"Leadership Mantra #1: It all depends." Tom Peters
Tom Kelley is the general manager of IDEO, designers of "products, services, environments, and experiences." The author of the best-selling business classic The Art of Innovation, Tom has just published a new book, The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO's Strategies for Defeating the Devil's Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization, coauthored with Jonathan Littman. Tom has helped IDEO grow from 20 designers to a staff of more than 400, and he has been responsible for diverse areas such as business development, marketing, human resources, and operations.
Photo credit: Craig Morey
So, Tom, can you tell me why you structured your book around ten innovation personas?
TK: When I wrote my last book, The Art of Innovation, it was about the tools of innovation. You could have called it The Innovator's Toolbox. I had my email address at the end of the book, and I had a thousand emails from people who read it. And I discovered that the most fun was getting emails from people who said the book had changed their lives a little bit.
So that was part of the inspiration to start from. You could say the first book is about "doing" innovation. The second book is about "being" innovation. It is about taking on, however temporarily, the mantle of one of these innovation personas which the title refers to as the "faces of innovation." My hope is that people who are stuck either in a certain kind of job or maybe in a certain behavior pattern will look at these ten roles and say, "Well, I've got a little bit of the anthropologist in me. I can do that." I give them something to first aspire to and then to grow into where they actually do these things.
I don't know that we need to go into all ten personas, but I'll ask you to describe a few. First of all, how did you identify them?
TK: It's important to note that this is a framework I developed during the course of the book and laid on top of activities and behaviors that already happen with IDEO and our clients. So it's not that these words all existed or were in use within IDEO. I noticed certain roles emerging that seemed to be important. So one day I asked, "What's the universe of roles out there?" And we came up with a dozen and then knocked a couple away and ended up with the ten. And those ten fall into three categories.
The first category is what I call learning roles. If you want to beat out the competition, you've got to be able to learn faster than they do on a continuous basis. Look at the cars on the highway. It's not the one that's farthest ahead that you want to get behind. It's the one that's moving the fastest, right? Because if you want to go places, you want to be going at the fastest safe speed.
So these learning roles are about bringing new insight or inspiration into your organization. That's like the anthropologist who goes out into the field and gets first-hand data or the cross pollinator who looks in other different fields. Those are some of the learning roles.
The second category is what I call the organizing roles. This is an aspect that is mostly absent from my previous book, because historically it was not one that IDEO placed great value in.
These are the people who have figured out a way to get things done within the unusual, sometimes even strange, constraints of a large organization. In the old days, IDEO would have said, "Well, that's politics," or "That's bureaucracy." And we would say, "It really should be a meritocracy."
Well, maybe it should be a meritocracy, but as a practical matter, there is a messy process that often actually works by which large organizations allocate their resources, including time and people's attention and human resources, among other things. So the organizing roles are about figuring out how to work the organization, bypass the hurdles, create great collaboration, and get things done.
The third category fits a little more into the content of my previous book; those are what I call the building roles. These are the experienced architect who creates great customer experiences, the set designer who creates an environment in which innovation happens, the storyteller who communicates both internally and externally. So, the different personas are all about learning and organizing and building.
You mentioned anthropologist as one of the learning roles. You guys seem to be particularly adept at finding anthropologists. That's one of the first things I think of when I think of IDEO—an innovation process of learning more, more quickly, than anyone else.
TK: Right. And the data is out there, living and breathing and waiting to be discovered. But for whatever reason, it seems a little difficult or too messy for companies to go out and get it. So, yes, we try to be a catalyst for our clients and the business community at large to get more of that first-hand data, to see it with their own eyes, and figure out what to do with it.
In the military they call it ground truth—not what the manual says should be happening out there, but what people are actually doing, using and misusing your product and service. You figure out places where your customers or your competitors' customers misunderstand what the offerings are. And you say, "Okay. They're using that the wrong way. Let's fix that. Let's figure it out and help them do that better."
I love reading through your book and seeing example after example supporting the different roles you're describing. But your sense seems to be that innovation really isn't hard to achieve. You seem to agree with the famous words of Tom Peters that innovation can happen in a second. Just go out and have lunch with some freaky friend.
But perhaps for a business person reading this and saying to herself, "We really need to be more innovative," it just sounds almost too easy. And yet, is it that easy?
