Phew! I’ve got some serious reading to do. I’m trying to keep up a steady clip of 1-2 book reviews a week.
So far, so good. But my years-old copy of Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics is looking more and more interesting to me every day.
Things have evolved a lot since then, of course, but many of the challenges that design and innovation face still remain. Also, the foundations of design and innovation come across as truly timeless.
Even though I’m not sure that Thomas Edison was explicitly mentioned, it was clear that The Art of Innovation would have made him proud. I was constantly reminded that Edison was famously quoted as saying “I never even failed once. [Inventing the lightbulb] just happened to be a 2,000 step process”. Tom Kelley and IDEO’s version is to “fail forward”.
Olivia Fox Cabane, has developed “high potential leadership development” techniques for getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, not buying into inner criticism, and smashing self-doubt. Her bottom line is this that “[it's very important] to be able to fail successfully and … only the best innovators – and the best leaders - know how to do that.”
Here, Olivia is interviewed by Robert Scoble (this is a great primer for The Art of Innovation):
Now, onto The Art of Innovation.
Enter The Art of Innovation
The Book in 3 Sentences or Less
At the time of publication (2001), IDEO had helped Apple build the iMac, and Microsoft build the infamous “Microsoft mouse”. Under the leadership of CEO David Kelley, IDEO was moving beyond product design into experience design. Lots of things have changed since then, but this book is the best look into what makes IDEO IDEO that I’ve seen; it teaches us how to innovate, and, most importantly, how the most creative business in the world builds a nonstop creative culture.
Tom Kelley is general manager at IDEO. He’s worked for over twenty years to develop IDEO, with his brother David Kelley, America’s leading design firm. The Art of Innovation was his first book. In 2005, he wrote The Ten Faces of Innovation. But, The Art of Innovation is a quintessential volume in design literature. And Tom Kelley is a modern founder of the discipline.
Number One Takeaway: Design Can Be Confusing at Times, Is Disciplined in Its Own Way, and Always Transformative
- Understand - Start with constraints and established perceptions. Then revise continuously as the project progresses.
- Observe - Observe real people in real situations with an eye towards empathy. We’ve heard this before.
- Visualize - Visualize new-to-the-world concepts and the audiences who will use them.
- Evaluate and Refine - In this step, create some prototypes and then refine those prototypes. (Anything can be prototyped!)
- Implement - Your ability to implement gives credibility to the creative work leading up to this point.
BUT, of all the lessons in this book, Tom’s reflections on IDEO’s culture made the biggest impression on me. I’ll talk more about this later, but I think culture is IDEO’s most valuable asset. And it goes beyond the technologies, and even beyond individual people. The experience day-to-day at IDEO is the secret sauce – and it’s more masterfully designed than any product IDEO has ever shipped.
Key Leadership Lessons
In a creative culture, a leader can probably do nothing more important than keep a “creativity checklist”. The leader can ask, are we:
- Hierarchical or Merit-based? Hierarchies weigh down creativity. Merit-based cultures reward ideas from any source.
- Bureaucratic or Autonomous? Bureaucracies slow down innovation unnecessarily, and eventually people give up. In autonomous organizations, you’re the master of your own destiny, and people keep reaching for new successes.
- Anonymous or Familiar? Anonymous cultures are places where no one seems to care, and mediocrity abounds. Familiar cultures feel like family and friends – people aren’t afraid to poke fun.
- Clean or Messy? Tidy organizational structures can stifle creativity. Instead, encourage personalizing space to inspire energy and creativity.
- Experts or Tinkerers? Simple test. Are people saying “it’s never been done that way”, in lieu of improving, or are people talking less and instead constantly tweaking and improving? You want the latter.
Key Brand and Marketing Lessons
No wise pilot, no matter how great his talent and experience, fails to use his checklist.
- Charles Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire-Hathaway Corp.
