross-pollinator), the organizing personas (Hurdler, Collaborator and Director), and the building personas (Experience Architect, Set Designer, Caregiver, and Storyteller).]

Tom Kelley: Anthropology is number one in my mind, but I also love the Experience Architect. The Experience Architect takes the insights from anthropology and other sources, and converts them into the customer experience, employee experience, or whatever is the target audience. How you translate or adapt insights into action when thinking about the customer journey and trying to be special at every step along the way, rather than only considering your product as a commodity is fascinating.

I also like the Set Designer. They’re the person who uses the physical environment as a strategic tool to influence the attitude, behavior, or even the performance of the team that works in a physical space. While it may not be the most powerful of the innovation roles, it’s often the persona most frequently overlooked. People don’t think of space as being strategic. At IDEO we think space can be quite strategic, and that it can affect everything that happens.

There is a new book out titled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happinessby Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. I am in the middle of reading it. The authors talk about how making small changes can make a difference. For example, retailers understand that if you put candy at the eye level of young children they will grab onto it, and their mom will be encouraged to buy it. That’s not necessarily a positive nudge, but it works and increases sales.

In the same way, small changes in the work environment can change behavior, encourage interactions, get people to share more things, and keep people from being isolated. It can make for better brain storming sessions. That’s why I like the Set Designer.

VB: It can keep people from becoming stale?

Tom Kelley: It’s an issue for a lot of people who become comfortable with their jobs. If you’ve got a door you can close – a cocoon you can go into – you can go through a day, a week, or maybe even a whole month without learning anything new. It’s nice and comfortable for a while, but you have to have a life strategy, a work strategy, and hopefully a workplace that encourages continuous learning. Otherwise you are definitely falling behind, and the world penalizes you.

VB: Fun and high energy seem to be prevalent at IDEO. Would you talk about this?

Tom Kelley: Ultimately it comes down to passion. It’s about doing the things you love, because it’s no secret that if you do something you love, you will be better at it.

I was in Buenos Aires recently and attended a presentation by Francis Ford Coppola. He said, “Look, I just do the stuff I love. I love wine, so I started a winery. I love pasta, so I have a company that makes pasta. More than any of those I love filmmaking, so that is what I do. Why is it a surprise to anybody that if you do the things you love the most, you will be better than most people?”

I think the single biggest secret to the high level of energy at IDEO is people have blurred the line between work and play. When that occurs no other motivation is required. People are self-motivated when they are doing what they enjoy, and that’s a big part of the culture at IDEO.

VB: You say IDEO is not keen on using focus groups, traditional market research, or “experts” inside your client’s company. Observing real people, such as customers, when designing products or services, inspires you. IDEO uses “unfocus groups”. Would you explain?

Tom Kelley: There are times in the world when focus groups have value, but we think they are somewhat overused. They have value late in the innovation process when you’ve got to choose one of two things to bring to the marketplace.

When you are looking for inspiration early in the innovation process and try to use focus groups, we think it leads to problems. There is a conservatism built into discussions in focus groups because often its members aren’t able to talk about things that don’t exist in the world. This means they can’t help you generate totally new ideas. They can only help you select among two moderately mature ideas.

Our alternative to the focus group in the early phase of the process is the ‘unfocus’ group where we deliberately bring in people who are on the tails of the normal distribution curve. A lot of these sessions happen in our San Francisco office, and we include really unusual people in the group.

In The Ten Faces of Innovation I talk about our work on a different kind of shoe. Among others, we included in the ‘unfocus’ group someone who had a shoe fetish and someone else who was a dominatrix. Clearly they aren’t in the wide part of the random bell curve commonly known as ‘normal’. The process involved having these very unusual people tell their stories, and think out loud about what kind of new products or services they would like to have.

By looking at the needs of people at the edge of the distribution curve we sometimes find hints and clues about how we can ratchet their ideas back a bit and serve the big market in the center of the distribution curve. The “unfocus” group is not going for normalcy, not going directly for the center of the distribution curve. It’s going for the tails but getting insights that can be applied to the big markets in the center.

VB: You point out that teams are at “the heart of the IDEO method.” What does it take to be a top-ranking member of a “hot team”?

Tom Kelley: A good hot team is a meritocracy.

To be a top-ranking member you have to have great ideas, be a great collaborator, and a great prototyper. Being in a hot team is about dedication to the task at hand. It’s about being open to listen to the people around you, and building on the ideas of others.

The great thing about hot teams is the ‘truth will out’ about the people who make significant contributions compared to the people who merely have the mantle of authority. The team will value the people who consistently make contributions.

VB: To be a top ranking leader of a hot team is to bring out those attributes?

Tom Kelley: I think that’s true. The role of a leader is to spot the latent talents of members of the team and like they say in the software program, “Bring to front”. It’s to bring out and nurture people’s abilities that may be hidden under the surface, to help them realize the full extent of their talents.

