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Design Thinking & Doing

Design thinking isn't just for designers. It applies across the board, to all functions, to all individuals.

IDEO, a design and innovation consultancy, was established in 1978 (ideo.com). A few years after its founding, a then-colleague from the then-variant version of this publication and I visited the then-IDEO office on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto, down the street from Stanford University. We had the opportunity to spend some time with David Kelley, founder of the firm. And in the years since, that remains, for me, one of the highlights of my career, as there was a man who had started out as an electrical engineer in Ohio, who found out about a design program at Stanford that combined “art” and engineering, took it, and then created a company that has worked for an array of companies (from consumer electronics to cars), for educational institutions and governmental agencies. And he’s also founded the d.school at Stanford and is a professor at the university, as well.

And as we sat in his office back then, chock-full of a variety of products and products in-becoming, I remember that there was excitement and zeal, a real sense that Kelley knew that the then-small organization he was leading was making a difference and getting a kick out of doing what they were doing.

That’s why I remember it so well and so fondly. Because oftentimes I talk with people who are doing what they’re doing not out of a sense of what they’re up to is really exciting and engaging, but because it is what they have to do. But not Kelley and his crew. IDEO has grown. There are literally offices from Palo Alto to New York to London to Mumbai to Shanghai to Tokyo.

Seems like having a passion for what you do and doing so with people who are similarly talented and engaged can be good business, too.

Realize that Kelley entered a highly competitive market back in ’78, a market that has become only more demanding. Yet the company has excelled. And while some of the projects were (and are) whimsical and fun—I remember one of the designers showing us a kid’s fishing rod that had a built-in tackle box—IDEO also designs things like medical instruments for spinal surgery—serious stuff by any metric.

David Kelley and his brother Tom (the two work together at IDEO) write in their co-authored book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All (Crown Business), “At its core, creative confidence is about believing in your ability to create change in the world around you. It is the conviction that you can achieve what you set out to do. We think this self-assurance, this belief in your creative capacity, lies at the heart of innovation.”

And it is that self-assurance and belief in one’s creative capacity is pretty much that which tends to get squelched once one enters the working world. They define “creative confidence” as “the ability to come up with new ideas and the courage to try them out.” And in their book they provide guidance for achieving the former; the latter has to come from within. But by having a grasp of the former, the latter becomes easier.

Their approach, one that is part and parcel of the way the IDEO works, is called “design thinking.” Think of it as the intersection between what people want (whether they’re consciously aware of it or not) and what can be achieved, both technically and financially. “There is no one-size-fits-all methodology for bringing new ideas to life, but many successful programs include a variation on four steps: inspiration, synthesis, experimentation, and implementation.”

Ideas are certainly important. But they’re not enough. “Innovation,” they write, “is all about quickly turning ideas into action.” There needs to be experimentation (“In our experience, successful companies of every size embrace small experiments in order to stay ahead of disruptive trends and lead market change”) and commitment (“No company that falls behind the competition is guilty of standing completely still. But sometimes our efforts fail because of the level of commitment to change. ‘I’ll try’ can become a half-hearted promise of follow-through rather than decisive action.”).

Design thinking isn’t just for designers. It applies across the board, to all functions, to all individuals. “When we talk about ‘design’ alone, most people ask what we think about their curtains or where we bought our glasses. But a design thinking approach means more than just paying attention to aesthetics or developing physical products.” It is about creatively solving problems, addressing issues. It is about doing something for the better. And being committed to really doing it.

But all too often, too many of us reckon that we’ve got it all figured out, that we know what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. Sure, we give lip service to “continuous improvement” and to benchmarking and best practices (what the Kelleys describe as generally being little more than considering the competition and then performing an incremental “cut-and-paste”). It’s not enough. They write, “While the path of least resistance is usually to coast along in neutral, people with creative confidence have a ‘Do Something’ mindset. They believe their actions can make a positive difference, so they act.” 

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