IDEO’s Creative Difference … How able is your business to solve challenges in new, meaningful ways?

January 14, 2019

Companies like Apple, IKEA, and Google work hard to develop the culture, processes, and habits that drive their success. When taken together, these all add up to a capability we call creative competitiveness. It’s what IDEO has spent 25 years observing, practicing, and perfecting with companies like Nike, Procter & Gamble, and Ford.

IDEO Creative Difference harnesses this expertise by assessing and guiding organizations in developing their own creative competitiveness. The data-driven insights from Creative Difference orient leaders towards action and uncover strengths and improvement areas across all levels of their organization.

Starting with a 15-20 minute assessment shared across any number of teams or business units, Creative Difference looks at the culture, behaviors, processes, and knowledge sharing across the organization. The resulting insights are compiled into a simple and intuitive online dashboard, which allows leaders to see how their organization compares with other innovative organizations, choose which proven actions they will take to improve their organization, and track how their actions have impacted their organization over time.

IDEO was founded in 1991 by David Kelley, and supported by his brother Tom. I first came across IDEO in 1995 when talking with Tim Brown who had just opened their London office, who raved about a different way to solve problems in a truly consumer-centric, creative-obsessive, yet commercially-minded way.

Having just stepped out of managing brands in the airline industry and into the world of consulting, I loved the ability to conjure creativity through active participation of teams … to go beyond process and technology to real think differently, and to inspire a creative confidence in colleagues.

In 1999, the ABC show Nightline famously featured IDEO in a segment called The Deep Dive: One Company’s Secret Weapon for Innovation. ABC challenged IDEO to redesign the shopping cart in five days to demonstrate IDEO’s process for innovation.

The end result was a shopping cart with a nestable steel frame which holds removable plastic baskets to help deter theft and increase shopper flexibility. A dual child seat with a swing-up tray was also included in the design, as well as a cupholder, a scanner to skip the checkout line and steerable back wheels for maneuverability. The video has been repeated millions of times in business schools and corporations around the world. And in many ways, was the early process which then became codified as design thinking.

Working with Tom a few years later, in Istanbul of all places, I was intrigued by how other companies could embrace the Deep Dive process, and it become an accepted way to research and develop new ideas.

He described how his brother David was working at codifying the approach into a more structured approach which could be replicated and taught. He created the D School in Palo Alto, and the concept of Design Thinking was born.

Today, IDEO continues to challenge and stretch the minds of executives, the boundaries of business, and inspire new products and services, both commercially, and in ways that make the world better too.

So back to IDEO’s Creative Difference.

I asked David to describe the 6 qualities of a creative business:

He says empowerment is the most powerful lever. Empowerment is about creating a clear path forward for people and trusting them to do the right thing. It’s about giving them the right tool kits, helping them understand how to tackle creative challenges, and letting them use their own judgment to solve problems as a team. When people understand that there is a clear way for ideas to move forward and that they have access to the methods and tools to get them to go forward, they’re much more likely to actually put energy and time into these efforts to innovate.

However it starts with purpose. Basically, does your organization have a clear reason to exist beyond making money? It’s saying, “Of all the things we can do in the world, why would we do this one versus another?” That’s a huge advantage in terms of sending people on a common mission. It really fires people up and helps them bring their best selves to work.

The next is looking out. What we see is that people love to sit around a table and debate. And we see the effort of navigating internal processes and politics eats up a ton of people’s energy and time. What we see in big organizations, as they mature, is that they forget to glance outside and see what their customers really value. Organizations that do this well have sensors out in the world to bring those stories into the organization so that people inside can really understand their customers and their market.

Interestingly, in companies that are are looking out well, there’s no shortage of ideas. The challenge usually becomes, how do you prioritize? Many organizations do technical prototyping or piloting, but a lot of them are missing out on experimentation, a faster way to explore ideas. Experimentation is having a good and fair framework to test ideas in lightweight ways. Through experimentation, you can determine how to move forward and invest in ideas appropriately and fairly in ways people can really understand.

Collaboration is about getting multidisciplinary teams together to work on challenges in agile ways. We see that teams that work in parallel are much more effective than those that work in series. So, instead of just saying one function has a go, then handing it off to the next function — in which case anyone might suddenly raise a red flag — you get people ideating and working together. It has a massive impact on team effectiveness.

Finally, it’s about refinement, which is investing in craft and creative problem solving through technical execution. We find that organizations often have this artificial division in their heads between the upfront creative process and the execution process. In reality, that’s a blurred line. Just because you have a great idea that’s validated doesn’t actually mean it’s going to be an elegant solution that fulfills the initial purpose. You need to give the people in charge of execution the time to problem solve against technical challenges that emerge so they can solve those problems effectively.

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