Suzanne Gibbs Howard and Dawn Taketa Riordan launched IDEO U as an intrapreneurial venture to bring design thinking to online learners
Dawn Taketa Riordan (left) and Suzanne Gibbs Howard (right) are the minds that launched IDEO U.

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If you’ve heard the term “design thinking,” there’s a good chance you’ve also heard of IDEO, the consulting company that popularized it. Over its forty-year history, the global design company has been helping enterprises apply human-centered design to their products, services, brands, and systems, taking on projects from designing the original Apple mouse to building a new school system in Peru.

Since November of 2015, I’ve been involved with IDEO U, the company’s learning platform, which offers online courses for individual learners and teams. Initially, I was a learner myself. Later, I was invited back as an alumni coach, supporting students and working with IDEO U to improve the experience. IDEO U’s learners are incredibly diverse—hundreds of people join each course from around the world, including Japan.

Four years ago, the platform, which by now has served tens of thousands of people, was just an idea. The story of its founding is a great lesson on intrapreneurship—how to launch a new venture inside an established company.

To learn more, I connected with two members of the IDEO U leadership team: Suzanne Gibbs Howard, a Partner at IDEO and Dean and Founder of IDEO U; and Dawn Taketa Riordan, IDEO U’s Marketing Director.

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The Birth of IDEO U: An Idea, an Event, and a Non-Pitch

By 2014, Gibbs Howard had been with IDEO for more than a decade helping enterprises enhance their design thinking and creative problem-solving capabilities. But she’d begun to wonder how IDEO could create something more scalable, an accessible solution that would expand beyond client work.

“IDEO U began because we were not only helping companies launch new innovations, but also helping them become better innovators and more creative people,” she recalls. “We wanted to help more people around the globe to build their creative confidence.”

But instead of pulling together a pitch, she pulled together an event.

“The actual pitch was there was no pitch,” she says. “There was a daylong event where we gathered people from all over IDEO, and a few people from outside of IDEO, and asked, ‘How might we scale more creative confidence in the world?'”

She brought together a diverse group of designers, new hires, the CEO and CMO, staff from San Francisco’s Exploratorium, and even a magician. The goal was diversity, fueling inspiration with all the backgrounds and experiences they could muster. From there, they went through the design thinking process:

  • Gather insights
  • Ideate
  • Conceptualize
  • Build scenarios
  • Understood the business potential and then I took all that information and I wove it together into a story.”

After the event, Gibbs Howard and her team created a short video and slide deck with a rough concept for an online learning platform featuring “teaching tools, tips, and talks about creative confidence” that would tackle that “How Might We…?” question.

When she took the concept to IDEO CEO Tim Brown, his reaction took her by surprise: “OK, great,” he said. “Go ahead and do that.”

She then went home and said to her husband, “Oh no, I think I started a company!”

Starting a company hadn’t been her intention, but she was fascinated by the challenge nonetheless. There was a problem in the world no one knew how to solve, but she had a team of people excited about solving it.

“And then, all of the sudden, it became IDEO U.”

Building a Distinct Identity for IDEO U with Intrapreneurship

For a business like IDEO U (essentially, a company within a company), Gibbs Howard and her team needed an intrapreneurship approach: “There’s a way to tackle a venture that’s not all business models and financial models first. Yes, those are both valid, but asking questions is what drives us. For a venture like this one, the largest focus is not only the money—it’s about impact.”

In its first year, IDEO U launched a few online courses, covering the essentials of design thinking: empathy for the end user, the prototyping process, storytelling for persuasion, and leading for creativity.

As enrollment grew throughout 2016, the team needed to start thinking about where to go next.

“We quickly realized that we were in a different business than consulting,” Gibbs Howard says. “All of a sudden, we had new issues that we needed to tackle, new challenges, and new people’s needs to satisfy. We really needed to go back to our roots, go back to our DNA, and learn again.”

From the beginning, the team had a vision for IDEO U that went beyond helping people practice design thinking. They wanted to help unlock creativity across organizations. But to do that, the team needed to figure out which kinds of courses would grow the business and resonate with the global learner community, while being conscious of the overlap with IDEO’s consulting offer. 

