IDEO’s Tom Kelley on design thinking, handling failure, and finding purpose

What was once an esoteric concept, ‘design thinking’ is now the ultimate mantra of businesses both here and worldwide. Preaching its wonders is IDEO’s Tom Kelley.

IDEO partner Tom Kelley

Back in 1999, US current affairs show Nightline famously did a story on IDEO by challenging the design and consulting firm to reimagine one of the most familiar and mundane objects in the world: the shopping cart. They were given just five days, with the new shopping cart tackling common issues around manoeuvrability, child safety, and shopper behaviour. And while the end product proved innovative with its nestable steel frame and steerable back wheels, the show’s primary focus was on the brainstorming and prototyping process itself, highlighting the centrality of design thinking that still persists throughout IDEO to this day.

Included in that multidisciplinary team featured on Nightline was one Tom Kelley who, almost 20 years later and visiting Auckland for this year’s Better by Design summit as an IDEO partner, doesn’t seem to have changed much either, persisting not only in his elegantly moustachioed ways, but also in his deep-seated evangelism for design thinking—a concept that’s exploded in popularity in recent years. From global multinationals such as IBM and Lego, to leading-edge firms in New Zealand such as Alt Group (whose practises are profiled in-depth in Idealog’s latest issue), design thinking has skyrocketed from esoteric concept to ultimate business mantra.

“I got an email recently from a woman who did a one-year externship with IDEO and she’s doing design thinking in Singapore with the Singaporean government. And last year, I was in Southern Brazil in a factory and one of the executives wanted to tell me how they’re using design thinking as the driving force in their factory,” recalls Kelley.

“Then just two weeks ago, I was in India where I met the CEO of IBM India. Was IBM doing any design thinking five years ago? I’m not sure. But when we met, she shook my hand and said, ‘Tom, I have 10,000 people doing design thinking’, and I’m amazed because we don’t even have 10,000 people in the firm! So it’s really taking off. It’s everywhere.”

While the concept of design thinking emerged academically in the 1960s and within narrow design circles from thereon, it wasn’t until IDEO (co-founded by Kelley’s older brother, David Kelley) took the philosophy under its wing and transformed it into a tangible, usable, and marketable operation.

“We've been practising design thinking for almost 40 years now, and although we didn't apply the term until maybe 20 years ago, the methodology and approach has been there for a very long time,” Kelley says.

“I think design thinking has become popular because faced with intense global competition, companies know that they must start doing things differently. Some companies use a lot of acquisition, but ultimately, it’s got to come from organic growth."

“I think it pressures the marketplace, right up to the CEO level, to think 'We must do something different, what have we got? Well, there’s this design thinking thing. Let's try that.' So people try it and succeed and they think 'Yes! Let's have more!'”

Experience over object

Over the years, IDEO has helped pioneer the use of design thinking in the business innovation community, using it to launch almost every product imaginable. From the first Apple mouse and laptop computer, to Nike sunglasses, the Palm V PDA, heart defibrillators, and even the mechanical whale in Free Willy.  

But recently, IDEO has been changing tack, concentrating less on making actual physical products and more on cultivating rewarding experiences, which stands as a testament to the interminable nature of design thinking.

“The shift from purely design—which used to mean form-giving to products—and moving to design thinking is a really great trend because if you're classically trained in design, you can design the iPhone or Samsung equivalent, but that's a finite set of problems in the world, whereas design thinking is pretty close to infinite” says Kelley.

“There's a famous interview done by a French woman back in the sixties. She was interviewing the famous American designer Charles Eames and she asked him, ‘What is the limit of design?’ And he said, 'What is the limit of problem?' Although I would not  have said that about design at the time—Eames was a forward thinker— I would say that about design thinking.”

"Design thinking is pretty close to infinite."

“[Nowadays] we're thinking about how to reinvent schools, how to get people in rural villages in developing countries to drink safe water, how to get young women to stay true to their own belief system with reproductive health, how to reduce the rate at which people released from prison end up going back to prison."

"So these transcend the category of what we call ‘design’. We still design physical things, but it seems very apparent that the tools of design thinking can be very broadly used.”

Design thinking. Source: IDEO

Education first

When asked what his favourite IDEO project has been over the last few years, Kelley’s sentiment around design thinking also comes across in his choice, highlighting the company’s work from a few years ago with Peru’s Innova Schools.

With an education system that has historically performed poorly, Peruvian entrepreneur and billionaire Carlos Rodrigues-Pastor hired IDEO to build an entire network of schools powered by a progressive new learning model. From the curriculum to the teacher training to the school buildings, the company was tasked with rebuilding these non-profit charter schools from the ground up, resulting in more engagement and improved test scores.

“We don't think test scores are the most important element here, but it's good evidentiary proof. Test scores in our schools are something like triple the national average. And we're not just picking the rich kids, we’re not skimming the top performers. Our schools serve the emerging middle class. It’s just that our schools keep the kids engaged and we engage the parents as well throughout the whole process. The kids pay attention and they learn and it shows up in their test scores,” says Kelley.

When it comes to non-IDEO designs, Kelley again points to examples of design thinking beyond the realms of our traditional understanding, emphasising the work of Emily Pilloton, founder of Project H Design and author of the book Design Revolution.

“She designed an educational environment for kids in Africa that used tires that were thrown away and used it to teach math, which is especially great for the boys because they can run around and solve a math problem instead of having to sit at a desk and solve it,” says Kelley.

“Now she's designed a series of education programmes for kids called Girls Garage which teaches tween and teen girls how to use power tools, therefore literally empowering them as well as breaking down a barrier. So this whole ecosystem she's designed around her I clearly admire.”

