Monday, May 06, 2002

Discovery a process of careful observation

Get away from your desk to find new ideas

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For idea man Tom Kelley, new products and ideas will always have a lot in common with a process. And that process is almost always going to be linked to discovery, which is, of course, another process. Mr. Kelley brings his approach to discovery to a seminar sponsored by the Center for Adaptive Management on Thursday at the Montgomery Inn Banquet Center. He spoke with Enquirer reporter John Eckberg.

        Question: These are almost always lousy questions but could you name a couple of components of a creative approach either to a process or product?

  • What: Talk on The Art of Innovation
  • Date and place: Thursday at the Montgomery Inn Banquet Center
  • Sponsor: The Center for Adaptive Management, 4445 Lake Forest Drive, Suite 400, Cincinnati, OH 45242
  • Presenter: Tom Kelley, General Manager of Ideo and author of The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from Ideo, America's Leading Design Firm
Registration: (513) 563-4434 or
        Answer: I have the experience of the “outside world,” that is, consulting to companies that are doing things the regular way and then the experience of Ideo and working on very successful projects. What distinguishes Ideo from the programs I see that live inside of big corporations is one — the idea of getting away from your desk.

        In spite of some enlightened approaches, there is still this idea around that people who are hunkered down at their desks doing something — you can't see exactly what they are doing, but they look diligent — that you get points with some managers for that. But the opposite is true.

        The knowledge or learning or insight that comes to a company come when you get away from your desk and get out in the real world and watch real life people in their real settings and watch for where they stumble.

        Where they have trouble with the status quo, that's where the big opportunities lie. Consumers won't tell you. They won't raise their hands and say you know what I really need is a thing on my front door that lets me know who's there before they knock. Consumers aren't thinking up things for you to make for them.

        But if you watch someone going in or out of their front door or since it's Cincinnati, Ohio, if you watch them brushing their teeth, you'll see stuff. And when you see the stuff, you will think, oh, there's some kind of problem. Nobody is talking about it. Nobody is raising their hand. We would say do some field work. Get away from your desk.

        Q: Let me ask you this on that topic, as I understand it that the 3M Co. has a gesture in that direction: the 15 percent initiative. That you spend 15 percent of your time away from your desk.

        A: That's right and they've been very successful, though I've heard recently that they've been cutting into that program. But the 3M approach is slightly different. It's a fabulous company.

        Our point of view is slightly different. When they get away from their desks, they're really going from their desk into a research lab and working with chemicals and processes. It's an extension of the desk. Our getting away from the desk is watching customers — or non-customers as the case may be — and seeing where they have trouble.

    • Age: 46
  • Home: Palo Alto, Calif.
  • Job: General manager of Ideo, which employs 400 with offices in Japan, North America, the United Kingdom and Germany.
  • Favorite bookmarks:

       • — “Positively addictive, not only for the cool stuff you can buy, but also for the thrill of the chase. They always have a small collection of Barberton, Ohio, memorabilia” (his hometown).
  • - “I felt like their best customer back in 2000 when I was writing The Art of Innovation. One of the highlights of my brief career as an author was reaching No. 5 in Amazon's updated-hourly sales rankings. It was certainly fun while it lasted.”
  • Internet Movie Database ( - “The definitive site for exploring movies, actors and directors. I frequently see a film and recognize the character actor who plays, say, the brother-in-law, but can't remember what movie I remember him from. IMDB can answer those kind of nagging questions in about two minutes, and show me the rest of that actor's filmography. I wish I had such a site for other parts of my life.”
  • - “Simple, low-tech, user-friendly way of keeping me up-to-date with all the latest DVD movies. I watch at least three movies a week (mostly as part of a morning exercise program), and NetFlix is the perfect service innovation for my usage pattern.”
  • Favorite CDs at the office and in the car:
  • Grammy nominees 2001 & 2002 (multiple artists)
  • Sade, Lover's Rock
• Train, Drops of Jupiter
• Enya, Paint the Sky with Stars
  • Nightstand reading:
  Magazines - Fast Company, Business Week, InStyle, Time, National Geographic
  Books in Progress:
  Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't, by James C. Collins and Jim Collins
  Hare Brain Tortoise Mind, by Guy Claxon and Carole Vincer
  Weird Ideas that Work, by Robert I. Sutton
  Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

        Q: Are there any other examples?

        A: I can go on. It's my favorite topic. Here's another one. The battery in my watch wears out so I go into the watch repair shop and wait in line to get the battery replaced.

        There are several people in front of me in line — I was not hoping for a line in the repair shop but there was — and guess what, no one in front of me in line had a watch repair. Everybody in line was having their watch battery replaced.

        It suddenly occurred to me: hey, wait a minute, name another consumer electronic product or product of any kind except for cars, which is a separate category, a small consumer product where you have to go to a specialist and wait in line to get the battery replaced!

        If I'm Timex or Nike or Fossil or whoever makes watches and I see a line in the watch repair shop, I'm thinking ...

        Q: Opportunity ...

        A: A major opportunity. And the reason the watch repair shop does that is to sell you something else. But if I'm Nike or Timex, I don't want opportunities for watch repair shops, I want opportunity for my watch, my brand.

        Q: So intuitive solutions are sometimes not very intuitive at all? Observe the problem and the solution becomes obvious?

        A: I would say that compared to finding the problem, finding a solution becomes obvious. And finding the problem is not that hard if you're willing to get out there on the street and watch people. We have specialists who do this — people with Ph.d.s in cognitive psychology and cultural anthropology and they are 100 times better than I am at it.

        But us mere mortals can do this too. If you get out and look you will find something. The risk to describing this is that it sounds kind of obvious. There is a woman at Harvard Business School, Dorothy Leonard, who says that yes this does sound a bit obvious except that almost no companies out there are doing this.

        I have to say that when I first encountered this, I was a little skeptical. It sounded like a fun and easy job. I didn't get it at first. I would say I'm now 180 degrees different. I would say it is the biggest source of innovation at our firm.

        This is where you get the spark that tells you what to do next.

        Q: I guess it's not unusual in town here for the guys at the top of the totem pole at Kroger or the Procter & Gamble Co. to watch how shoppers shop? How do you get folks at the bottom of the totem pole to have the capability? A mandate? Isn't this something that requires individual initiative, that is, you have to want to do it?

        A: Here's what I would say. Mandates from the top are not so effective. For those at the top of the organization, I would say this - don't give a mandate, give an invitation.

        Let people know that it's okay to do this. A lot of management around creativity is not forcing creativity, it's getting out of the way and letting people have permission, literal or figurative, to do something that's a little bit weird, that's a little bit off the norm.

        Of all the companies I've worked with, P&G is pretty high up on the food chain on this one. There are very few companies in America that get this. P&G is one company that does get it. That does understand this.

        It's an incredibly powerful tool. It gives vision and it gives power. At our firm, we do videography and photography and you come back and talk to a client and say, gee, you know, people don't know which product to buy.

        They say forget it. Everybody knows. And then you throw down 24 digital photographs of people like getting lost or going up and walking away or opening a cap and smelling in and scrunching up their face — whatever it is that you've observed. And that data gives you permission to take a point of view.


Ambassador finds pace a challenge
Andersen trial opens
- Discovery a process of careful observation
ECKBERG: Listen to Mom; be a success
Morning Memo
Kroger, union reach tentative agreement
Promotions & new on the job
The Success Coach
Web site buffer for divorcing
Buffett predicts nuclear attack on U.S.
Iraq to resume oil exports
OB-GYNs: Insurance costs could provoke crisis