Good Reads: The Art of Innovation

The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley with Jonathan Littman.

Jono Hey, Chief Product Officer at Zen Educate mentioned this book during a ‘Lunch and Learn’ for the team a few months back. I always listen carefully to Jono; I hunted out the book, saw the foreword was by Tom Peters and placed an order.

The author, Tom Kelley is a partner in IDEO, a leading design firm in the US with a track record of design successes from shopping trolleys and toothpaste tubes to portable defibrillators and insulin delivery systems. It was first published in 2001 so many of the stories are now outdated but provide a sharp reminder of how many things we currently take as givens. Someone, somewhere, noticed where things could be done better and put their time, effort, passion and resources into designing a solution.

Key takeaways

1. Design thinking is for everyone

You don’t have to be a designer by profession to notice when and where things could be better, commit to finding a better way and begin playing with new ideas. Playfulness is a theme throughout the book. It’s not about finding the quickest and first solution, and definitely not about being ‘first in the room’ with the idea. There’s a huge emphasis on generating multiple ideas (at least 30+ and sometimes 100s!) and then coming up with more. Kelley advocates practicing multiple idea generation and encourages regular team brainstorming, at least monthly and for around 60mins at a time. At IDEO, huge effort, time and play goes into the team’s creative thinking which includes gathering resources to tinker about with and make mini prototypes to test out ideas early on. Early years professionals amongst readers will note the similarities with heuristic play.

2. The power of observation

IDEOrs get into the field and make sure they fully understand the issues, challenges and opportunities they are being asked to work on. They observe, ask questions, and notice minute details, making discoveries which reveal a different perspective, sometimes a perspective the commissioning client hasn’t yet noticed. Early defibrillators were complex to use, reducing effectiveness in lifesaving moments whilst users deliberated. From observation, the team noticed three main functions were used in life saving situations and adapted the portable defibrillators. With this new understanding, they designed a machine with much broader community usage, leading to more lives being saved. Now, portable defibrillators are almost commonplace – in gyms, libraries, and re-purposed village phone boxes!

3. It’s a team game

Kelley debunks ideas that innovation takes place in isolation and solitude by a lone genius. The book is full of teamwork, team effort, ‘hot teams’ put together for specific and brief projects, multi professional teams and sometimes ‘hangers on’ who stop by to get involved because the idea has caught their interest and imagination. Hot groups are filled with purpose and personality. And bad groups? Well – these are places where preserving the group’s status is the key goal.

4. The IDEO team use a five step process to achieve their goals

  • Understand the market, the problem to be solved, any current constraints and the perspectives of the client. You may challenge this later – but understand it. Make sure a good ‘problem statement’ is generated so there’s shared agreement on the actual issue.

  • Observe real people in the real-world situation to find out what works for them, where the pain points are, what frustrates and bugs them, what brings delight and ease to the process.

  • Visualise new concepts and ideas, the people and situations where they will be used. Walk through the story to try out your ideas and understand the user experience.

  • Evaluate and refine the new ideas/prototypes in simulated situations and iterate quickly to improve. Test out your ideas and focus on learning what works, what people hate, what they love, and iterate again.

  • Implement only once you have sufficient understanding, insight and capability to produce what’s actually needed.

This process has literally enabled IDEO to improve and save lives through designed products which we use everyday. I’m struck by the longevity of these products (the book is well over 10 years old and technology moves fast) but many of the designs created through this process are standing the test of time.

5. Work on developing empathy

The value of deep understanding and observation is a recurring theme. Kelley encourages detailed noticing and note-keeping including impressions, questions and reactions. Ideally this includes motivations and emotions, and asking ‘why’ questions.

‘Good companies and good consultants are astute observers of people, teams, organisations, technologies and trends. They see quirks and patterns.’

He’s big on empathy and the need to develop what people need, and asserts that ‘the best products embrace people’s differences’.

Innovators watch what’s happening and think about ‘what could be done better here?’ I only have to skim my social media to know many people have a view about how things could/should be done better. What strikes me is the mood underlying the writing. It’s clearly located in possibility and curiosity.

6. Think in verbs not nouns

Thinking in verbs rather than nouns was a new idea for me. So rather than thinking ‘we need a new library/health centre’, think through what is lacking in the current user experience and visualise what their preferred future or experience would be like. What would their journey into accessing a range of reading material/health care be like? How will they find the information they need? What would it be like if it was working really well?

7. Try out ideas early and quickly then get feedback

Work on several crude outlines or prototypes to try out ideas and get feedback early from colleagues and enthusiasts so you can get feedback and better understand what people want and need, and then refine and improve what you’re doing.Don’t put all your efforts into one solution early on. Insist on early feedback that helps you develop. ‘Innovation isn’t about perfection’. Be prepared to mess up a few times on the way.

How and where can I apply this?

Reflecting on this alongside fifteen years of coaching leaders in a range of public and private organisations so much of this resonates with my coaching practice.

Helping clients fully understand their current situation and context, gaining clarity and insight about where the disruptions and concerns reside.

Helping while they create a ‘rich picture’ of their preferred future, sometimes setting out goals followed by generating multiple ideas including the wild and playful for action.

‘The next time you’re struggling with a tricky project, close your eyes and pretend the barriers – size, materials, weight, or simple preconceptions don’t exist.’

As we work together there’s no moderation at this stage; this part of the process is about possibilities and creativity. Our internal moderation of ideas before we even express them can be so stifling. Idea generation is just that, and we have to exercise our creativity. ‘Stretch your mental muscles!’ Kelley implores. Sketch, draw, paint, use sticky paper – but push out for ideas. Moderation can come later when we consider ‘best fit’ and decide on next steps.

Final thoughts – it’s the curiosity, possibility and ambition that resonates.


In Kelley’s words:

‘If something’s broken – it can be fixed.’


Photo: Sculpture on the Serpentine by Bulgarian Artisit Christo in 2018. Photo: Niall Woodward


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