By this time, IDEO U had hired Dawn Taketa Riordan, a veteran marketing leader familiar with the concepts of design thinking. She had even been an IDEO client in the past. She quickly found that the answer to IDEO U’s greater purpose for impact lay beyond traditional market research.

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Looking beyond Market Research for User Feedback

IDEO U runs public webinars and interviews, some based on existing courses, others on more traditional design thinking. Taketa Riordan stumbled upon a goldmine of insights: the real-time chat during webinars.

“Normally in my role, we would conduct focus groups or surveys,” explains Taketa Riordan. “But in order to determine what courses to make next, we looked for more creative ways to get input. The chat box was more powerful because it was happening spontaneously, unprompted. It’s really important to see . . . how people are talking about [the courses] and hear their needs in their language.”

Based on these chat conversations, the team created new courses on advanced design thinking concepts: scaling change, finding purpose, and designing a business. These empowered individuals to help their organizations harness creativity.

Gibbs Howard says, “Every conversation is an opportunity for us to learn, whether in conversations with the teaching community or the webcasts. We’re constantly putting ideas out there so we can get feedback.”

Many conversations were based on prompts, or “design provocations,” often in the form of a question to kickstart creative thinking. They’re often intentionally ambiguous and personify the design thinking mindset of “done is better than perfect.” Unlike market research, they don’t try to validate a well-defined concept. Instead, they are used to discover and evaluate options.

“Provocations come much earlier, they’re much more half-baked, and you don’t have to think everything through,” explains Gibbs Howard. “It does take creative confidence to put these things out there. You might not be able to define provocations explicitly, but they introduce some of the concepts.”

For example, IDEO U wondered how interested their learner community might be in new technologies like blockchain. The team ran a webinar on blockchain, then distributed it on the web to learn whether it was the right time to launch a course on this or other advanced technologies.

“Through all those mechanisms,” says Gibbs Howard, “we’re sharing, we’re educating, and we’re learning ourselves. It’s mutually beneficial.”

Aligning Intrapreneurship with the Master Brand

Design provocations also proved to have an important role in triggering discussions inside the organization.

“Getting that provocation about blockchain out into the marketplace also spurred feedback inside of IDEO,” Gibbs Howard says. “A few people sat up and said, ‘Oh, that doesn’t feel aligned with what we thought IDEO U was going to teach.’ That doesn’t mean anybody shut it down, but it did open up a conversation. Provocations poke at hotspots, and then force conversations sooner than they might come up otherwise.”

Intrapreneurial ventures are extensions of an existing business. Therefore, they must maintain some connection to it. But do they need to align with the parent company’s vision and values?

“Absolutely,” says Gibbs Howard. “Storytelling plays a powerful role when you’re launching an intrapreneurial venture because you’re navigating the legacy story, the culture, the tradition, and the values of the larger company. And you’re connecting all of that to this new venture.”

She sees storytelling as even more vital for intrapreneurship than it is for other kinds of businesses—something she did not grasp at first.

“A lot of the leaders in new intrapreneurial ventures inside IDEO, and certainly people on the IDEO U team, are continually walking back and forth between two worlds,” she says. “Telling stories helps us create the connection, and also shows the tension and the value of IDEO U’s new way of working.”

Taketa Riordan agrees: “As a marketer, it’s exciting to already have such a strong brand to work with. But we cannot go out into the world and be whoever we want. Many customers meet IDEO through IDEO U. We need to thoughtfully showcase IDEO U in a way that honors the master brand. It’s very different from a normal startup where you can create and shape your brand independently.”

As IDEO U grows, the team believes future success lies in continuing to expand course offerings while improving existing content.

“We are literally doubling the amount of content that we have at IDEO U,” says Gibbs Howard. “We’ve had this lovely store with very few but wonderful products on the shelves. We want to fill the shelves.”

By living what it teaches, IDEO U shows how key elements of design thinking, from “How might we…?” questions to master-brand storytelling, can help any business succeed. Their intrapreneurship journey is a powerful example for anyone looking to make meaningful impact through a new brand.

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