Brilliant products and services all but market themselves. So, how do you create a great product or service? Tom Kelley simplifies things for us and, as always, what we need is a checklist to help us narrow down the universe of infinite possibilities into a time-tested formula:
- Make a great entrance - How are you welcoming people to a service? Help people feel welcome and comfortable. This will make a lasting impression, and could lead to loyalty.
- Make metaphors - Is there a guiding metaphor or phrase that might help stay focused on your customers’ real needs and desire.
- Think briefcase - Traditionally, the briefcase bridges the gap between work and home and is indispensable in both realms. Today, it’s the smartphone. Make your customer want to bring your offering home. And take it back to work the next day.
- Color inspires - Color can, in and of itself, speak for a brand. Leverage it.
- Backstage pass - Clue people in to what’s happening behind the scenes, and they’ll feel part of a process. Emails that update customers on order status are an example.
- One click is better than two - Make your product work faster and simpler, and it will probably succeed. Amazon’s one-click ordering process is a brilliant example.
- Goof-proof - If your customer steps off the intended path, how easy is it for them to get back on?
- First, do no harm - Are you causing your customers discomfort or even minor pain? If so, eliminate it.
- Checklist - Make a checklist of the essential constraints a product must work within before beginning development. Check it throughout the process to stay on track.
- Great extras - Great accessories or minor elements can carry a product. Pay attention the details.
Key Strategic Lessons
The greatest organization in the world, the one who embodies innovation and creativity at the deepest level and continues to be responsive and resilient over years of tests, is the product of a team effort. This goes back to my original observation. I think this book is basically about culture – the culture that responds to change is a culture where strategy is like the air. We breathe it and live it.
You can imagine a solo entrepreneur in a room racking her brain for days on a particular problem that a well-facilitated and creative culture can solve in an hour. That is a strategy in and of itself. The Art of Innovation is a strategic guide to building that culture and you could not go wrong to use it that way. It’ll teach you design products, it’ll teach you that great products are always a team project, and it will teach you how to empower those kinds of teams.
Most Challenging and Disruptive Ideas
I think that, at the time this book was published (and still today), the idea of “experience design” is challenging. We all crave the concreteness of the products and services that we can trade and sell on websites, through storefronts, and in catalogs. What about the experience surrounding those?
Read Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul and you will see it: Howard Schultz, founded, grew, and eventually saved Starbucks by staying true to this vision. Starbucks has never been about coffee, though it has come dangerously close at times. Anyone can deliver warming shots of caffeine to middle class intelligentsia. What has made Starbucks great is the experience it consistently delivers (think: rarified setting, cherry wood finishes, cake pops).
Unique and Helpful Tools and Tactics
What can you learn from badly designed experiences? Just take a look around your business for routines that people hate and established ways of doing things that are a burden to everyone – from customer to employees. Make a commitment to trimming the fat.
Find a competition that your staff can participate in. Participating in a race, competition, or contest can teach you how to use deadlines to maximize teamwork, innovation, and creative problem solving.
Design your physical office space to be flexible and create project-centered “cells”. You can build “neighborhoods” based around projects. I think this is a great idea. The boundaries should be flexible. The spaces and projects should have a team icon, mission statement, mascot – and other paraphernalia. In other words, each neighborhood should be unique and distinctive.
Hire outsiders. In every sense of the word, hire outsiders. Maximize cultural, ethnic, and intellectual diversity. If you’re a manufacturer, hire the occasional photographer. If you’ve got a lot of Americans, hire the occasional Ausländer.
Closing Thoughts and Next Steps
If you liked this review, you should know that I’m working on a whole “business design” series. My goal is to really explore the current and classic literature that can help us design better businesses, products, and services. In other words, to finally make it through my long queue of “to be reads”. I’ve got some great coming attractions, and here are the review I’ve already done:
- Business Design Series Book Review #1: Disciplined Dreaming by Josh Linkner
- Business Design Series Book Review #2: Change by Design by Tim Brown
- Business Design Series Book Review #3: Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder
- Business Design Series Book Review #4: Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath
As they say across South America “Y mas!”, which is basically their version of “but wait, there’s more!” – and there is. Stay tuned.