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Tom Kelley on IDEO and effective innovation

idea_connection-header-smOverview of this Interview: This is an interview with Tom Kelley on many aspects of leading at IDEO and the things they are still learning as a company.

Thoughts on this Interview: Vern Burkhardt does a great job of asking insightful questions into the things that Tom has learned as a leader in a company that is rewriting the rules of design and business. I appreciate that Tom brings the importance that Face to Face communications as a primary issues for effectiveness.

Original Interview HERE at

Design Thinking for Innovation

Interview with Tom Kelley, General Manager of IDEO, and Author of The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation

June 28, 2009. 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.

Photo of Tom KelleyTom 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 Happiness by 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.

Part 2 Tomorrow

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2 Responses to Tom Kelley on IDEO and effective innovation

  1. […] 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. … ( 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 …Page 2 […]

  2. […] Design Thinking Blog; Innovation Watch Share this:FacebookLinkedInTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]


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