TIM BROWN on the evo­lu­tion of De­sign Think­ing

One of the world’s lead­ing de­sign thinkers pon­ders the mean­ing of creative lead­er­ship.

Rotman Management Magazine - - FROM THE EDITOR - In­ter­view by Karen Chris­tensen

You have said that, at its best, de­sign cre­ates re­la­tion­ships be­tween peo­ple and tech­nolo­gies. Please ex­plain.

When I use the term ‘tech­nolo­gies’, I mean any­thing that is con­structed by hu­man be­ings — whether it’s an ipod, an au­to­mo­bile, a rapid tran­sit sys­tem, or an or­ga­ni­za­tion’s meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Her­bert Si­mon said that when­ever we shape the world to meet our needs, we are de­sign­ing. For bet­ter or worse, we also shape na­ture to meet our needs. In each case, by bet­ter un­der­stand­ing the needs of those you are try­ing to serve — and ex­press­ing those needs in the form of in­sights that you de­velop and pro­to­type — you can end up with new and pow­er­ful choices.

The is­sue is, we don’t al­ways get to the shap­ing part as early as I would like. Some­times, we let a tech­nol­ogy take its own path for too long, be­fore we re­al­ize that we can shape it to meet our needs — in­stead of be­ing af­fected by it in a pas­sive way.

One of the key tenets of IDEO’S ap­proach is study­ing ‘emer­gent be­hav­iour’. How do you de­fine that term?

In our prac­tice, we are par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the be­hav­iour of ‘ex­treme users’. If you take the bulk of be­hav­iour around what­ever you are fo­cus­ing on — whether it be com­mut­ing, shop­ping or some other ac­tiv­ity — and draw a bell curve, the ex­treme edges of that curve rep­re­sent emer­gent be­hav­iour. These users of­ten find ways to work around

the sys­tem and do things in a novel way. As a re­sult, study­ing their be­hav­iour can be very use­ful in terms of in­form­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for the fu­ture. We’ve found that col­lec­tively, ‘be­hav­iours on the edge’ of­ten in­form ideas that be­come larger scale.

Roger Martin has said that on its own, data can­not help us un­der­stand the fu­ture; it can only help us un­der­stand the past. How do you re­act to that state­ment?

I don’t think for a mo­ment that Roger is sug­gest­ing we ig­nore data; I think he is say­ing that we need to do things dif­fer­ently to­day. In the past, we of­ten de­pended upon data as a sort of ‘in­struc­tion set’ for the fu­ture. But in a world where in­no­va­tion is in high de­mand, as in­di­cated, we need to fo­cus most on what is hap­pen­ing at the edges — the ‘weak sig­nals’ among a par­tic­u­lar group of con­sumers. That is the best way to in­form your ques­tions and imag­ine the fu­ture — whether that be prod­uct in­no­va­tions, new or­ga­ni­za­tional ap­proaches or fu­ture busi­ness mod­els.

In a world where op­er­a­tional com­pet­i­tive­ness is the goal, and not in­no­va­tion, you can still take an al­go­rithm and say, ‘This is what an op­ti­mally-ef­fi­cient ver­sion of X looks like’. But that ap­proach only works in an en­vi­ron­ment that is rel­a­tively sta­ble and pre­dictable. In that world, you can get away with us­ing data from the past to por­tend what to do in the fu­ture — be­cause you are as­sum­ing that the fu­ture will be no dif­fer­ent from the past. This is what a lot of com­pa­nies have done. They live in a world where it’s all about com­pet­ing op­er­a­tionally, and hence, their im­prove­ments are only in­cre­men­tal.

How­ever, in the world of mas­sive change that we live in to­day, ev­ery­one must com­pete cre­atively. In this worldview, clearly, data about the past can­not al­go­rith­mi­cally tell you what to do next. If the con­text of the fu­ture will be dif­fer­ent from the con­text of the present and the past, then data about the fu­ture is ob­vi­ously go­ing to be dif­fer­ent from data for both the present and the past. Hav­ing said that, data can still be ex­tremely use­ful when it comes to in­form­ing which ques­tions you should be ask­ing to lead you to what­ever your ver­sion of the fu­ture is.

In an un­pre­dictable world that is as volatile as it’s ever been, the best way to think about the fu­ture is to as­sem­ble the things you do know about and then won­der what things will be like in the fu­ture. Thank­fully, one big piece of this puz­zle is fairly pre­dictable, be­cause hu­man be­hav­iour doesn’t change very much.

In an in­creas­ingly dig­i­tal world, what new skills are be­ing de­manded of the de­sign thinker?

Like ev­ery­thing else, the medium of de­sign is evolv­ing. I was trained as an in­dus­trial de­signer, so my me­dia was metal, plas­tic and pro­duc­tion lines; but I hap­pened to get trained just as the world was com­put­er­iz­ing, so, my in­ter­est back at de­sign school was, ‘What is that ex­pe­ri­ence go­ing to be like?’ I hap­pened to fall into a com­pany that ul­ti­mately be­came IDEO, where one of the founders, Bill Mog­gridge, had al­ready coined the term ‘in­ter­ac­tion de­sign’. He re­al­ized that there was go­ing to be a new medium for de­sign: The dig­i­tal ex­pe­ri­ence.