A big part of leadership in hot teams is lowering barriers. It’s not making rules which restrict people’s creativity. We believe everybody is innately creative, but may be hemmed in by the rules of a situation. Leaders lower those barriers, and let people express themselves and generate new ideas.

VB: Can people at IDEO retain their passion, high energy, ability to work in ever changing teams, intensive work, crazy deadlines, ‘unreachable’ goals, and generation of new ideas at the required frenetic pace? Or from time to time do they need to take a break and work in less pressured environments?

Tom Kelley: There is a place for rest or cessation of activity in any process. Often between projects people will take a break.

I recently took the longest vacation I have ever taken from IDEO. I took my family to Europe and tried to not think about work for a few weeks. The day after we returned home, I woke up at 4:00 a.m., as you sometimes do when jetlagged, and found I had the makings of two books and an article. They were fully formed in my brain. Somebody pointed out to me, “Tom, you know it’s not a coincidence that you had that happen right after a long break”.

Because they are doing something they love the intensity of work at IDEO is not burning people out. It’s not overstressing them, but the sheer energy of it means we sometimes need a break.

It’s like brainstorming. We think the intensity of brainstorming is so high that you can’t do it for eight continuous hours. We like to do it for an hour and then take a break, because it’s more of a sprint than a marathon. I think that’s sometimes also true with innovation projects.

VB: You say, “New ideas come from seeing, smelling, hearing – being there.” You also observe that face-to-face meetings are still necessary – use of the phone or videoconferencing is often not sufficient. Do you have any advice for companies that want to use virtual teams for innovation?

Tom Kelley: Video conferencing technology, which was first demonstrated to the public at the World’s Fair at San Antonio, Texas in 1968, is slowly evolving.

We did an IDEO off-site recently where we had presentations from every office in the firm and, for the first time, we made extensive use of video conferencing. It’s getting better, but even so we still believe that whenever possible at the beginning of a project, or at the time of the formation of a team, there still is no substitute for getting people together face-to-face. Even if only for the first week. The reason is friendships get made and bonds are formed when having dinner together after hours and during sidebar conversations about what people have in common – such as hobbies and other interests. In a videoconference participants are not likely going to be able to have those types of conversations.

We now have a number of people at IDEO, including my brother, David, who have a wormhole connecting them to somebody else in the world. They have a 24/7 video link with audio that you can turn on or off, but it’s on most of the time. With this technology you connect with others because it is like having them next door. Absent of having people co-locate, having that kind of wormhole connection is finally affordable.

Two specific suggestions for companies wanting to use virtual teams for innovation would be to co-locate the team members for a little while at the beginning. Then, to the extent that you can do it, have some full-time video link connections among them.

VB: Does culture have a significant influence when determining the best innovation processes and approaches? For example, are there interesting differences in IDEO’s approaches in its operations in Asia, Europe, and various locations in the U.S.? (Vern’s note: IDEO has offices in Palo Alto in California, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston, London, Munich and Shanghai.)

Tom Kelley: We use a similar innovation process and culture around the world. Every new office in the firm has been started by somebody who has spent years in an existing IDEO office, and therefore is an existing member of our team. We prefer, of course, that the person speak the local language. We’ve never gone to a country and found a strong business leader with good contacts and started an office around that person.

VB: IDEO’s innovation methodology is transported?

Tom Kelley: Not just the methodology, but also the cultural values.

We encourage a lot of cross-pollination, rather than having a new start-up at every new location. For example, I was in IDEO Shanghai a month or so ago. Its head was formerly with our London office, and he has four or five IDEO people from around the world who either are doing a stint in Shanghai for a year or have transferred full time.

VB: You say, “As you observe people in their natural settings, you should not only look for the nuances of human behavior but also strive to infer motivation and emotion.” Would you talk about the role of emotion in the innovation process?

Tom Kelley: A part of making innovation work is understanding and getting under the skin of customers in order to address their issues. Life is not about what they used to call “just the facts, ma’am.”

If you focus only on the specifications of a product or a service, you can leave out a lot. In fact, a big part of an Anthropologist’s discoveries is the departure between what people should do, or even what people say they do, and what they actually do. Even if what they actually do is irrational, you still have to respond to it.

If you leave out the emotional content, you may have the best specifications in the world but people may not buy your product or service.

Does the Apple IPod have better specs, or better data storage per dollar spent than other MP3 players? I don’t think so, but it speaks to emotion. At IDEO we try to remember the emotional component in all of our work.

VB: “How people perceive and use products often handicaps innovation. Companies get this wrong more than almost anything else.” Would you talk about this?

Tom Kelley: Part of a successful innovation is that people understand what something is and how it works. As a starting threshold, people must understand what you are offering and how to use it. There are products and services in the marketplace where it is not very clear what is being offered.

