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 / Autumn 2009 / Issue 56(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: Tim Brown

That brings up a third landmark: finding a systematic process for developing your insights. The first round of thinking tends to be relatively incremental and obvious. One of IDEO’s designers, Kristian Simsarian, took on the redesign of a hospital emergency room. Kristian checked in as a patient, videotaping every experience — and one of the first things we noticed, watching the tape, was the sheer amount of time he spent lying on his back, waiting on the rolling cot, staring at the acoustic ceiling tiles. The tiles became a symbol of the overall ambiance: a mix of boredom and anxiety from feeling lost, uninformed, and out of control. We could have responded by saying, “Let’s make the ceiling tiles more colorful” or — as many hospitals do — “Let’s put televisions everywhere to distract people.” Instead, we started a series of deliberate discussions about the findings, and those led us to talk about improving the overall approach to ER logistics, so patients were treated less like objects to be positioned and allocated, and more like people in stress and pain.

Prototyping, a fourth landmark, is the visualization of your ideas. I write a lot about prototyping in Change by Design, because it’s so critical. The alternative is to do all your thinking in advance, choose your approach, and implement it rapidly at scale. This is an inherently limiting idea, because you can’t afford to get anything wrong. Therefore, you are tempted to choose approaches that are incremental and relatively free of risk. I’ve heard stories about companies where no one would show a half-finished prototype to the CEO, because they didn’t want to expose themselves to criticism. That’s not a great culture to support innovation.

All of my design heroes — Thomas Edison, Akio Morita, Steve Jobs, and many others — were often building things that had never been built before. So they always made prototypes, tried them out, saw where they had gone wrong, and redesigned them to make them better. We need to get much more comfortable with building to learn, that is, making things to figure out what they should be, rather than to show how good they are. For me, one indicator of an innovation culture is when senior management looks at rough prototypes regularly to see how the ideas are evolving.

A Prototype-friendly Culture

S+B: IDEO is now a global company, at a scale that Edison probably never imagined. How do you keep that kind of culture going at a large scale?
We’re not that big, and we traditionally move people around our offices [located in Chicago, Boston, New York, London, Munich, Shanghai, and the San Francisco Bay area]. More importantly, we realized a couple of years ago that most of our best thinking was emerging from within the firm, not from the senior executives. So we built what we called the Tube: a distinctive knowledge-sharing platform. It’s built around collaborating.

At the core is a Web site where every individual at IDEO has his or her own page. On my page, for example, you’ll see all the projects I’ve ever worked on, the experience I have, what I’m going to be doing for the next three months, and my blog. For every project and client, we post stories: how we tackled a question, what we’ve learned from it, who worked on it. Then, in wikis, people who are interested in certain topics share ideas and prototype them together. Our internal discussion group on the social impact of design has tens of thousands of pages.

We experiment to get people working on new things in new ways. Last year, we did a project for Product (RED), the organization that raises money to reduce AIDS in Africa. We helped design and launch a proprietary new music service that would generate sustained revenues and build the (RED) brand independent of its corporate partners. To tap into the media expertise around our own company, we ran the project simultaneously in every office, but with very little time to complete it. People connected virtually and aggregated their ideas, and then one design team took all the elements and turned them into the final concept. The product, (RED)Wire, was launched in December 2008.

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