TK: I think it can be easy. I think a lot of it is giving ourselves or the team permission to act a little differently. It's almost a tautology that if you want to be extraordinary, you have to stop acting ordinary, right? Yet you read a great book or go to some event and you get inspired and then you come back to find this force that exists in organizations that tries to put you back in your box.
People say things like, "What's gotten into you?" or "You never did this kind of stuff before." So if you don't have the conviction of your new beliefs, it's really tempting to say, "Well, maybe I better not do this. Maybe people don't want me to act differently."
So part of the message of my book and the message from people like Tom is that it's okay to act differently. Every innovator in the history of the planet has acted a little differently from the rest of the population. That's why they call it innovation, right?
Right. In fact, not only is it okay, it's essential.
TK: Yes, it's essential. That's the thing that really gets me when I'm out there in the world. There is a certain kind of organization in which they think innovation is expensive. But in the long run, innovation is not expensive. It's mediocrity that's expensive. In the long run, mediocrity is fatal to the organization.
So, innovation is more than a good value; it's essential to the whole piece. In the short run, people tend to forget that.
We're also dealing with societal issues such as an education system that seems to beat creativity out of everyone. People end up assuming they're not creative because that's what everyone has been telling them.
TK: Sure. It is indeed a societal issue, and it's nicely documented in Gordon MacKenzie's book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball, which talks about how art is driven out of the artists in kindergarten. In the business community, I think this reaches its purest form in the business schools of America. You are taught to exercise the muscles on the left side of your brain that are analytical, that distill things down to their central facts. And there is nothing wrong with that per se. It's just that those muscles are now over-conditioned in the business community at large, and we see the atrophy of the muscles that are intuitive or empathic, that let us see a whole pattern at one take and identify breakthrough innovation opportunities.
I'm not saying stop doing the left-brain analytical stuff you learn in business school. It's just that we're in the flat part of the learning curve on that stuff and achieving diminishing returns. But there's a lot of opportunity on the right brain, creative, empathic stuff. For most organizations we are in the steep part of the curve, where if you invest a little, you can gain a lot back. That's part of what The Ten Faces of Innovation is arguing: Be open to those other kinds of learning and other sources.
But wouldn't most people say, "I don't know how it works in a big organization." Somebody says, "We need more creative types here," and then they go to HR, and the question is, "Where are these people? Where do we find them?"
TK: Yes. I think that is a popular misconception. It's not as if you can just go out and hire ten creative people and put them in the creative person department, right? What you need to do is take the team you've got and, maybe with an outside catalyst, raise their level of creativity.
This is not a bi-modal thing where you are either creative or you are not. I believe you can take people in their current state and turn up the volume on their creativity. This is why I called them faces or roles or personas as opposed to personality types. I think people are probably attracted to some of the different roles, but I don't intend them to be that. I intend them to be something you can put on, a role you can play. You might say, for example, "For purposes of this three-week project, I'm going to be the experimenter."
In the intro of the book, I used a negative role, the devil's advocate, to illustrate that it's not your personal identity for life; it's just a role that you play, successfully, we hope. We don't walk around being the devil's advocate all day every day. You get into a meeting in which there is some idea floating around and suddenly somebody switches on and becomes a devil's advocate. It can make your heart sink when somebody says, "Well, let me just be devil's advocate a minute." And then they rain all over your parade, to use the most printable expression I can think of.
But usually before the meeting is over, they'll switch back. And sometimes after the meeting or near the end of the meeting, they will say, "Now, Erik, don't take it personally. I was just being devil's advocate." And in fact, nothing could be more personal. They just shot down your favorite idea, right? Anyway, the devil's advocate makes a pretty darn good illustration of how a role works.
When I read that, I thought of all the times I've said, "Well, let me just be the devil's advocate." And then I thought, "Oh, no. I've been an innovation stressor." So if I'm having a meeting, it's certainly going to make me think twice about letting anybody say, "Let's play devil's advocate," particularly myself.
TK: Well, it is my hope that it gives people pause and they flip it around a little bit. At Case Western Reserve Business School, and possibly other places, they're doing this thing called Appreciative Inquiry, in which you ask questions in a positive way. You're getting at the same stuff, but by asking in a different way you can reach different kinds of solutions.
I believe that if we were to catch ourselves about to say, "Let me be devil's advocate," we could turn that around into something more constructive, such as, "What this idea really needs, or "What this lacks," or "The way I would make this better is ..."
It is sort of a "Yes, and" attitude rather than "No."
TK: Yep. I think it is related to that. At one point there were people who wanted to call the book Beating the Devil's Advocate.