In business school I did a project with a fellow who wanted to revolutionize shoe repair in America. In Europe they have a chain called ‘Mr Minute’, but we don’t have a ‘McDonald’s of Shoe Repair’, which is how he characterized it. He created a business called ‘Shoe Care’. One of its hallmarks was to be clean and nice rather than rough looking like the shoe repair shops we are accustomed to in the U.S. There were beautiful shoes on display, and it was so clean and nice people didn’t know it was a shoe repair store. He opened one retail outlet, but went out of business.

VB: What does it mean to learn from people who “break the rules?”

Tom Kelley: As long as everyone uses your products or services exactly how you think they will you will probably be fine.

However, if you watch the early adopters of your new products or services you can sometimes obtain clues about what people will do in the future. This is certainly true of many tech applications and social networking. Entrepreneurs will put a tool into the marketplace not being sure what people will do with it, and some people will be quite creative in finding new applications for it.

The classic example is the Post-it® Notes. Think of the million things Post-it Notes are used for. When Art Fry created Post-it Notes at 3M he never imagined his innovation would be so broadly used. This is true of a lot of emerging technologies today. Consider Facebook. Who would have anticipated it would be as popular, or used for so many purposes, as it is today?

VB: You quoted an executive of one of the big three U.S. auto companies as saying in the 1930s, “It’s not that we build such bad cars; it’s that they are such lousy customers.” Do you ever encounter this kind of attitude today?

Tom Kelley: There is a certain amount of this type of attitude, often when people are trying out prototypes. If you help create a new product or service, you have a strong mental model of how it works. Then you present it to somebody, and guess what? They haven’t been thinking about this product or service their whole lives so they get confused, or don’t use it correctly. In these circumstances when you are the designer or engineer it’s hard not to say, “It’s obvious!” When that happens it’s a failure of the designer or engineer, not the user.

Cover of the Art of InnovationOne of the stories I told in The Art of Innovation is about the Heartstream Defibrillator, the portable defibrillator introduced into the marketplace in 1999 and which you now see in use all over the world. We made it as simple as we thought it could be, just like a laptop computer. But when we prototyped it, people fumbled with the latch. It took people working with the prototype extra seconds to open the defibrillator. When someone is dying of cardiac arrest, you don’t have extra seconds. We could have just sat back with our arms crossed and said, “Gee, these stupid customers. Why can’t they figure it out? It’s a latch just like on their laptops!” The good Anthropologist who is a good open-minded Innovator doesn’t say, “These people are stupid”, he says, “Uh oh, people don’t understand how to use the product. That’s my issue. I have to design it so people can use it.”

If you take that approach we think you will end up with better innovations.

VB: Of course, in the case of the defibrillator, you are dealing with people under very high stress.

Tom Kelley: Very high stress. And in most cases, people without any medical training use the defibulators. The classic situation is their use by flight attendants on aircraft. If there is a doctor on board he or she will be called upon to give medical assistance, but otherwise flight attendants will use the defibrillators. They will be really stressed out because they may be doing it for the first time.

When we designed the device we sought to make it very simple to use. At the time my daughter was six years old. I handed her a test defibrillator with the shock function deactivated, and, “See if you can figure this out.” And she figured it out. A six-year old girl with no instructions figured out how to use it.

You want no barrier to entry for your products and services. You want everybody to say, “Oh, I can use this!” When you have that kind of offering, people will take notice.

That form of simplicity is a great brand trait. It’s the kind of thing that makes companies successful.

VB: The best products and services aspire to the classic design principle “Make simple things simple and complex things possible.”‘ Is this still a sound principle, and if so why do some companies still appear to not have heard the message that customers want more integration and simplicity?

Tom Kelley: I know exactly why that is. It’s the curse of knowledge.

Designers and innovators know about all the features that could be added to their products. There’s a desire to load things with features, but they are not thinking of simplicity as a feature. This is what torpedoed Xerox in the 1980’s. For decades it was the industry leader in photocopying. Then, in the 80’s Xerox started loading on all of the other things its copiers could do, and lost sight of the fact that many people, including senior executives who were signing the cheques, just wanted to make a single copy of an 8 ½ x 11 piece of paper. Xerox’s re-designed machines did not allow that to be done simply.

‘Make simple things simple and complex things possible’ is a principle used in software design. But it should also be applied to all kinds of other products and services where so many features have been loaded in that it’s hard to know how to use the product.

In The Ten Faces of Innovation I use the example that it’s hard to find an alarm clock today that does not have ‘his’ and ‘hers’ alarms. I don’t want that. I don’t even want a 24-hour alarm clock. In a hotel I once set the alarm to wake me up at 6:00 a.m., but unbeknownst to me it was actually set for 6:00 p.m. Obviously the alarm didn’t go off at 6:00 a.m. so I didn’t make my appointments on time. They’ve added the 24-hour and ‘his’ and ‘her’ alarm features, which get in the way of simplicity. It makes me want to reconsider buying these products.

