IDEO founders David and Tom Kelley on building a creative culture.
Everyone is born creative, but schools and jobs and the hegemony of the conventionally minded steamroller it out of us. So argue David and Tom Kelley, who as leaders of iconic innovation firm IDEO have unparalleled cred on this subject. In their new book, Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, the brothers urge a universal uncorseting of our creative selves. Editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan spoke with the Kelley brothers about how companies can tap this undeveloped human resource.
Define “creative confidence.”
Tom: Creative confidence is the natural human ability to come up with breakthrough ideas combined with the courage to act on them. The courage turns out to be a really important part. Because lots of people have these ideas in passing but are too timid to put them into action.
David: Or afraid of the reactions they will get from the people when they do.
Why hasn’t companies’ obsession with innovation and risk-taking translated into greater creative confidence among employees?
Tom: Culturally we’re trained-;in business schools at least-;to trust the analytical side and to trust the things you measure. And most companies are measured on this short-term stuff. To do the breakthrough innovations, sometimes you have to defer gratification. You’ve got to take a leap that may not pay off today or this month but that builds your brand and builds your company for the future.
If playfulness and experimentation are important to creativity, should managers think differently about scheduling and deadlines?
Tom: When people get creative confidence they focus more on iterations, doing experiments. Thomas Edison said that one of the greatest measures of your ability is how many experiments you can do within 24 hours. There was a leader from a financial services firm who went to the d.school. [Stanford’s institute of design, founded by David Kelley.] He said, when we launch a new product it takes six months for planning, two months for visual representation of the framework of web pages, and two months for productizing a new online service offering. When he went back to his day job he said, starting next week I’m going to give them a day to do the whole thing. Then I’m going to give them an extension of a few more days. We will still make our deadline. But I can be on the twentieth iteration instead of the first iteration. And it will be better.
David: You can have a deadline and have a first not-that-great idea and get it done. The trick is to get as many iterations in and as many generations in as possible before the deadline. Deadlines are kind of arbitrary anyway. I can spend the rest of my life designing a wastebasket and just keep making it better. You run out of time and budget. In our world it’s just how many iterations can you get done given that they call time? In the Launchpad class at Stanford [where Kelley is a professor] students have five weeks to get a product live in the world. It’s amazing what students can get done in that time.
David: Once you have that kind of design bias, everything you do is with intent. You wrap a present for somebody’s birthday or how you decide to get somewhere. It’s all design. If you look around, everywhere there has been some decisions made about that object or about that experience. We notice that people do things with intent. They decided to do it this way as opposed to letting it happen to them.
Does virtually every conscious choice a person makes to change something involve design on some level?
David: Once you have that kind of design bias, everything you do is with intent. How you wrap a present for somebody’s birthday or how you decide to get somewhere. It’s about being mindful of process. It’s not that you have to go to the creative well and become more creative. But as you become more mindful of the process you just get better and better at it.
You advise getting out into the field, observing potential users or customers. Who in the organization should do that? Just product designers? And how often do you have to observe a particular behavior before you consider it pervasive enough to address in your design?
Tom: In response to who does it, the answer is everyone in the organization. In response to how many: just to be clear, we’re not sizing a market. We’re not saying 82% of people do it this way or need this. You are looking for inspiration. And for inspiration, one person can be enough. In the book we talk about the team from a non-profit called Embrace going out in rural India with the prototype of an infant warmer for premature babies. They find this one woman who tells them that in her village they think Western medicine can be too potent. The product is supposed to be set to warm the baby to 37 degrees centigrade. She will only go to 31 or 32 degrees, just to be “safe.” They changed the design based on a sample of one. Because lives were at stake.
How do you make intuition coachable?
Tom: It’s not so much coachable as practice. I think the great danger for people as they progress through their careers is they rely on intuition informed by old data. It’s important to constantly refresh-;to hold up the worldview you have in your head against the actual world out there in 2013. Also, your intuition is really the sum of your experiences. So the way that we say to improve your intuition is to have a lot more experiences and a variety of experiences.
People are excited by big data because it suggests you can arrive at the right answer by throwing lots of numbers at the question. Is there a tension there with creativity?
Tom: We embrace big data because it helps the client be more confident. But big data is inherently about the past. It’s not going to get you all the way to the future. At one point you could have done big data and discovered all books ever written were done on a typewriter or with a quill pen. That would tell you people want typewriters. Well they don’t. People want ways to get ideas from their head onto the paper or the screen. So we’ve been working with this idea called hybrid insights. It’s informed by big data but still human. So you distill all the data but put it in human form.
