IDEO's Tim Brown: How to Build a Culture of Innovation

Last Updated Sep 23, 2009 5:12 PM EDT

Mention great product design, and the responses are predictable:
You'll hear about Apple or perhaps BMW, companies that make stuff its
customers touch, feel and enjoy. Tim Brown, the CEO of design powerhouse IDEO,
is on a mission to change that idea, or at least expand upon it.

Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO


Sure, Brown loves Apple's products, but Brown argues
that companies of all stripes can flourish in unforeseen ways by applying core
principles of great industrial design, such as striving to experience a product
or a service from the vantage point of the user. This approach — it's
really more of a movement — is known as "design thinking,"
and Brown is its biggest advocate. His book, href="http://www.bing.com/shopping/search?q=Change+by+Design&go=&form=QBRE">Change by Design: How Design Thinking
Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation
, will be
released this month by HarperCollins. In it, Brown shows how companies like
Kaiser Permanente used design thinking to improve patient care, and how Procter
& Gamble applied it to come up with 350 product concepts in 12 weeks.

BNET sat down with Brown to talk about design thinking, and ways
all businesses can use it.

First off, design thinking. Give us the elevator pitch.

Design thinking is really about using the sensibilities and
methodologies that designers have developed to create new choices, new
alternatives, new ideas that haven’t existed in the world before. But
it’s being applied today much further upstream and to a much broader
set of problems than it has been traditionally. It’s the same skills
that designers developed literally for decades, but [those skills are now] applied
on a much broader canvas than they used to be.

What’s a good example of a service that’s come about
using this approach?

Bank of America is a great example. We worked with them to
use this human-centered, observational approach to understand how people save
or don’t save their money. We noticed that people have these
mechanisms for automatically saving. They would take the change from a
transaction, stick it in a jar and then every so often take it to the bank. We’ve
all seen that behavior. Other people would round up their utility bills so that
they’re always ahead of the utility company.

We took that idea and developed a new service called href="http://www.ideo.com/work/featured/bofa">Keep
the Change. So now, with this account, whenever you make a payment
with your debit card, Bank of America rounds it up to the nearest dollar and
puts the change in your savings account. So people are automatically saving as
they spend money.

This is a service product based a human behavior, and that’s
really what for me is the core of design thinking — understanding how
people operate in the world, understanding how they behave, and using that as
the inspiration for new ideas.

In your book, you talk about how it requires a culture of optimism. Is it
hard to promote design thinking in a bad economy?

You certainly get companies changing their objectives in a
downturn; they tend to be a little less long-term. But design thinking can be
applied in short-term ways and in long-term ways. In fact, the imperative for
doing this is even greater in a downturn. The opportunity to capture more
market share is greater because many of your competitors have taken their eye
off the ball.

Who does a good job innovating quickly?

Toyota is famous for using essentially a design-based
approach to constantly improving the way they do things. If you look at what
they do, it’s all design thinking. It’s observing what’s
happening, quickly prototyping solutions and then implementing them. And they
do this constantly and consistently all the time and create hundreds of
improvements in a month or so. And it’s in the hands of the guys on
the factory floor to do this. This isn’t a bunch of senior people
coming in, seeing something’s wrong and changing it. These tools are
in the hands of the shop-floor workers.

The smartest innovators find ways to make ideas bubble up from the floor

Right. Look at Kaiser Permanente, the healthcare
organization. They’ve got this whole approach to design thinking to
improve the quality of the patient experience. They have teams of nurses and
other professionals, other healthcare workers, working on projects
consistently.

One example: A team of workers focused on how nurses change
shift and realized that too much time is being spent with nurses hidden away in
the nurses’ station at the end of every shift while they exchange
information about the various needs and states of patients. And by using
observation — seeing what really was happening — rapid
prototyping, and brainstorming, they came up with href="http://www.ideo.com/work/item/nurse-knowledge-exchange/">a new approach, whereby now
they change shift on the ward in front of patients.

They’ve developed a simple software tool to help
them do it, and they’ve brought the time in between shifts that they’re
away from the patients from 40 minutes on average down to 12 minutes. And that’s
increased the confidence of the patients because the patients can see the
information’s getting translated and transferred.