I stay 100 nights of the year in hotels. I travel with two of my own alarm clocks. The wake-up service in hotels is an anachronism, something from the 18th or 19th centuries–the old bed and breakfast places where they used to knock on your door at the right hour in the morning. The reason the wake-up service still exists in hotels is because the interface on hotel alarm clocks is so darned bad!

VB: You say, “Brainstorming is practically a religion at IDEO…” What advice do you give clients who say they have tried but been unsuccessful at making brainstorming sessions an integral part of their culture? They can’t keep the enthusiasm and momentum going long enough to get positive results from such sessions.

Tom Kelley: Brainstorming has become quite controversial. There are people who say, “Well, I don’t get it.” I would advise giving brainstorming another try. It’s the engine of innovation at IDEO. Through brainstorming we convert insights from anthropology into value for our clients.

Not only is brainstorming a great generator of ideas and insights, it has ancillary benefits as well. It builds teams. It becomes a kind of a ‘status auction’ by identifying who are the best ideators.

It takes a bit of practice and a willingness to distinguish between a brainstorming session and a meeting. The bad brainstorming sessions I’ve seen have lost that distinction. Participants are not deferring judgment, and not building on the ideas of others. They are acting as if they are at a regular meeting. A brainstormer has a completely different social ecology than a regular meeting.

VB: Would you talk about the “sense of spontaneous team combustion” that arises in a good brainstormer?

Tom Kelley: A good brainstormer is really fun. You build on the ideas of others, so you get more ideas than you ever would on your own. You have a sense of climbing a mountain together.

In a good brainstormer you can almost map the waves of energy in the room. There should be many energy peaks with people shouting, and contributing their ideas.

It can be fun and prolific. Of the 100 ideas generated you might throw more than 90 away, but if in the process you generate a few great ideas, then the brainstormer was completely worthwhile.

VB: “There’s something terribly liberating about applying an abundance mentality to your ideas, thinking, and work. There’s a Zen-like force here at play…” Would you talk about this?

Tom Kelley: An abundance mentality drives innovation.

The opposite of an abundance mentality is a scarcity mentality. If people have a scarcity mentality about their ideas, and we’ve all encountered people like this, they’ve usually got one favorite idea. They’ve been plugging at this one idea for the last decade, and are worried about not getting enough credit for it. They’re defending their idea–even if it’s weak they’re defensive about it.

If you can have the opposite attitude – an abundance mentality – it goes a long way towards fueling a culture of innovation. With this mentality you are more likely to say, “I’ve got this idea, but you may take it and build on it.” You and the other person go back and forth and when he or she says, “This part won’t work”, you are more likely to reply, “Okay, how can we make it work?” rather than, “No, I think it will”. You are not defending your turf all the time.

In an abundance mentality, you are more generous with your ideas because you know you’ve got more. This allows you to blend and mix your ideas, and to get synergy. It’s an important cultural value that contributes to innovation.

In an innovation culture, people will know you are continuously creating and contributing new ideas. The group doesn’t concern itself with who created the ideas. It’s more of a group effort.

At IDEO we believe everything that is done in organizations today is ultimately a group effort. An abundance mentality helps fuel that type of perspective.

VB: You say, “Prototyping is a state of mind.” “When all else fails, prototype til you’re silly.” Why is it so powerful?

Tom Kelley: At IDEO we use prototyping for lots of different things. Sometimes for thinking out loud. Even if you don’t show your prototype to anyone, you get a chance to think, “That part’s not right, is it?” and go back to the drawing board.

We don’t use only prototyping for a physical product. For some services we use videos. We also prototype by acting things out in skits.

In a group setting, prototyping manifests your idea in a tangible way so others can give you constructive feedback. If you just wave your hands around about an idea, people will say, “Hmm, that seems interesting”, but it will be intangible to them.

As soon as you make your idea visible and tangible the feedback becomes more tangible. We use prototyping a lot to get input that allows us to improve on an idea, and to build organizational support for the idea.

Prototyping has a lot of value. Near the end of the innovation process, we validate a prototype by asking whether we’ve got it right. If so we can take it to market.

VB: Does prototyping compensate for the limitations of language?

Tom Kelley: In certain respects, yes. The great thing about prototypes for products is that they are so physical and tangible they cut across language barriers. At IDEO we’ve had designers who didn’t have great English language skills, but the physical expressions of products through prototypes are enough to move the conversation forward.

By the way, only about 30% of the innovations we do these days at IDEO are with products.

VB: Do IDEO offices still have a ‘Tech Box’, and if so does it still serve the purpose of cross-pollination?

Tom Kelley: We do have tech boxes in our offices all over the world. They accumulate interesting technologies we think will, or could be, useful in our work.

They started as a cardboard box under Dennis Boyle’s desk at our 660 studio office, which he called the “Magic Box”. Back then he tried to get people to make contributions to it, but they were reluctant to make donations. It felt like giving Dennis your coolest technologies. When we renamed it the “Tech Box” and moved it to the centre of the office, it was on display to all staff, and then people wanted to make contributions to it.