It could be a John Huston movie.
TK: I liked the allusion to Humphrey Bogart* in that title but I was afraid we would get hung up on the devil's advocate role. I didn't really mean for the book to be all about that; I just wanted to use the devil's advocate as a pretty powerful illustration of the way a role can work.
It certainly had a huge impact on me. Now, whenever I get into a discussion in a meeting, I'm going to think about what a comment can do or how constructive it can be and try to put a more positive slant on it.
Let's talk about what you called "T-shaped people." They're not one of your personas, but you mentioned them several times. Can you talk about what you mean by T-shaped people and why they're important for innovation.
TK: Sure. While the labels for some of the personas I've described are not a part of the vocabulary of IDEO, this T-shaped person is very much a part of the vocabulary here. We are talking about someone who has an area of deep interest or expertise, which is the vertical part of the T, but then he is multi-disciplinary in that he has knowledge of or empathy for other disciplines.
There are people like the purist engineer who can't talk to humans, you know, or the purist designer who thinks that if it's beautiful, nothing else matters. Right? Those people are really impaired in their ability to change the world because they don't play well with others. They don't connect well in teams. And pretty much everything worth doing at this point in the business world is tied to teams. In the world of fine arts and some sports events or entertainment, there are still solo performers, but even those people are not really working alone. Tiger Woods may be the quintessential solo performer out there, but he's got a caddy and a coach.
Exactly. My wife's something of a solo artist, a painter, a conceptual artist. And yet there are very few projects that she actually undertakes alone. She is always dealing with suppliers, etc.
TK: Yes, and another one I'm very aware of is authors. As the author, you get to put your name on the book, but that doesn't mean you did it by yourself. At least 100 people helped with my book, no kidding. There are too many people to even mention them all in the acknowledgments. So, there is that kind of romantic notion that it's a solo effort, but it's certainly not.
So, that's the idea of the T-shaped people. After my last book, it seems that a number of people got the horizontal part of the T, but missed the vertical part, and that can cause a problem.
If you're all horizontal, you're the jack-of-all-trades but master of none?
TK: In some cases you are something of a dilettante. To have the combination for a T-shaped person, it's necessary to have something in which you're incredibly well versed so you can draw on this deep reservoir when that expertise is needed.
What's the most interesting project IDEO is working on right now?
TK: Gee, what's the most interesting project that I can talk about is what you're really asking.
Well, yes. You've been mentioned in BusinessWeek this past July as one of the 20 most innovative companies.
TK: It was really nice of BusinessWeek to print that. It was actually from a third-party survey of executives, so it was the 20 most innovative companies in the world, according to that particular survey. Everybody else was a household name—Apple, Virgin, Samsung, General Electric—and then little IDEO with 400 people. It was good company to be found among. So that was really fun.
So, anyway, what's the fun project?
TK: You know, there's this pesky confidentiality issue that makes it hard to discuss the active projects. But a fun category of projects that we've been doing a lot of is the "future of blank." For instance, we did some work with Procter & Gamble, and they said, "Help us explore the future of bathroom cleaning with the goal of actually making bathroom cleaning fun." That was quite a goal, but this is what IDEO calls a phase zero project because it's before you've defined what the project is going to be. You haven't said, "I need a new thing to wash the ceiling." You say, "Let's go out in the field with an open mind and see what the world seems to need in this category."
So we've done a ton of projects like that in a lot of different fields. I can talk about this one since it's already on the market. They call it Mr. Clean Magic Reach, which is this fun little thing that slides around the bathroom and disinfects basically every surface. It's been super successful for them.
That's not the thing you flush down the toilet, is it?
TK: No. I don't know what that is. That would be something else.
I thought that one was kind of weird, but I like the sound of what you are up to.
TK: It has some of the fun behavior pattern of the Swiffer products. It has a lot of different features, but the point is not so much how remarkable the product is, but that it's a fun product. So when you just go out in the field with an open mind, you are trying to achieve what my friend Bob Sutton of Stanford calls "vuja de."
Everyone knows deja vu. Well, vuja de is the opposite. It's where you're in a place you've been hundreds of times before but you are seeing it as if you were there for the first time. And you say, "What? Why is that happening?" And you start to question stuff that you've seen a bunch of times before. And you ask, "Could that be done differently?" And that's how you get a successful product.
