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An Interview with IDEO’s CEO

An Interview with IDEO’s CEO

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Published by: api-19520066 on Nov 22, 2009
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Lessons from innovation\u2019s front lines: An interview with IDEO\u2019s CEO
Lessons from
innovation\u2019s front lines:
An interview with IDEO\u2019s
Tim Brown, whose company specializes in innovation, distills the lessons
of his career.
Lenny T. Mendonca and
Hayagreeva Rao
Many companies claim to be innovative, but \ue000ew can claim innovation
as their raison d\u2019\u00eatre. One such innovation machine isI DEO\u2014a designer o\ue000
products, services, and experiences ranging \ue000rom Apple\u2019s frst mass-market
computer mouse to aspects o\ue000 Prada\u2019s store in New York City to the patient-
care delivery model atS SM DePaul Health Center, in St. Louis, Missouri.
IDEO\u2019s single-minded \ue000ocus makes it an intriguing port o\ue000 call \ue000or executives

seeking insights on innovation. The company\u2019s deep experience collabo-
rating with other businesses and with nonprofts and government agencies
gives it valuable perspectives on what distinguishes winning \ue000rom losing

innovation e\ue000\ue000orts. Yet asC EO Tim Brown is quick to point out, what works
atI DEO won\u2019t work everywhere.
Brown has worked atI DEO since its \ue000ormation, in 1991, when three estab-

lished design companies came together. He becameC EO in 2000, a\ue000ter stints headingI DEO Europe and the company\u2019s San Francisco o\ue000fce. Over the years, Brown has stood \ue000or the development o\ue000 ideas through action\u2014observing

customers, prototyping, testing, refning\u2014rather than abstract thought.1
1Underlying this design philosophy is a \ue000ocus on understanding and satis\ue000ying human needs\u2014an approach
Brown andI DE O call \u201chuman-centered design.\u201d See Tim Brown, \u201cDesign thinking,\u201d Harvard Business Review,
2008, Volume 86, Number 6, pp. 84\u201392.
Cultivating innovation
In this interview with McKinsey\u2019s Lenny Mendonca and Stan\ue000ord pro\ue000essor

Hayagreeva Rao atI DE O\u2019s o\ue000fces in Palo Alto, Cali\ue000ornia, Brown pro- vides his perspective on innovation atI DE O and at other organizations. He \ue000ocuses not on a philosophy o\ue000 design but on the role o\ue000 leadership in stimulating creativity, the barriers that sometimes inhibit it, and the incentives that really help to generate new ideas. He also discusses oppor-

tunities to innovate in public services and the promise o\ue000 user-generated
online content.
TheQ u a rt e r ly : You\u2019ve written and spoken extensively aboutI DE O\u2019s
design philosophy and its potential relevance for other companies. What
lessons doesI DE O, as an organization, hold for others?
Tim Brown: I always get a little nervous when we start talking about innova-
tion,I DE O, and other organizations because there\u2019s something unique
about us: all we do is try to have new ideas and get those ideas out into the
world. We don\u2019t have to do anything else; we barely have to run a tiny
little company. But because we don\u2019t have to \ue000ocus on a bunch o\ue000 other things,
we can \ue000ocus completely and utterly on experimentation, on exploring
ideas \ue000or the sake o\ue000 exploring them, and on bringing unlikely people together
to work.
One o\ue000 the things I\u2019ve noticed is that i\ue000 we spend too much time \ue000ocusing
on doing our projects on time and on budget\u2014running our kind o\ue000 business
well\u2014then the ideas we generate aren\u2019t as good. So we talk a lot about
managing tensions. On one end o\ue000 the spectrum is running a business well.
On the other end is having the most creative culture you can. You\u2019ve
got to have both. And you can\u2019t just pick a spot on the spectrum. You\u2019ve got
to move around. It doesn\u2019t worry me to do that. But it drives some people
completely crazy.
TheQ u a rt e r ly : Presumably, those tensions also exist in other organizations
trying to innovate. What approaches can help resolve them?
Tim Brown: Even though companies want everyone to be thinking about
innovation all the time, the reality is that everybody\u2019s got other roles to play.

So innovation is not a continuous activity; it\u2019s a project-based activity.
I\ue000 you don\u2019t have a process \ue000or choosing projects, starting projects, doing
projects, and ending projects, you will never get very good at innova-
tion. Projects need some \ue000orm\u2014you call them something; you run them in

a certain way; you \ue000und them in a certain way. That sounds simple, but,
actually, a good process \ue000or getting projects going and done is o\ue000ten not
obvious to companies.
Lessons from innovation\u2019s front lines: An interview with IDEO\u2019s CEO
Tim Brown
Fast facts

Serves on board o\ue000 trustees \ue000or Cali\ue000ornia College o\ue000 the Arts; member o\ue000 the Advisory Council o\ue000 Acumen Fund, a not-\ue000or-proft global venture \ue000und \ue000ocused on improving the lives o\ue000 the poor

Received honorary doctor o\ue000 science degree \ue000rom Art Center College o\ue000
Design, in Pasadena, Cali\ue000ornia (2004), and in 2005 was named a visiting
pro\ue000essor in design at University o\ue000 Northumbria, Newcastle, UK

Career highlights
IDEO(19 8 7\u2013 p r e s e n t )

\u2022 President and CEO (2000\u2013present)
\u2022 Head o\ue000 IDEO Europe (1995\u20132000)
\u2022 Head o\ue000 IDEO San Francisco o\ue000fce (1992\u201395)
\u2022 Designer (1991\u201392)

ID Two1(19 8 7 \u2013 9 1)
\u2022D e si g n e r
Vital statistics
Born June 24, 1962, in Preston, England
Married, with 2 children
Graduated with BA in industrial design in 1985 \ue000rom University
o\ue000 Northumbria, Newcastle, UK
Earned MA in design in 1987 \ue000rom Royal College o\ue000 Art, London
TheQ u a rt e r ly : What\u2019s the role of leadership in stimulating creativity and
Tim Brown: You really notice a di\ue000\ue000erence in organizations where the
senior leadership immerses itsel\ue000 in innovation. I don\u2019t mean that it runs
projects. I don\u2019t mean that it does the innovation itsel\ue000. But it immerses
itsel\ue000 by, \ue000or example, playing an active role in reviewing the innovation
that\u2019s going on at various levels in the organization in order to give people

permission to take risks. Or by playing a really active role in deciding who
gets to do innovation, making sure project leaders pick people who are
naturally com\ue000ortable taking risks.

In some cases, leading innovation means standing up \ue000or ideas when they
get to the point where they need to be sold throughout the organization.
Most o\ue000 the extinctions that happen in the innovation ecosystem happen

inside the organization\u2014long be\ue000ore the ideas get to market\u2014not in the
marketplace. The antibodies that organizations naturally have to fght new
ideas win out. It\u2019s o\ue000ten the role o\ue000 senior leadership to de\ue000end new ideas

1ID Two was one o\ue000 the three \ue000ounding companies that merged to
createI DE O, in 1991.

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