The Tech Boxes are a good source of inspiration when we go into a brainstorming session, or when we’re stuck on a problem. Most of our design challenges combine human aspects, for which we use the Anthropology persona, business aspects, and technology aspects. Sometimes the Tech Box can be useful for looking at emerging technologies that can be applied to the human and business issues we are wrestling with.

VB: To stimulate the brain to look at things from a different perspective?

Tom Kelley: To remind you of what is possible. Many items in our Tech Boxes are right on the edge of emergence. They are currently not financially viable for wide spread use, or the technology is just coming out. There is no ‘regular stuff’ in Tech Boxes. All of the items are slightly edgy.

Sometimes things that seem too exotic and expensive when used in small quantities can become cheaper and more practical when put into widespread use. One of our favorite items in the Tech Box is a nickel titanium alloy called “Nitinol”. It’s quite expensive, but we’ve found several opportunities to use it in small quantities to do exactly what we want. It’s an example of how we use the Tech Box to help us succeed.

VB: Would you talk about “verb products”, about creating experiences that resonate with your customers?

Tom Kelley: This is the idea of focusing on the verbs and not the nouns.

There is a danger in the design world, especially in products but it can also apply to services, of you falling in love with your brand and the object you’re making, and then of your customers not falling in love with your product.

There is a thing we call “product lust”, which occurs when the product lures in customers.

Most of the time when people recommend your offering to others, they use verbs. They talk about the experience they have with your products and services. We think that if you look at customer experience in terms of verbs, it will lead to more success.

Think of the Apple iPod example I used earlier. The fact that it’s beautiful is not the whole story. It’s the experience. The iPod became the leading music player in the world because of the link between iPod hardware and iTunes. It became super easy to download music, and it’s this design experience that’s created billions of dollars of value for Apple. I just heard that Apple had its best second quarter in its history despite the current economy and other things going on in the world. Their offering is still compelling, and I would argue it is in large part because they focused on the verbs as well as the nouns.

VB: What are “trigger points” as they relate to customer experience?

Tom Kelley: We call trigger points the one or two essential elements in a product that are important to your customers. Sometimes you gain a competitive edge by fixing a problem or designing a great customer experience around those trigger points. If you make everything about your product or service continuously better and add more features, you may end up with a product or service that customers can’t afford and don’t understand.

One of the trigger points I talk about in The Ten Faces of Innovation is a comfortable bed in a hotel. Many customers will give up many other amenities in a hotel if they can count on a comfortable bed.

There’s a tipping point that gets somebody over a threshold. For example, when IDEO was working on the PDA Palm V, one of the early personal digital systems and predecessor to what is now the Smart Phone, it mattered a lot whether or not it fit in the pocket of men’s shirts. If it was one millimeter larger than a shirt pocket, it was a non-starter from a sales point of view. So there are thresholds that become really important.

Another example is battery life. The difference is huge between an electronic product that makes it through an entire day and one that doesn’t. There are major benefits to a battery that needs to be charged only once a day, and will never fail you compared to one that holds only enough power to get you through three quarters of a day. Give me any electronic product, such as a cell phone or computer – whether or not it will get me through a full day is a trigger point.

VB: What is the difference between a good idea and a successful product?

Tom Kelley: There are good ideas that, for one reason or another, don’t succeed. They show promise, but may be a little too early.

In the early ‘90s, we worked on pen-based computers. I thought they were clever – a really good idea. I worked on one called Momenta that I would have invested in if the founder of the company had given me the chance. It had a nice interface. It was beautiful. But it was not successful. I think partly because it was slightly ahead of its time. The software and processors to drive it were not fast enough, so it had a response time lag that became slightly annoying. As a result it didn’t behave in a way people anticipated it would.

A good idea has to be delivered affordably – the business side – and it must work in a way people want – the technology side. Plenty of good ideas over the years have failed. Others have been ahead of their time, needed to be shelved for a while, and introduced into the marketplace at a later date.

VB: In the year 2000 you predicted what some high-tech products might look like in 2010. Do you have a few predictions for 2020?

Tom Kelley: Social networking is the thing that I think is most likely to reinvent the world in a way I can’t predict. I don’t think the people of my generation who are making decisions in large corporations fully understand the effect social networks are going to have on their worlds. The effect of everybody knowing everything about everything.

It’s going to be impossible for you to shield your customers or your prospective customers from all the positive and negative reviews by everybody you’ve served in the past. The role of marketing is completely changed by the fact that your customers have access to all this information. Sometimes it may even be skewed information that you are powerless to change. Prospective customers will be able to hear from those of your past customers who are the most passionate about your product or service. If you’ve got a great brand, they’ll hear passion on the positive side. If you’ve got a bad brand, they’ll hear passion on the negative side.

You have to assume that in 2020 your customers will know everything–all the good and bad about you. iPhones will soon have a port that allows for a scanner. It’s not a big leap to imagine you seeing something on a grocery shelf that purports to be a ‘new healthy food’ and scanning it’s bar code to download what others have said about the product before buying it. You will be able to see how many stars it gets in the social community, whether it’s considered good or bad, and what the ‘word on the street’ says about whether or not it’s worth the money.