One very interesting thing we're doing is a group called transformation that looks directly at corporate cultures. It looks at how people can build more of a culture of innovation or how they can achieve a slight cultural change without the strong-arm tactics that management consultants have been trying to use for the last 40 years.
One of the areas we've done a lot of work in is healthcare. So we go out into a healthcare facility or sometimes a whole network of them. We've worked with Kaiser Permanente, for example, as well as the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, some of the world's top healthcare institutions. We're trying to help them with things like building a culture of prototyping. It's very participatory stuff. For example, we love to get the nursing community involved and for them to learn by doing that it's okay to prototype in certain ways. In healthcare, there are, of course, tremendous safety constraints, plus cost constraints and other major issues.
We have found that when we work with them on cultural innovation, they latch onto this prototyping thing. I think it was the CEO of Brigham and Women's who said that was one of the key things they learned—that it was okay to prototype new ways of delivering service. In the Mayo Clinic they built a space dedicated to prototyping service delivery. They are learning by prototyping and bringing new insights into the organization in a very safe, controlled way.
I think the greatest problem with healthcare is never knowing what's exactly going on or why it's going on. There is a sort of secret society feeling that hangs over that.
TK: Our work in healthcare suggests that the patient can be much happier if you just give him a little more data. Just say, "You are going to have surgery next week. Here are the five steps you can expect." We know you get better patient outcome and better patient satisfaction, because we've measured it.
From my personal point of view, I'm even more willing to put up with mistakes if somebody just tells me what's going on or that there's a risk. As humans, we understand mistakes because we all make them. And yet, the whole business environment is subsumed in this notion that mistakes don't happen.
But, just a little information makes me infinitely more comfortable and more flexible, adaptable, and willing to accommodate their human-ness in the midst of this scientific-ness.
TK: What we've discovered is that if you co-opt the patient and their family, you can actually keep the whole process more on track. For example, we laid out the patient journey of checking out of the hospital. Instead of making it mysterious, we said, "There are nine steps. Here's the list where you can check off each step." And the whole family can see the nine steps, and they see that step one and step two are done. And if somebody comes in to do step four, they can say, "Wait. What about step three?" So you've basically recruited the patient and the family to be part of the team, and they are super happy to do it.
Right. And when everyone goes home they have a better sense of how things should proceed for their family member/patient.
TK: Right. Speaking of going home, there's this thing that happens every day, multiple times a day in every healthcare institution. The nurses change shifts. This is a messy process because the nurse has a lot of information in his or her brain, and some of it is critical information. Yes, it exists somewhere on a chart, but that's often not enough.
So what happens at shift change is an information transfer that takes a long time and is messy and, as you say, mistakes happen. What we discovered through our transformation group's prototyping process was that it can be more efficient to do the information transfer live, in front of the patient. So now you've got the patient keeping the whole process honest in the sense of, "Don't forget, I'm not allowed to have solid foods yet." The patient is helping out. They know who the incoming nurse is. They know that the transfer has happened so they are not worrying. They don't have to make a list of things they want to make sure they tell the nurse.
In one of the cases where we did this, we measured both patient satisfaction and the number of calls on the call button. The satisfaction went up and the number of calls went down, because this shift change process happened more smoothly. So, anyhow, this is all part and parcel of this new kind of work we do called transformation, in which we work very, very closely with the client team. It's not a matter of going off and coming up with the right answer and giving it to them.
The answers, to a certain extent, come from the nursing community, so there is no transfer of the knowledge at the end of a project. They own the ideas and they are just darned happy to tell their colleagues in other parts of the hospital or parts of the network about it because they're proud of it.
Has that been a difficult shift at IDEO? Because a lot of us who know IDEO have always thought, "They make all these cool things." So you design things and you invent things. I'm just wondering, is that a notion that always existed within the IDEO organization and now, like so many professional service firms, you're shifting from products to more services and consulting in a way. Is that correct?
TK: Well, two things there. One, what I've described is not just a service. We do have a service group, but this is more about the organization learning how to do this themselves. The shift change process I described is an embodiment, an artifact of the process. In our transformation group we are focusing more on the process than on today's artifact. What we are trying to transfer is the organizational learning capability, not just a good idea.
Maybe it's just semantics, but it's important to me. We've learned, especially in healthcare with our transformation group, but also in many of the other areas where we work, never to characterize ourselves as consultants.
I think a lot of organizations have reached a certain kind of consultant fatigue. They're frantically trying to do the very best they can. And from their perspective they get visited from on high every two or three years by some "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" consulting project that they view as interfering with their core job.
