GLOBIS Partner Faculty Darren Menabney, who has been involved with IDEO U since 2015, shares how design thinking helped it get started.

When you hear the term design thinking, you may think of IDEO, the consulting company that popularized it. Over its 40-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, then 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 by video chat from their office in San Francisco:

– Suzanne Gibbs Howard is a Partner at IDEO, and Dean and Founder of IDEO U
– Dawn Taketa Riordan is IDEO U’s Marketing Director


In 2014, Suzanne had been with IDEO for more than a decade, helping enterprises enhance their design thinking and creative problem-solving capabilities. She wondered how IDEO could create something more scalable, an accessible solution that would expand its current reach 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. We wanted to help more people around the globe to build their creative confidence.”

Instead of pulling together a pitch, she pulled together an event.


“The actual pitch was there was no pitch,” Suzanne said. “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?”

Suzanne brought together a diverse group of designers, new hires, the CEO and CMO, staff from San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum, and even a magician. “We brought a ton of inspiration and fuel into the room by having people from different backgrounds and experiences. We went through the design thinking process: We gathered insights, ideated, concepted, built scenarios, understood the business potential and then I took all that information and I wove it together into a story.”

After the event, Suzanne and her team created a short video and slide deck describing 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 Suzanne by surprise.

He said, “Okay, great Suz, go ahead and do that.” She then went home and said to her husband, “Oh no, I think I started a company!”

“In a funny way, starting a company was not my intention,” she said. “I was fascinated by this challenge, this problem out in the world that we couldn’t figure out how to solve, and I was working with people who were excited about how to solve it. And then, all of the sudden, it became IDEO U.”

For a business like this one, built inside a company like IDEO, this approach was more effective than a formal business proposal. “I think there’s another way to tackle an entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial venture that’s not all business model and financial model first,” Suzanne said. “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, like empathy for the end-user, the prototyping process, using storytelling to persuade others, and a course on leading for creativity.

As enrollment grew throughout 2016, the team needed to start thinking about where to go next.  “After the first few launches, we quickly realized that we were in a different business than consulting,” Suzanne said.  “All of the 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, Suzanne and others had a vision for IDEO U that went beyond helping people practice design thinking. They wanted to help people unlock creativity across their organizations.

To do it, 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, a veteran marketing leader. Dawn was familiar with the concepts of design thinking—she actually had been an IDEO client in the past. So, she quickly found that the answer lay beyond traditional market research.

IDEO U runs public webinars and interviews, some based on existing courses, but others on topics adjacent to traditional design thinking. Dawn discovered insights into the conversations that were arising in the real-time chat taking place during those webinars.

“Normally in my role, we would conduct focus groups or surveys. We certainly will do that at the right time, but in order to determine what courses to make next, we looked for more creative ways to get that input. I think it was more powerful because it was happening spontaneously, unprompted. It’s really important to see not only where we’re getting the heat, but also how people are talking about it, and hearing their needs in their language.”

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

Suzanne said, “I feel like 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 here so we can get feedback.

Many of these conversations were based on design provocations—prompts, often in the form of a question, that are used 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. 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 and then distributed it on the web to learn what people were thinking, and whether it was the right time to launch a course on it or other advanced technologies.

“We’re putting provocations and very simple prototypes out into the marketplace in the form of a webcast and then listening to the questions people are asking in the chat,” Suzanne said. “And then through all those mechanisms, we’re sharing, we’re educating, and we’re learning ourselves. It’s mutually beneficial.”

Provocations also have an important role in triggering discussions inside an organization.

“Getting that provocation about blockchain out into the marketplace also spurred feedback inside of IDEO,” Suzanne said. “When we did that, a few people inside of IDEO sat up and said, ‘Oh, that doesn’t feel aligned with the larger set of things that we thought IDEO U was going to teach.’ That doesn’t mean anybody shut it down, but it introduced and opened up that conversation. Provocations poke at some interesting points or hotspots, and then force the conversations to come up a little sooner than they might otherwise.”


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

“Absolutely.” Suzanne said. “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 connecting them to this new venture.”

Suzanne sees storytelling as even more vital for an internal venture 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 the two worlds,” Suzanne said.  “Telling stories helps us create the connection, and also shows the tension and the value of IDEO U’s new way of working ” 

Dawn agrees.

“As a marketer, it’s an exciting thing when you already have such a strong brand to work with. But we cannot go out into the world and be whoever we want, because many customers meet IDEO for the first time through IDEO U. We need to thoughtfully bring forward what IDEO U has to offer 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 its future success lies in continuing to expand its course offerings, while improving existing content.

“We are literally doubling the amount of content that we have at IDEO U,” Suzanne said. We’ve had this lovely store with very few but wonderful products on the shelves. We want to fill the shelves, and that’s really exciting for us, because it means many more opportunities to understand which courses and classes excite our learners.”

By living what it teaches, IDEO U shows how key elements of design thinking – “How Might We” questions, empathy for the end-user, a prototyping mindset, provocations, and storytelling– can help any business succeed. It’s a powerful set of tools for anyone who wants to launch an intrapreneurial venture.