Interview with designer and IDEO chair Tim Brown

Few would say that the point of innovation is to improve the human condition. While history has been riddled with tumultuous events, real progress has always been the product of innovation – be it in philosophy, public policy, science or economics. With the multitude of challenges facing our species in this new millennium – pandemics, climate change, rogue states, ethnic conflicts, political polarization, threats to privacy, yawning wealth inequality and more – the need for radical innovation is more urgent than ever.

That’s why we really wanted to sit down with Tim Brown, Chairman of IDEO, the legendary Palo Alto-based design company that Tim has worked for since 1987. Having led hundreds of innovation projects in both the private and public sectors, Tim knows more about the creative process than almost anyone else on the planet. It should be noted that Tim’s own designs have been exhibited at the Design Museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

We start by asking Tim to define “design thinking” – the conceptual pillar that underpins his work. Tim says: “Whenever we design the world to fit our needs, we design. Whenever we consciously think about how we want to shape the world, we start with a kind of design process.” By this definition, we are all designers, but as Tim points out, most of us are not very good at it. Bad design is everywhere—design that doesn’t address user needs, doesn’t challenge outdated thinking, and hasn’t been refined through a process of relentless iteration. This is why Tim is such a passionate believer in design thinking – a set of principles and tools that he believes can help anyone dramatically expand their creative capacity.

We hit back – more to stimulate discussion than to contradict Tim’s claim. In Silicon Valley, the epicenter of business innovation, there is a widespread belief that rule-breaking innovators are a rare breed. Unlike mere mortals, great visionaries like Google’s Larry Page, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Netflix’s Reed Hastings are genetically endowed with the ability to see beyond what is and imagine what could be.

Tim agrees that some people are naturally more creative than others, but says that shouldn’t stop anyone from working to develop their own creative gifts. “Think about writing,” he says. “There is only one Shakespeare, but there are a lot of people who write for a living. If writing weren’t available to us, the world would be a poorer place. If everyone had access to the tools of design thinking and were able to bring new ideas into the world, then humanity’s ability to advance its cause would be so much greater than if we were just looking at the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon would leave Musk.

Rather than pinning our hopes on a few famous entrepreneurs, Tim argues that we “need an approach to innovation that is powerful, accessible and integrated into all aspects of business and society”. That’s a noble goal, but far from reality in most organizations. For example in a recently published Gallup survey, only 14% of employees totally agreed with the statement “I could take risks at work that could lead to important new products, services, or solutions.”

Tim unpacks the problem. “Managers,” he says, “spend almost all of their time focusing on efficiency. In most organizations I work with, the likelihood of getting someone at almost any level to devote more than 10% of their time to a creative project in any given week is almost zero. And yet, at IDEO, as people who spend all our time innovating, we know that if you want a new project to have any chance of success, you need to devote 90% of your time to it.”

He continues: “People have very little time, but they also have very little confidence in their ability to innovate. My colleague David Kelly talks about the term “creative confidence“, that is the combination of the ability to have ideas and the courage to implement them. But we do very little in most organizations to build that trust.”

This is where, Tim argues, leadership comes into play. Executives can incorporate design thinking into training programs and, just as important, buy time for their teams to innovate. “As a leader,” says Tim, “you have to get involved, not because you have the best ideas, but because you have to support and empower the people who innovate. You have to show that you care.” When asked about a CEO who does, Tim points to Apple chairman and CEO Tim Cook. “He has brought more value to shareholders than any executive in history,” notes Tim, “and he did it not by cutting costs or making big deals, but by providing innovative products and services.”

If innovation is to thrive, Tim believes we need to rethink the role of leaders. “The idea that leaders have all the answers is poison for innovation,” he argues. Tim says, “We need leaders who inspire curiosity and exploration by asking insightful questions that take the company in new and interesting directions. I like the metaphor of an explorer standing on the beach looking at the horizon and asking, “What’s on the other side of the horizon? What happens if we go in that direction?’ And then encourage people to get in boats and go.”

As a leader, Tim argues, it’s difficult to oversee innovation unless you’ve been an innovator yourself — unless you needed to take on a fundamentally new challenge, delve deep into the user experience, invent dozens of potential solutions, and then test them and refine the best ideas through rapid prototyping. We agree. In many organizations, leaders can rise through the ranks without ever having to develop their own creative skills. Worse, the typical MBA program does little to develop aspiring managers’ creative confidence. Tim is right when he notes that in a typical MBA program, students analyze dozens of case studies but are rarely asked to do so to build something – be it a product prototype, a new business model or a new management tool or process.

Reflecting on his own experiences, Tim says: “When I went to design school, I did one project after another. By the time I was done, I had dozens of things to work on.” When we ask how this might be replicated in an MBA program, Tim points to Stanford University’s, an interdisciplinary center that brings together students from across campus to tackle real-world problems using design thinking. “It’s important,” he says, “to make sure MBA students do hands-on projects with other disciplines outside of business school.”

The more important point is this: Few institutions invest systematically in building the creative capacities of their members and staff. That has to change and when you talk to Tim you get the feeling that only then will he give up his spurs. Interview with designer and IDEO chair Tim Brown


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