Sud­denly, as de­sign­ers, we found our­selves try­ing to imag­ine how we could ma­nip­u­late and work with this new me­dia. ‘The soft­ware ex­pe­ri­ence’ en­tails all the things that soft­ware does on screens or through other kinds of user in­ter­ac­tions. That jour­ney has been go­ing on for 30 years, now, and it is con­stantly evolv­ing.

To­day, we have other me­dia that are now ‘des­ignable’, in­clud­ing AI, data and ma­chine learn­ing. These are not just tech­nolo­gies: They are me­dia that we can de­sign with to cre­ate user ex­pe­ri­ences. If we think about a par­tic­u­lar kind of data, and do­ing X or Y with it, we can cre­ate a re­sponse that helps a user achieve what­ever it is that she wants to get done. That’s still what a de­signer does: It’s no dif­fer­ent from craft­ing some­thing use­ful from a piece of plas­tic or wood.

AI and ma­chine learn­ing are not just tech­nolo­gies: They are me­dia that we can de­sign with to cre­ate user ex­pe­ri­ences.

To­day, we’re see­ing an ex­plo­sion of tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies de­liv­er­ing dig­i­tal ex­pe­ri­ences in one form or another, and most of them rec­og­nize that their task is to shape their tech­nol­ogy to meet peo­ples’ needs. As a re­sult, many have built an in-house de­sign ca­pac­ity. I’ve seen this with my own eyes: The num­ber of de­sign­ers in Sil­i­con Val­ley has gone from a few dozen when I first got here in the late ‘80s, to tens of thou­sands to­day. In­creas­ingly, peo­ple rec­og­nize that De­sign Think­ing gen­er­ates mo­men­tum through it­er­a­tion and pro­to­typ­ing, and that it strength­ens in­sight around what works — and what doesn’t.

Another ex­cit­ing area is Bi­ol­ogy. We’re start­ing to see early in­di­ca­tions of new ma­te­ri­als that can be built from phys­i­cal ma­te­ri­als, like cells and DNA. That’s another new medium for us to use. So, one big shift is that we need to em­brace and learn how to de­sign with all these new me­dia.

In re­cent years, the com­plex­ity of the prob­lems we’re be­ing asked to con­trib­ute to has gone up, by a few or­ders of mag­ni­tude. We used to de­sign prod­ucts, which was com­plex enough; but now, we are be­ing asked to de­sign ser­vices, which are a suc­ces­sion of prod­ucts, mo­ments, touch points and ex­pe­ri­ences; and we’re be­ing asked to think about de­sign­ing sys­tems, which are to some de­gree, con­stantly evolv­ing and made up of many ser­vices, prod­ucts, ideas and stake­hold­ers. For in­stance, a few years ago we started work­ing with In­nova Schools to de­sign a new school sys­tem from the ground up, for the emerg­ing Peru­vian mid­dle class. We had to come at the prob­lem from many dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives at once, with a highly in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary team. We’ve been it­er­at­ing on the de­sign of that sys­tem for sev­eral years, and it is now be­gin­ning to be suc­cess­ful, with tens of thou­sands of stu­dents, and some re­ally fan­tas­tic out­comes.

The final thing that’s new is that the con­text for de­sign has sig­nif­i­cantly changed. When I first started out, I was cer­tainly con­scious of things like the en­vi­ron­ment — that was one of the things that got me think­ing about de­sign think­ing in the first place. But at the time, there was no no­tion of things like the ‘cir­cu­lar econ­omy’ and the kinds of de­sign chal­lenges that cli­mate change presents to us — and the op­por­tu­ni­ties. That con­text has changed sig­nif­i­cantly — as it has for busi­ness lead­ers. De­sign­ers and busi­ness lead­ers alike have to be much more aware of the so­ci­etal con­text, and their con­tri­bu­tion to it, than in the past.

All in all, it’s much harder to be a de­signer these days, but on the bright side, de­sign­ers can have a tremen­dous im­pact on the re­sult­ing sys­tem. If you get it wrong and de­sign some­thing with too many steps or too much pack­ag­ing, you will have a neg­a­tive im­pact. But, if you get it right and do some clever things, you can have a very pos­i­tive im­pact on the world.

You have said that “De­sign is never fin­ished.” But, ob­vi­ously, things have to be launched into the world; what’s the best way to man­age this para­dox?