This is a significant difference compared to now when you read the label and, if it sounds good, you may decide to try it. In this future world, if the social community has concluded your product is not worth the money being asked for it, you might as well withdraw it from the marketplace. I think this is a future that may well be played out.

VB: In The Ten Faces of Innovation you say, “…the Devil’s Advocate may be the biggest innovation killer in America today.” Why do you think playing this role has become so prevalent in group dynamics? Is it almost always a disguise for protecting the status quo, or worse, for being mean spirited?

Tom Kelley: The Devil’s Advocate is usually defending the status quo. The book was actually going to be titled ‘Beyond the Devil’s Advocate’, but the publisher didn’t like it so we used it for the first chapter instead.

What I don’t like about the role is that the Devil’s Advocate scores points or gets credit in some organizations for just being a clever critic. You’re in a meeting where everything is going well, and somebody raises their hand and says, “Let me be the Devil’s Advocate for a minute.” In doing so, they stop the meeting dead, deliver their critique, and then their participation is done. Whatever proposal or discussion was underway has lost all its momentum.

I don’t mind the critique part of the role, but if they are the smartest person in the room, which they assume they are, I want the Devil’s Advocates to play the other side too. I want them to say, “I think this idea has flaws and here is how it could be made better.” They should at least be willing to apply their brainpower to resolving the problems they are pointing out. For the most part, the Devil’s Advocates I have encountered have not played this positive, contributing role.

VB: It’s easier to play a negative role than to contribute.

Tom Kelley: I didn’t tell the whole story in The Ten Faces of Innovation. I did a lot of research on the Devil’s Advocate. Pope Sixtus V of the Catholic Church created the Devil’s Advocate role in 1587 for the purpose of taking a skeptical view of a candidate for canonization. He didn’t want everybody to be a ‘yes man”.

In large organizations if the big boss signals he is in favor of something, then everybody else piles on. Imagine how, in a very hierarchal organization like the Catholic Church, if the Pope just smiled once, others would think that is the way we have to go. To prevent this the Devil’s Advocate role was created to argue the other side.

A couple of things about how that role was established in the Catholic Church are instructive. One is that it was an appointed role. How much better would I feel about the Devil’s Advocate in my organization if I knew it was a role the person was appointed to and is supposed to play, compared to being self-appointed. The Devil’s Advocates in the business world and other social environments are self-appointed. The second is that the role had an opposing side. When the Devil’s Advocate role was created there was also a God’s Advocate. It was meant to be an argument between equals.

The original idea of Devil’s Advocate has been extrapolated, or cross-pollinated for use in the business world. In the original concept it had balance. In the business world today it does not have balance. The Devil’s Advocates have too much power and do not feel obligated to describe how they would make an idea better.

By the way, the Catholic Church got rid of the office of the Devil’s Advocate.

VB: You tell us that “contagious enthusiasm” might best describe your brother David, who founded IDEO. Is ‘Director’ his most comfortable persona?

Tom Kelley: Interesting, that’s a good question. I never thought about it, but it’s certainly one of them for David.

The kind of Director we talk about at IDEO is like the best stage and screen directors. It’s somebody who isn’t trying to be a star. With the notable exception of Alfred Hitchcock, a Hollywood director never appears on screen. Directors see it as their job to attract the most talented people from around the world and turn them into stars. IDEO is more than 30 years old, and that has been David’s approach from the very beginning.

I think David would say that the first role of a great leader is to make other leaders.

VB: You say, ‘…over time, we learned to apply our “design thinking’ approach from product-innovation programs to the world of services, experiences, and even cultures.’ Would you talk about how IDEO’s approach has been applied to cultures?

Tom Kelley: Our ‘design thinking’ is a distillation of the innovation process that Designers at IDEO and elsewhere use to create new products and services. It involves the Anthropology persona, experimentation, and an open-minded brainstorming approach, and we can apply it to other areas.

We’ve used it when working with companies on their cultures. For example, quite a while back we worked with Samsung to establish a culture of innovation. They previously had a pretty autocratic culture. We had a joint office, and for three years lived side by side with the Samsung folks. I’m not saying it was only IDEO’s doing, but along the way Samsung enhanced their culture of innovation, and it has been very successful for them. The Samsung brand is now larger and has more value than the brand called Sony. I would say that is mostly because of their strong culture of innovation.

We also worked with Procter & Gamble and many other firms on their culture of innovation.

We are now talking to countries about promoting a culture of innovation. I cannot publicly point to any yet. I am hoping the process goes well, because if we can encourage a country to have a culture of innovation – we would start with really small countries – that would be wonderful. We will see what happens with that process.

VB: Singapore might be an example.