David: It’s messy to go out there and get involved with customers and users and find out what’s really going on. But that’s where we get all our big ideas. Talking to them and understanding them or reframing the problem because they are surprisingly interested in something we didn’t know they were interested in. Big data is the inspiration. But you still have to build the empathy with people.
How does technology fit into this? In one sense it allows anybody to create at least virtual versions of anything, and those versions can look pretty great. But is it a substitute for the more visceral, immediate challenge of sketching ideas or building prototypes by hand?
David: This is basically about storytelling, right? So I can tell you the story verbally and then I can show it to you on a computer simulation and that tells you more. And I can mock it up physically. And at each of those levels, different stuff comes up. You say, my gosh, look at how close this is to this. This won’t work for me for cleaning or maintenance. When you move from visualizing something to experiencing it you discover things hiding down in the details that result in either problems or innovations.
Tom: A few years ago we did a full-size mockup with Marriott: what a whole lobby would be, what a room in a long-term-stay place would be. You could test out the interactions. What is it really going to be like in this little kitchen with multiple guests trying to get a the toaster? It’s really hard to predict that with just the model.
If you were launching a company and had the option to structure-;or not structure-;the innovation “function” any way you wanted, what would you do?
Tom: This is a luxury. Most of our clients don’t get to start things from scratch. And so they do this much harder thing, which is to change a not-very-innovative culture into an innovative culture. It’s great if we’re talking to startups. It’s just a matter of caring. It’s in the way you hire. It’s in the way you do reviews. It’s in your space. You structure every step of your process around creativity and innovativeness. So you are not saying I want to hire someone just like me. You are saying I want to hire the most creative person I can. The questions that you ask in the interview, the part of the resume you look at. More than anything, it’s a question of deciding that you’re going to build that into the company from scratch.
David: It’s a cultural thing more than a structural thing. How do you convince everybody that their job is a creative job? How do you convince accounts payable to do their job in an extraordinary way? Whatever structure you put together, the trick is to get everyone to do their job with intent, to see that they can do their job in a creative way. And to value that. That involves not judging people and rewarding people for trying new things and for being tolerant of failure.
Tom: One way is from day one to use a kind of crowdsourcing, open-innovation approach. You establish a social contract with your team from the beginning that ideas are going to come from them, too. I may be the founder, but that doesn’t mean I have to have all the ideas. It’s almost a prerequisite that you are going to bring ideas to me all the time. Every day people are going to have ideas.
I know you are not a fan of benchmarking. But if companies were going to adopt one single practice from IDEO to juice their innovation, what should it be?
David: The empathy part. It’s about getting out there in the field and viscerally feeling what’s going on. That’s where the big ideas come from. That’s where we reframe problems. People think creativity is about problem-solving. It’s a lot about need finding. About making sure that you have a problem that’s worth working on in the first place. So all of this human-centered stuff is what other companies miss the most and what they would benefit from.
In the book, you say an innovation culture is like karaoke. Explain.
Tom: I go to Japan a lot. I started encountering karaoke about 25 years ago. And I’m thinking, why are people braver in this environment than they are back in the office? Liquid courage is part of the formula. But it’s not the whole thing.
Think of that karaoke room as a metaphor for your company. There are a lot of special things going on. I am going to get up there and sing a cappella in front of my friends. I’m willing to take this big risk because you’re going to get up and sing next! We’re all in this together. The other part is that people have turned down critical judgment, temporarily, to go into the karaoke room. The big fear holding people back from creative confidence is the fear of being judged. In the karaoke room, a colossal failure is at least as much fun as something that is really good.
I love the fact that you have a floor-to-ceiling community idea chalkboard in one of your bathrooms at IDEO.
Tom: It started in this one particular bathroom in the San Francisco office. It’s the most popular one because everyone wants to see what’s the latest on the chalkboard. If you had big data I’m positive you would be able to say that that is the most used bathroom. The other bathrooms just have toilets in them. But this one has the chalkboard!
The "10 Circles" Creativity Exercise
Creative Confidence includes 10 exercises to work your team's innovation muscles. Here's one that's designed to kick off a brainstorming session:
1. Hand each team member a sheet of paper with 30 identical circles drawn on it.
2. Give everyone three minutes to turn as many circles as possible into recognizable objects.
3. Compare results. Did people finish? Did they produce distinctive ideas or just variations on a theme (different kinds of balls, for example)? Did anyone break the rules by combining two or more circles?
"Besides being a great warm-up exercise," write the Kelley brothers, "30 circles offers a quick lesson about ideation...It's easier to have a great idea if you have many to choose from. But if you have a lot of ideas that are just variations on a theme, you might really only have one idea."