Back in the day, Ford would launch a new car, and then it would come back the next year and re­launch it with mi­nor tweaks. The Thun­der­bird, for in­stance, went through many it­er­a­tions, but it was still a Thun­der­bird. In that sense, de­sign has al­ways been some­thing that is ‘never done’— but it used to be much more man­age­able, be­cause com­pa­nies had tra­di­tional top-down sys­tems in place to man­age those ac­tiv­i­ties over a set pe­riod of time. The dif­fer­ence to­day is that most things are de­liv­ered through soft­ware, which can change con­stantly — par­tic­u­larly if it’s in­formed through data that is col­lected in real time to im­prove the user ex­pe­ri­ence. Amazon is a tremen­dous ex­am­ple of an or­ga­ni­za­tion that em­beds that idea into ev­ery­thing it does. But even in this case, de­sign is never done, be­cause you’re learn­ing more and more about the ef­fec­tive­ness of what you have cre­ated.

As a re­sult, to­day, you have to think about what you cre­ate as a ‘learn­ing sys­tem’. It can’t be some­thing where re­searchers or de­sign­ers come back ev­ery so of­ten and look at ‘how well they did’; that can be part of it, but in­creas­ingly, the learn­ing has to be on­go­ing and con­stant. If you’re

Col­lec­tively, ‘be­hav­iours on the edge’ of­ten in­form ideas that be­come larger scale.

not think­ing that way, you’re fail­ing to make use of the most pow­er­ful part of tech­nol­ogy: That it en­ables us to con­tin­u­ally make things bet­ter.

One of the break­throughs we’re al­ready see­ing is the role of AI, and how this tech­nol­ogy can con­stantly re­spond — based on the data it’s get­ting — and ba­si­cally ‘re­design it­self ’. There are al­ready ex­am­ples of that in mod­ern ma­chine-based sys­tems like car en­gines, which col­lect all kinds of data as you’re driv­ing, ad­just­ing the way the car re­acts and op­er­ates. These are sys­tems that are con­stantly in­form­ing them­selves — and pretty soon, ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be like that.

How do you de­fine ‘creative lead­er­ship’?

Creative lead­er­ship isn’t about you, as a leader, be­com­ing more creative. It’s about lead­ing for cre­ativ­ity, which means it is your job to un­lock the creative po­ten­tial of your or­ga­ni­za­tion by set­ting the con­di­tions for peo­ple to gen­er­ate, em­brace and ex­e­cute on new ideas. Another piece of it is, in an un­pre­dictable mar­ket­place, ev­ery or­ga­ni­za­tion needs to be ex­posed to dis­rup­tive forces. I think of it in bi­o­log­i­cal terms: Any ecosys­tem that is ex­posed to a dis­rup­tive force will ei­ther die or adapt. Or­ga­ni­za­tions with cul­tures that em­brace emer­gence are more likely to re­spond to those dis­rup­tions and adapt. It’s a leader’s job to cre­ate such a cul­ture.

On that note, IDEO re­cently joined a creative col­lec­tive— and sold a part of its busi­ness—catch­ing many peo­ple by sur­prise. Was this a (proac­tively) dis­rup­tive act?

At IDEO, we aren’t in­ter­ested in hy­per growth; we’re in­ter­ested in im­pact. That is why we joined Kyu and sold a mi­nor­ity stake of the busi­ness to them. Kyu is part of Hakuhodo DY Hold­ings, one of Ja­pan’s largest ad­ver­tis­ing hold­ing com­pa­nies. Other mem­bers of the col­lec­tive are Red Peak, Sy­part­ners, Sid Lee, Dig­i­tal Kitchen and C2 In­ter­na­tional. We will re­main an in­de­pen­dent en­tity and con­tinue tak­ing on our own clients — but we can now tap oth­ers in the col­lec­tive for ad­di­tional ex­per­tise when needed (and vice versa). Ba­si­cally, we wanted to fo­cus our ef­forts be­yond our ev­ery­day in­no­va­tion busi­ness, and we saw an op­por­tu­nity to get in­volved in emerg­ing ar­eas like Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, Ge­nomics, Ro­bot­ics and Data Sci­ence.

As I said ear­lier, de­sign is no longer about in­no­vat­ing in terms of prod­ucts and solv­ing small prob­lems. We will leave it to the IBMS, GES and SAPS of the world fig­ure out how to ap­ply de­sign think­ing to their cor­po­rate struc­ture. For us, go­ing for­ward, it’s about tack­ling more sys­temic is­sues.

Tim Brown is the CEO and Pres­i­dent of IDEO, and the au­thor of Change by De­sign: How De­sign Think­ing Trans­forms Or­ga­ni­za­tions and In­spires

In­no­va­tion (Harper­busi­ness, 2009). He ad­vises se­nior ex­ec­u­tives and boards of global For­tune 100 com­pa­nies, chairs the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s Global Agenda Coun­cil on the Creative Econ­omy, and serves on the Mayo Clinic In­no­va­tion Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil and the Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil of Acu­men, a non-profit global ven­ture fo­cused on im­prov­ing the lives of the poor. His TED Talks, Se­ri­ous Play and Change by De­sign, are avail­able at Ted.com.

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