Tom Kelley

IDEO’s Tom Kelley discusses the keys to innovation in his Sebo entrepreneurship lecture.

Looking with ‘fresh eyes’ key to innovation: Kelley

We’re living in a sort of Wonderland these days where, like the Red Queen, we must all run twice as fast just to keep up, according to Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO, a California design and development company.

In today’s business environment, “running fast” means innovation, he said.

While acknowledging its importance, most organizations tend to place innovation in what author Steven Covey calls “Quadrant Two”: important but not urgent, easy to put off. “But if you do that, maybe some other organization will cut into your business,” Kelley warned. Those who survive today are not only innovative but keep up with the current heightened pace.

Kelley addressed a business and University audience at his Bob and Karen Sebo Lecture in Entrepreneurship April 28. His company, which is based in Palo Alto, Calif., has contributed to many well-known innovations, including the first Apple mouse, the world's first laptop computer, Procter & Gamble's Swiffer CarpetFlick, the Palm V and Polaroid's I Zone instant camera.

IDEO, which designs products, environments, services and experiences for its clients, annually tops the winners list in Business Week's Industrial Design Excellence Awards. Fast Company has called it the “world's most celebrated design firm.”

How do they do it? Primarily by employing “anthropologists,” people who go out in the field with no agenda and simply observe other people’s daily activities to see what problems they encounter, according to Kelley.

The anthropologist is one of the “10 faces of innovation” Kelley has described in a book in which he identifies an array of personalities and roles needed to create something new and take that idea through to production.

The first three are “learning personas,” those who are driven by the need to know and question, keeping an organization fresh and externally focused. They include the anthropologist, the experimenter and the cross-pollinator.

‘Vu jà dé’
Of the 10, “the anthropologist is the single biggest source of innovations at IDEO,” he said. Coming from backgrounds of cultural anthropology and cognitive psychology, they “gain new insights into latent customer needs through first-hand observation.”

Success comes not only through creating new products, “but in knowing what problem to solve,” Kelley said. “That’s the real magic in our process,” he added. “And there’s a lot of depth involved. Anthropologists have listed 51 techniques just for observing.”

By paying close attention to people’s everyday lives, IDEO practices what it humorously calls “ vu jà dé,” or seeing the world afresh. As Marcel Proust wrote, “The real act of discovery consists not of finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.”

It takes courage and a passionate commitment to customer needs to ask “Why do we do it this way?” Kelley said. “Asking those fundamental questions opens up opportunities for innovation.”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School professor Dr. Dorothy Leonard, co-author of Deep Smarts, says that while the logic of using observation to identify customer needs is perfectly obvious, it is “not practiced widely or well.”

Simply asking people what they think they need works well in well-bounded problems, she says, such as whether they prefer one product or approach to another. “But try asking them an open-ended question about something that doesn’t exist in the world,” and they can’t do it, she says.

“Customers are not great design directors or futurists, so watch them, see where they stumble. You fix that, and they’ll follow you,” Kelley said.

Try, try again
The experimenter understands that each attempt to solve a problem is an opportunity to learn something and is not daunted by failure. Like inventor Thomas Edison, who said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work,” the experimenter believes that when something goes wrong but learning is attached, there is no failure. “A mistake is when something goes wrong but there is no learning,” Kelley said.

He also cited Jim Dyson, whose first 5,127 prototypes for a vacuum cleaner that would not lose power over time were unsuccessful and who, when he finally did reach his goal, was only able to sell the Dyson vacuum to a small Japanese company before it became the phenomenon it is today.

“The trick is to fail quicker and cheaper than your competitors,” Kelley said. “Lower the bar for your prototypes to increase the rate of learning.”

He showed an example from IDEO of a prototype surgical instrument designed for sinus operations. Simply and quickly assembled from a film cartridge, a highlighter pen and a clip clothespin, all held together by Scotch tape, the drill-like model was exactly what a group of surgeons had in mind in asking IDEO for a new tool and eventually became a sophisticated device.

Gaining through translation
The third learning persona is the cross-pollinator, who can make connections and associations between other environments and cultures and imagine how to apply them to break new ground.

Invoke roles
Organizations should encourage their members to play other roles in the creative process that, while not necessarily their inner characteristics, are necessary components of success. Some operate within the organization while others are more outward-focused.

He categorizes one group as the organizing personas—the hurdler, a tireless, optimistic problem-solver who enjoys tackling new challenges and sidestepping obstacles; the collaborator, the rare person who values the team over the individual and coaxes colleagues out of their silos to work together, and the director, who sees the big picture, targets opportunities and motivates others to get the job done.

The last group is the building personas. One of these is the experience architect, who enjoys creating individual experiences that turn something ordinary into something remarkable. Kelley said Starbucks Coffee is a perfect example of how successful this can be: More than coffee, “Starbucks sells experience,” he said. Its most frequent customers report they come there to relax and take a break. “And remember, they’re selling a stimulant!” Kelley said.

Other building personas include the set designer, who looks at every day as a chance to liven up the workspace and promote energetic, inspired cultures; the storyteller, who, through compelling, authentic narrative, can spark emotion and action and lead people into the future, and the caregiver, the empathetic person who provides the customer with a comfortable, human-centered experience.

Be open to ideas
“What you need is to create an idea-friendly environment,” Kelley said. The enemy of that is the proverbial devil’s advocate, that “speed bump on the road to innovation.”

“When you’re in a meeting and your group is presenting its idea for innovation and it’s looking good, everyone seems to be with you, then one person in the room will say, ‘Now, let me play the devil’s advocate for a minute.’

“And what a moment it is,” Kelley said. “It’s as if all the air has been sucked out of the room and everything comes to a dead stop.”

The devil’s advocate will use such killer phrases as “We have no proof for that.” And “We tried something like that once before and it didn’t work,” or “I hate to be negative, but . . .”

While we’ll never make that powerful devil’s advocate go away, Kelley said, “let’s give him a little competition. Give some power to the positive roles.”

He encouraged the audience to “build, refine and nurture your own cultures of innovation.”
May 22, 2006