The Art of Innovation: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: June 20th, 2011 by bobmorris

The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm
Tom Kelley with Jonathan Littman
Crown Business (2001)

I recently re-read two books written by Tom Kelley with Jonathan Littman, this one and The Ten Faces of Innovation. In both, Kelley provides a wealth of information and counsel which can help any decision-maker to “drive creativity” through her or his organization but only if initiatives are (a) a collaboration which receives the support and encouragement of senior management (especially of the CEO) and (b) sufficient time is allowed for those initiatives to have a measurable impact. The Art of Innovation is one of the best business books publisged in recent years, a “classic” in my opinion, but don’t be misled by the title, “Lessons in creativity from IDEO, America’s leading design firm.” Unlike almost all other authors of worthy books on the subject of innovative thinking, Kelley does NOT organize his material in terms of a sequence of specific “lessons”…nor does he inundate his reader with checklists, “executive summaries”, bullet points, do’s and don’ts, “key points”, etc. Rather, he shares what I guess you could characterize as “stories” based on real-world situations in which he and his IDEO associates solved various problems when completing industrial design assignments for their clients.

As he notes, “We’ve linked those organizational achievements to specific methodologies and tools you can use to build innovation into your own organization…[However, IDEO’s] ‘secret formula’ is actually not very formulaic. It’s a blend of of methodologies, work practices, culture, and infrastructure. Methodology alone is not enough.” One of the greatest benefits of the book is derived from direct access to that “blend” when activated.

Characterized as “loosely described,” Kelley shares IDEO’s five-step methodology: Understand the market, the client, the technology, and the perceived constraints on the given problem; observe real people in real-life situations; literally visualize new-to-the-world concepts AND the customers who will use them; evaluate and refine the prototypes in a series of quick iterations; and finally, implement the new concept for commercialization. With regard to the last “step”, as Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman explain in Organizing Genius, Apple executives immediately recognized the commercial opportunities for PARC’s technology. Larry Tesler (who later left PARC for Apple) noted that Jobs and companions “wanted to get it out to the world.” But first, obviously, they had to create that “it.”

IDEO is quite properly renowned for the design of products such as the Apple mouse, the Palm Pilot, a one-piece fishing mechanism for children, the in-vehicle beverage holder, toothpaste tubes that don’t “gunk up” in the cap area, “mud-free” water bottles for mountain bikers, a small digital camera for the handspring Visor, and the Sun Tracker Beach Chair. However, the material in  this book that interests me most is that which focuses on (a) the physical environment in which those at IDEO interact and (b) the nature and extent of that interaction, principally the brainstorm sessions.

In the Foreword, Tom Peters has this in mind when explaining why Kelley’s is a marvelous book: “It carefully walks us through each stage of the IDEO innovation process — from creating hot teams (IDEO is perpetually on `boil’) to learning to see through the customer’s eyes (forget focus groups!) and brainstorming (trust me, nobody but nobody does it better) to rapid prototyping (and nobody, but nobody does it better…).” Whatever your current situation, whatever the size and nature of your organization, surely you and it need to avoid or escape from “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Granted, you may never be involved in the creation of an “insanely great” product but Kelley can at least help you to gain “the true spirit of innovation” in your life. I join him in wishing you “some serious fun.

 

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