So far, I think we've been able to win over 100 percent of the cases. First of all, we characterize ourselves as designers. And second, we help the nursing community and the doctor community feel, "Hey, this is about us, isn't it? This is about us having the chance to remove what we perceive to be the barriers to innovation in our group."
And so, I was just reacting to the word consultant, because our clients do.
I totally understand that. Now, are you all having too much fun at IDEO?
TK: It does continue to be really fun. It isn't really hard work, even though I'm personally putting in longer hours than ever. I think in the modern world, everybody has allocated so much of their mental bandwidth and time to work-related activities that if you are not having fun at work, you basically are not having fun, right?
The idea of living for the weekend is really hard to do these days. So yes, we are having good fun at IDEO. We are certainly attempting to make that a little bit contagious, to give our clients a chance to have fun in the process of this organizational change but also in their day-to-day jobs.
I see that, even in your descriptions of these various personas. There seems to be a fun component to it. I think it's fun because we really do love to learn and discover new things. I suppose that's part of our humanity. Yet so many people end up in positions where they are just supposed to do the same thing over and over, and that is no fun.
TK: Well, looking at The Ten Faces, in the first step, people probably won't have a chance to actually change their job description. So, in the first embodiment of taking on one of these roles, it probably has to be layered onto your current roles.
In your concluding chapter you said, "When applying the personas to successful, ongoing organizations, it's important to know that the innovation personas do not necessarily replace existing roles and titles." I think that is a very important thing. I've seen organizations where everyone is sort of befuddled because they don't have the right description or what do you actually call this. They sort of get caught up in the structure around one of these personas rather than going and doing it as you would naturally because you are human.
TK: I could see some cases where people take on a role and just love it so much they say, "Oh, I have to quit my day job and find a way to do this role full time." But that's not the embodiment I'm really thinking of. I'm talking more to people who say something like, "I'm stuck as a systems analyst, and even though this rut is of my own making, I'm still stuck in it."
So if that person finds one of the roles appealing, they can layer it onto their main role and enrich their lives.
My own life is a good example. Before our first child, I had four or five roles going all at once. And then suddenly I got this really big role called father, which was laid on top of all the others. I was busier, but my life was enriched. Then when my daughter was nine, I became an author, adding yet another role on top. And guess what? I didn't get to give up any of my other roles. But gee, life is pretty darn interesting.
In some way that's my hope for The Ten Faces. And, by the way, people can make up their own roles if they want. I wrote about ten that seem very effective to me. But I'm sure there are many other possibilities.
One last question. How do you strengthen your own innovation muscles?
TK: Well, I really think it's all about this learning thing. So what's the quickest, best way to learn? I will give you two examples. First—I know Tom uses this technique—I think the right magazines are an incredibly efficient way to take in new information. Near the top of my list would be magazines like Fast Company or Wired, but magazines you don't normally see are especially valuable. At IDEO there are all these weird magazines I've never heard of, and I look through them and get a whole new perspective. So that's one.
Another is a fun thing we do at IDEO. Well, first let me say that we have a show-and-tell culture at IDEO. We are constantly showing each other neat things. Like when bmwfilms.com came out, that just blasted through IDEO, and in one day, everybody had seen it. But the specific thing I was going to talk about is called Know How. Every Thursday during the school year, we have a speaker come in. We've had a remarkable collection of people who come and talk about their area of expertise. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, came and talked about Blink a year before the book was published. We had Virginia Postrel come in and talk about The Substance of Style. We've had some pretty famous people as well as some people I'd never heard of.
In my book I talk about Paul Ekman, this guy who is an expert on expressions and muscles of the face. I had never heard of him until he came, and now he's one of my favorite Know How speakers ever. I later learned that Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Pink had both written about him. But, anyhow, we have this parade of people who come in and speak, and I feel like I'm getting continuing ed without leaving the building I work in. So, anyhow, it's really been fun.
Is this during work hours?
TK: It tends to be five o'clock on a Thursday unless the speaker has some conflict. But I'm here until 6:30 most nights so I've heard almost all of them, except when I'm traveling, of course.
Thank you, Tom. It's been a pleasure.
*Editor's Note: Erik and Tom are alluding to Beat the Devil, a 1953 movie, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart. Interestingly, Beat the Devil is also the title of one of the short films featured at the aforementioned bmwfilms.com.