And everyone can actually have an effect on how a place is run

Exactly. That’s the tremendous opportunity of design
thinking, particularly in the world of services. It’s the opportunity
for the people who are actually delivering the service to spot needs, develop
new ideas and implement them, and kind of have some level of control and
influence on the way that they interact with customers.

One of your rules is that ideas should not be favored based on who creates
them. This happens everywhere, and it’s a morale killer. How do you
rectify that if that’s ingrained in an organization?

Well, I think to some degree that has to be based on the
culture. I mean you have to have a culture where respect is given to the idea.
And you can have that by making the ideas as tangible as quickly as you can.

How do you do that?

The important thing is to make ideas tangible, to make them
real — say, using storyboards if it’s a narrative idea,
using a model if it’s a physical idea, however you want to do it. You
can act it out.

The quicker you do that, the quicker the ideas start to
speak for themselves rather than the person who’s promoting them.

As you point out, sometimes great ideas happen on cocktail napkins and
solitary environments. So how does a company create an environment where ideas
can flourish in all sorts of ways?

It has to be an experimental culture. There has to be an
enthusiasm for new ideas. You have to have a culture that’s willing
to explore new ideas, test them and then get rid of them if they’re
not good ideas.

If ideas get shut down, if they’re only allowed to
happen in some little corner, or if only certain people are allowed to have
ideas, then you’re failing to tap into the innovation potential of an
organization. So this notion of experimentation is thoroughly important.

You’re describing an ideal culture.

Proctor & Gamble is a good example of this culture. href="http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/95/design-qa.html">A.G. Lafley recently retired as CEO,
but whenever I met him, wherever in the world we were, he would be going into a
supermarket and hanging out with customers. And by doing that he had so much a
deeper understanding of the people he was trying to serve. And I think it doesn’t
matter whether you’re the CEO or the youngest brand manager in an
organization. If you’re not spending time hanging out with your
customers, preferably in the places not only where they shop but where they
live, then I don’t see how you’re going to have the sorts
of insights that allow you to have the best kinds of ideas.

I don’t know how we can do this interview without asking about
Apple. Is Apple’s design success really all Steve Jobs?

You have to give a huge amount of credit to Steve Jobs for
having built a culture where certain things are allowed to trump everything
else. Simplicity, elegance, the sort of delight in bringing technology to
people in a way that not only they can understand but they kind of embrace. And
they’ve become steadily more sophisticated about the way they do
that.

You know, these are principles that that culture has had at
its heart right from the beginning. And Jobs is somebody who just does not let
all of the stuff that businesses tend to let get in the way, get in the way.
The lesson in leadership is not to try and be Steve Jobs. The lesson in
leadership is to understand what allows your organization to really make a
difference.

My message for business leaders is always, if you want to be
more innovative, if you want to be more competitive, if you want to grow, you
can’t just think about what your next product’s going to be
or what your technology’s going to be. You have to think about the
culture that you’re going to build that allows you to do this over
and over and over again.

How does one create that when it doesn’t already exist?

Cultures are basically built around value; they’re
built around what people think are important. And if you evolve what you think
is important, you can evolve the culture. I mean IBM is a great example of a
company that went from being a highly technocratic technological culture to
being essentially a management consulting culture today by changing what they
thought was important.

You can’t expect to change it overnight; it takes
a lot of effort by a lot of people over a lot of time. But I absolutely believe
it’s possible to do. I think it’s essential. I mean, let’s
face it, the world is changing so dramatically today that hardly any
organization is set up for the future. And so if we can’t change our
cultures, then essentially we’re accepting that the organizations we
have today will disappear and other ones will emerge to replace it. It’s
not a very optimistic view and it’s also not one that shareholders
will probably get very excited about.

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  • Paul Sloan On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Paul Sloan has been a San Francisco-based correspondent for Fortune magazine, an editor-at-large for Business 2.0 magazine, and a senior producer for CNN. He's now an executive editor at CNET News. When his fingers aren't on a keyboard, they're usually on a guitar. Email him here.

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