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, IDEO has been helping enterprises apply human-centered design to their products, services, brands, and systems. The company has taken 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 online learning platform for individual and team development. 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.
Online learners today are incredibly diverse. Hundreds of people join courses from around the world, including Japan.
But even as late as 2014, IDEO U was just an idea. The story of its founding is a great lesson on intrapreneurship, or launching a new venture inside an established company.
IDEO U was spearheaded by a leadership team that involves Suzanne Gibbs Howard, a partner at IDEO and dean and founder of IDEO U; and Dawn Taketa Riordan, IDEO U’s marketing director.
An Idea, an Event, and a Non-Pitch for Intrapreneurship
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 business 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
- Build scenarios
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.”
Just like that, she’d turned an idea into an impact venture. She went home and said to her husband, “Oh no, I think I started a company!”
Building IDEO U with Intrapreneurship
For a business like IDEO U (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 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 make use of design thinking tools. 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 as an impact venture lay beyond traditional market research.
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.
“We’re sharing, we’re educating, and we’re learning ourselves,” says Gibbs Howard. “It’s mutually beneficial.”
Aligning Intrapreneurship with the Master Brand
Intrapreneurial ventures are extensions of an existing organization. But do they need to align with the parent company’s vision and values?
“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.”
Bridging gaps came down to one particular skill, says Gibbs Howard: storytelling.
“Storytelling plays a powerful role in an early-stage intrapreneurial venture because you’re navigating the legacy story, the culture, the tradition, and the values of the larger company. A lot of the leaders in new intrapreneurial ventures are walking back and forth between two worlds,” she says. “Telling stories helps us create the connection.”
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.”
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.