Tom Kelley: We can’t take any credit for it, but Singapore as a nation is possibly the leader in the world at having a culture of innovation. I lived in Singapore and have been back several times in the last several years. I believe they are systematically pursuing that culture more than any other nation in the world.

VB: Why are T-shaped people gems in the innovation process?

Tom Kelley: This gets to T-shaped versus I-shaped people.

I-shaped people are very strong in their vertical category. They are great engineers, scientists, anthropologists or other specialists, and they drill deep in their area of expertise. In the Silicon Valley in San Francisco, where I live, there are engineers who say, “I don’t suffer fools gladly”. What they sometimes mean is, “I don’t like talking to people who aren’t engineers”. The world needs I-shaped people, but we have found they don’t have a place at IDEO.

At IDEO we like T-shaped people who have a strong core of expertise, but combine it with a genuine respect for, interest in, and preferably experience with, other areas as well. For the kind of innovation we are practicing at IDEO we need people with varied areas of expertise to ‘play’ well with each other. A T-shaped person might be an engineer who does fine art in their spare time, is interested in anthropology and maybe took some under-graduate courses in it, or some other esoteric combination of interests.

T-shaped people have more attachment points. They are more likely to make a contribution to a team, and build on the ideas of others. Part of our recruiting and hiring process is looking for T-shaped characteristics.

VB: You say, ‘Scarcity and tough constraints force you to break new ground because the “business as usual” path is simply not available.’ Does this portend well for innovation during the current recession and the challenges many companies, the whole financial system, and many governments and other organizations are facing?

Tom Kelley: Yes, the current recession is a perfect example that forces you to think harder. It forces you to look for new opportunities, and to increase the value of your offering.

A recession, especially a serious one like we are currently experiencing, is actually good news for innovators. It shakes people out of the status quo. For instance, you may have had the same banking relationship for the last 30 years. But in this environment you’re starting to think maybe others offer more value or safety for your money, or better customer service. Suddenly you’re looking around.

You may have known there was free calling on Skype and voice over-ride services, but have been with your old phone company for a long time and am comfortable with it. In a recession you might start thinking you’ve got this existing relationship, but don’t want to be stupid about it. You’ll at least scan the horizon, and see if there’s an innovator offering more value or more of what you need.

Innovators who have had difficulty cracking into a market are suddenly seeing a new openness from customers of all types. Customers are suddenly looking around so it opens doors previously closed.

VB: You say, “Names can make a huge difference in almost any new product or service. We believe that anything worth working on is worth naming.” How do you determine if a name has ‘zip’, and will therefore contribute to success?

Tom Kelley: Ultimately the way to test anything like that is by talking to all the smart people you know, and seeing how they react. There’s a science to naming. IDEO gets involved in naming, and sometimes collaborates with naming firms.

There’s also a science to the use of individual consonants. There are letters in the English alphabet that human’s perceive as slow letters, such as ‘l’, ‘m’, and ‘n’. Others we perceive as fast, like ‘z’, ‘x’, and ‘v’.

There was a product called ‘Zipper’ that didn’t do well until they changed its name. A good name helps carry your message forward, and is consistent with other aspects of the brand. You want to build that understanding into your name.

It’s funny when you look at some of the old names people got away with in a less sophisticated era. I talk a lot about WD-40. It’s oil that does water displacement—that’s what the WD stands for. If you were naming this product in 2009 you’d come up with a better name, but as a legacy brand it has a lot of strength. Once you establish a name over a period of decades it develops strength of its own.

When coming to the market with something new, the name either helps or hinders your launch. A great name helps.

VB: Would you talk about the concept of mapping your customers’ or potential customers’ journeys?

Tom Kelley: We discovered while designing products and services that you can follow a customers’ journey every step along the way in their dealings with you. Some of the steps include discovering about your service, exploring your offering, trying it for the first time, becoming more familiar with it, and then using it on a regular basis. In each step you can distinguish yourself, you can provide something special as opposed to being the same as every one else.

One slightly extreme example is the backpack company, JanSport, which made its warranty services different than anybody else’s. If you send your backpack in to be re-sewn or repaired JanSport sends you a little postcard with a message from your backpack while it’s at camp. No one would say this warranty service is ordinary.

You want your business to be extraordinary at every step along the way, even at the end of the cycle. We think great companies look at every step of the customer’s journey, and ask whether they’re ordinary or extraordinary. They try, within the constraints of cost, to be extraordinary at every step. There are certain brands that stand out, such as Virgin and Apple, but there are many others as well.

VB: You say, “…when we walk into most offices, our senses shut down from sensory underload.” Is having an ‘innovation lab’ a must if a company wishes to promote a more innovative organizational culture?

Tom Kelley: I’m not sure I would say it is a must, but it certainly helps.

An innovation lab gives you permission to think differently. We go through our day-to-day jobs dedicating a lot of time to getting things out the door, taking care of current operations. It sometimes helps to have a place that prompts you to get out of your normal day-to-day thought patterns.