Innova schools. Source: IDEO

Framing big ideas into small experiments

Kelley makes no secret of his love for these change-the-world, big issue projects of today. But changing the world, of course, is never easy, with plenty of trial and error and sometimes outright failure along the way. And while failure “still sucks”, Kelley insists there are ways to reframe its existence to have positive implications.

“When I'm working with clients, one of the things I try and convince people to do is structure things from the beginning as an experiment,” he says.

“Imagine two scenarios: I go to my boss's office and say 'I have the best idea ever!' First of all, never say that. Sometimes in social settings, people will say, 'This is the funniest story ever!' But as soon as they say that, half of the audience are thinking, 'Well, we'll be the judge of that.' It's a terrible way to introduce something because it sets a bad expectation. So instead of saying that to your boss, try taking the same idea and saying, 'I propose the following experiment' because right away, you destigmatise the failure. Experiments are supposed to fail sometimes!”

While it’s a good approach for workers to pitch ideas to their boss, Kelley says the method also works the other way around, recalling an example from 20 years ago by former Steelcase boss Jim Hackett.

“Although Steelcase makes systems furniture, the Steelcase executives were in closed offices with acoustic privacy and a door. So for the most part, they weren't using their own products. So Jim says to me, 'Tom, I can do big change and tell them that we're blowing up the office and they have to use the things we manufacture. But If I do big change … one-by-one, each of the seven [executives] will want to spend time in my office telling me why they're special. One-by-one they'll complain and drag their feet about why it shouldn't apply to them. So I didn't do that. I didn't do big change, I did small experiment.’”

“Instead, he went to those seven people and said ‘I propose the following experiment. I'll keep your offices in tact for now, but I would like you to join me in the open air leadership community for the next six months.' He then added two important things: 'One: All I ask of you is that you give this an honest try for the next six months. Second: In my promise to you, whatever is not working at the end of six months, we'll address.' He never promised going back to their office, but he promised to address whatever wasn't working.”

"Casting things as an experiment instead of this big change just sets a different kind of social contract.”

“An honest try? Six months? It's very hard to say no, so nobody did. Zero objections, zero time wasted on his calendar. So they moved their leadership community and they never went back. So even at the CEO level, just destigmatising things, casting things as an experiment instead of this big change just sets a different kind of social contract.”

Ultimately, however you frame it, people fear failure in the most innately primal way. But Kelley insists it's not exactly failure itself that people fear, but the judgment that often comes along with it. AUT management lecturer Dr Smita Singh touched on a similar concept for The F Word series last year, citing that the social stigma of failure can complicate marriages, break down self-esteem, and devastate emotional and physical wellbeing. 

“If a six-year-old boy knocks a bottle over and it breaks on the floor, what's the first thing he does? Look around. Because if no one sees, he's not upset at all! He just wants to know if anybody sees. So even as grown-ups we have that. A lot of it is the fear of being judged,” says Kelley.

“Innovative companies or teams often associate experimentation or failure with learning, not capital ‘F’ failure, crash-and-burn. So associating that kind of failure with learning is really important to the process.”

Early sketches of the Innova classroom experience. Source: IDEO

Embracing the red pen

It’s not just the potential of failure that makes the ideas business a tough place to thrive. Having worked at IDEO since 1987, Kelley has also seen his fair share of bad ideas come and go. But in the same way failure can have a positive spin, so can process of review and critique.

“Part of the role of a leader is if you think there's a kernel of a good idea somewhere, you owe it to the person to point to that. But if you think the idea is fundamentally flawed, you just have to speak the truth. Ideally in a way that the person understands that today's idea might be bad, but I'm only judging your idea. I'm not judging you,” says Kelley.

“It's not universally used at IDEO, but there’s this concept of constructive critique called 'I like, I wish'. For example, if they present an idea entirely without merit, you can say 'I like that you took the personal initiative to put this up and that you always come to me with ideas' … Then in the 'I wish' portion, you can say, 'I wish we could come up with a version that would be acceptable to the marketing team.'”  

In another example that will relate to anyone that has ever written an article, essay, story or book, Kelley uses the metaphor of editing to convey how critique can be construed not as an attack, but as a method of enlightenment.

“A lot of people who don't write for a living show you something and you really want to just get out your red pen. But if people are really attached to the thing they’ve written, they often click into defensive mode right away when you try and make any suggestion, even when offered in love, friendship, or collegial goodwill,” he says.

“Whereas for me, now that I've written something like 900 pages of published work ... a good editor is a gift to me."

"It helps if the writer and editor really trust each other and the writer believes that the editor has nothing but their best interest at heart ... So when it comes to criticism, if we agree that we have no agenda other than trying to move forward successful together, then suddenly it destresses the critique.”

IDEO helped develop Apple's first ever mouse in the 1980s using the principles of design thinking. Source: IDEO

Finding purpose in work

Looking back at this year’s Better by Design summit, Kelley points out that a dominant theme has been the notion of purpose. With speakers from Lululemon , Thankyou and Icebreaker, to brands such as Tom Shoes and even Starbucks being referred to throughout the event, the notion of purpose, Kelley says, is more important than ever for today’s postmodern generation.

“This generation has been really wonderful about standing up for what they believe in. My generation was medium, while my parents’ generation was to just get a job, whatever job you can,” says Kelley.

“The idea that you can turn down a job offer because it wasn’t a perfect fit for you or because that company doesn’t stand for the things you believe in—my parents’ generation would never have done that. Whereas that’s very prevalent now. People migrate and are drawn towards companies with a purpose.

“In Silicon Valley, it’s a talent war,” says Kelley. “The top people have all kinds of opportunities and it’s a seller’s market for talent, and in a situation where you’re in a talent war, you better have purpose.”