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Tech & Innovation
FEB 22, 2021

How to Think Outside the Box Like an IDEO Designer

By Melissa McIvor, With Tom Kelley
iStock/Warchi

In 1914, Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of Puzzles posed a challenge: with as few strokes as possible, draw straight lines through each dot in a nine-dot grid without lifting your pen. Puzzle enthusiasts set to work, attempting spirals, crosses, and other nonsensical designs to reach the goal. The savviest eventually hit upon the four-stroke answer—an answer that, decades later, spawned one of the world’s greatest cliches:

“Think outside the box.”

The puzzle (left) and solution (right) to Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of Puzzles puzzle that spawned the expression “Think outside the box.” |©GLOBIS

For many years, we have marveled at companies like Google, Evernote, and Lululemon that embody out-of-the-box operations and company culture. And yet, we still thought, “That would never work at my company.” The confines of our proverbial “boxes” were surely different—more stubborn managers, more mainstream products, stricter regulations.

Then came COVID-19. Suddenly, everywhere, it wasn’t “innovate when you can,” but “innovate or else.”

World-renowned design firm IDEO is no stranger to innovation, but the pandemic presented hefty challenges all the same. Tom Kelley, partner at IDEO and cofounder and chairman of D4V (Design for Ventures), recently shared with us how the firm’s seven hundred-plus employees (many creatives dependent on spontaneity and human interaction) made it through.

How has the pandemic changed things at IDEO?

My answer is the same as most companies: it changed everything. For us, the pandemic meant switching from in-person to remote, from the physical to the digital, and from the serendipitous to the planned.

In-person to Remote

In-person to remote was really hard for us. Our work is very human centered. New design research has historically always been done in-person. We sit with people in their homes or we follow them to where they work—that’s how we get to see stuff they don’t talk about. Suddenly we couldn’t do that.

Some things we do have made the transition easier. For example, we ask clients not to turn on their backgrounds so that we can gather information visually, and we do the same. We were doing a food-related project, and one of our designers was there with his laptop, in his own kitchen, all his kitchen stuff behind him, and wearing an apron.

We’re always trying to get people to relax and just be themselves, not say what they think we want to hear. That designer in his kitchen was sending a signal, saying, “Hey, it’s OK. I’m in my kitchen. We’re just talking food here.” The goal was to connect as a human with the other person remotely. And we’ve done that pretty successfully.

Physical to Digital

In the whole history of IDEO, our basic unit of creative thought has been the Post-it. Luckily, there are digital tools to replace that, but finding digital versions of other tools was harder.

We have one tool that we really love called Creative Tensions in which you’re in a room and you ask a question—the kind of controversial question that doesn’t have a “right answer.” There’s a piece of tape down the center of the room, and we get people to physically move around and stand where their answer is. It gets people up out of their chairs and starts conversations.

When the pandemic hit, we had to create a digital version. Everyone has an avatar with their face on it, and they can bump into other people—and you do bump into other people because now hundreds of people can use the tool at once. We’ve found it’s pretty good. I mean, it’s usable. It starts the same conversations.

The Serendipitous to the Planned

We really believe that there’s magic in a serendipitous meeting, so we’ve always had exactly one place in the office to go get your cup of coffee in the morning, things like that. Even in quite large offices like San Francisco, you find value bumping into people: “Oh, Rebecca, what are you working on? Hey, I’ve got a friend who works in that industry. Do you want to talk to him?” A lot of my job is actually based around those serendipitous meetings, but we don’t have a digital tool for that.

What we do have is a tool called Donut.

Once a week, we use Donut to set up lunches between random employees. And because we’re remote, we get to meet with people all over the world. We don’t talk shop at all. I had someone in the Tokyo office tell me that they were expecting a baby, and they hadn’t told anyone in the office yet. I had somebody express her intense political beliefs. I get a lot of questions about parenting because I have kids. I’m learning what’s important to people. And often, we stumble into a topic that has real value to IDEO.

Tom Kelley

The COVID-19 crisis forced us to innovate. How do we keep up an innovative mindset when that crisis pressure is gone?

In a time like this, where there’s just so much change in the air, agility means learning what you need to do in this moment. It’s basically “learn at the speed of change.” That is a core competency that all organizations—and, by the way, all individuals—need.

My favorite meeting of the last like five years was at IDEO Tokyo. Every quarter, we do this portfolio review. It’s a time to say, “Hey, look, we came together as a team, and look at what we did.” In the most recent one, instead of just talking about the work, we had all forty-three people give a five-minute master class. Some of them were super global—how to make a pitch, how to speak to a Japanese audience, how to do personal digital transformation. But then there were others that got down into the micro, like how to do lighting in Photoshop when you’re adding an object to a photograph. I’m never going to use that one, but it was still fascinating.

After forty-three presentations, I thought, “This is what all companies need.” You have this knowledge in the brains of individuals, and sharing that knowledge is how you help the collective navigate uncertainty.

Here’s something else everyone can do: Every weekend, I say to myself, “OK, Tom, what’d you learn this week?” And honestly, if my answer is “nothing,” that’s a problem. Here we are, it’s 2021, we’ve just survived this unbelievable year of 2020. If you went a week and didn’t learn anything, you can be darn sure that the world changed a lot in that week without you.

What’s the best approach if we want to inspire a learning mindset in others?

There’s a quote from Winston Churchill I absolutely love: “I am always ready to learn, but I do not always like being taught.”

IDEO is best known for the consulting part of our business, but we actually have three pillars: design consulting, investing, and learning. When we’re dealing with executives, we’re dealing with mid-career people who don’t want us teaching them. They want us to help them learn.

You’ve really got to think about what you want from someone when you set out to help them learn. Some people talk about “specialists” and “generalists,” but we prefer “T-shaped people.” That’s somebody who is wickedly good at something (the vertical part of the T), but also has knowledge of, appreciation for, or respect for other disciplines (the top part of the T).

We’re not trying to turn executives into designers. But if they understand the value and the power of design, that knowledge will make them a better leader. We don’t want them to be a generalist in all things, but just add a little bit of breadth. And to do that, they need a learning mindset.

What’s your ultimate advice as we (hopefully) move out of the pandemic experience?

One of our approaches to the world is “act with optimism.” We have to believe in our future. Otherwise, we couldn’t do what we were doing. I think 2021 is going to be a transitional year. And then, in 2022, we’ll unleash a ton of growth because there’s so much pent-up demand. So many things are going to be reinvented.

But eventually, we’ll see another downturn.

Our stories are built into the fiber of our being. The things we’ve learned in the last twelve months, stories of resilience and recovery and reinvention—those stories are going to be really, really useful someday. I’ve heard that among elephant herds in Africa, herds with the oldest elephants that remember the last drought survive new droughts better. It’s literally a matter of life and death to have the old elephants who remember. When all the wells and waterholes dry up, someone can go, “You know, twenty years ago, we went way over there, and there was water. So, hey, let’s go that way.”

We’ve all learned some things that are going to come in super handy at some point in the future. It used to be that crises came about every thirty years, then every 20 years . . . They seem like they come about every three years now. So hold onto all of those things that you learn.

The exact thing you did may not be what’s going to work next time, but you’ll definitely benefit from that spirit of, “Hey, we did it last time. We can do this.”