Some companies have had great successes creating innovation labs, which we describe as an ‘on-site off-site’. Most companies have ‘off-sites’ where they go to a hotel somewhere and brainstorm about something, but only once a quarter or once a year. The fact that you’re at the beach or in Los Vegas signals that it is not real life. An innovation lab in the corporate campus also sends a signal that we’re outside our ordinary path, but still strongly related to work.

I talk in The Ten Faces of Innovation about The Gym at Procter and Gamble, a place where employees exercise their mental muscles. It’s a space in which they’ve had great success in sparking new innovations. I also talk about Mattel, Inc, the toy company that created a space called ‘Platypus’. Lots of companies are coming around to the idea of having an innovation lab space within their corporate campus.

VB: Would you talk about the power of storytelling?

Tom Kelley: This is something we overlooked for the first ten or twenty years at IDEO.

We thought that a new product, service or idea should speak for itself. Now we realize data do not carry the day. When you give people data they forget it almost immediately as it rushes through their short-term memory. But we remember stories from early childhood. A story carries a message, moral, or idea.

We now believe that a story will deliver a message that you really believe in to your internal team. A story will also send a message to the world about your brand. That’s why I encourage people to work on their story telling skills.

VB: It needs to be an interesting story.

Tom Kelley: Yes, there’s a great book on this subject. I have one chapter in my book, but there’s a whole book by Chip and Dan Heath called Made to Stick. I think most people know intuitively, but the Heaths are quite explicit about what makes a story work. It needs to be simple, concrete, credible, emotional, and have an unexpected characteristic to it.

As you said, it needs to be a good story because a bad story is not worth the telling. If you create a good story that’s sticky in the Malcolm Gladwell sense, then that story will carry your message along with it.

VB: What do participants learn at IDEO University?

Tom Kelley: IDEO U is a first exposure to the innovation design process. It’s an offering that has come and gone at IDEO. It’s now often embedded in a larger innovation project as a workshop.

It’s about teaching, as quickly as possible, ideas about the process of design thinking. People could read my book or hear a lecture. But we’ve noticed over the years that it’s helpful if you can practice, if you can act something out. It’s the combination of hearing about an approach and then practicing it yourself. In IDEO U we take a moderately simple design challenge and tackle it in a practiced way over a period of 24 or 48 hours. We go through the whole design process and participants can see that it isn’t so hard, and yet they come out with some good ideas. The next step is to try the same process on the complex, messy problems we wrestle with everyday.

We have a session designed for the high school kids of employees; we call it ‘IDEO Boot Camp’. Both my kids have been through it. Over a one-week period we expose them to design thinking, and they brainstorm, do Anthropology, build things, and receive user feedback. It has the elements of IDEO U but is aimed at the high school level.

VB: Should we learn to color outside the lines but stay on the same page?

Tom Kelley: I use the example of my brother, David. If you always play by the rules you’re overly constraining yourself because innovators do break rules sometimes. They question the way things are done.

Staying on the same page is comparable to what Gordon MacKenzie says in Orbiting the Giant Hair Ball. He points out how organizations establish one rule after another, as part of their history, until the rules become a giant hairball. If you set your foot down on the planet this hairball creates, you get snagged in it, caught in all the rules. If you get stuck there it’s hard to innovate. But if you shoot off into space you’re not helping the organization either. MacKenzie’s central metaphor is to orbit the giant hairball; be near it without getting snagged by the mess of it.

What you just said about coloring outside the lines but staying on the same page is Gordon MacKenzie’s idea of staying close enough so as not to generate wild ideas no one can use. You’re in a position to come up with new, innovative ideas that have a fundamental practicality to them. It’s possible to implement them. They can add value to your organization.

VB: Do you have any final comments for our IdeaConnection readers?

Tom Kelley: The interesting challenge for us these days is how to take the design lessons we’ve learned from products and services, and apply them to broader social issues. We’ve just started on the journey of trying to apply design thinking to the education system in America. Other challenges are applying design thinking to global issues, such as how to get access to clean water around the world. These issues are on the frontier for us; they are the interesting challenges we’re starting to wrestle with.

VB: There are lots of these types of challenges.

Tom Kelley: There are. We think there’s an opportunity to apply design thinking. We’ve been using the left brain analytical model on these problems for the last 50 or 100 years, and we think new thought patterns might open up the possibility of new solutions.

VB: You’ve been very generous with your time. Thank you very much.

Tom Kelley: You’re welcome. Thanks a lot.

Conclusion:
“Products that become hits seem to enjoy a balance of features, price, and that often elusive element of timing.”

‘The best products and services aspire to the classic design principle “Make simple things simple and complex things possible.” Sometimes designing a winning experience is about reining in your wish list and resisting the temptation to do too much.’

Of the ten personas various members of an innovation team may choose to take on, we would do well to choose the two or three roles that most appeal to us, and hone the skills required to play them well.

 

Source: Idea Connection

Written By: Vern Burkhardt