What I’m reading: The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley

I ended up having to read this book for a class I’m currently taking however I found it really inspiring.  Here is my summary:

The Art of Innovation is a book written by Tom Kelley, a manager, partner, and brothers with the co-founder David Kelley at the IDEO firm.  IDEO is a world leading design firm that prides its self in consulting to create some of the most innovative plans and products.   The book serves as an introductory guide to run a business that drives creative output in hopes that others will incorporate different practices to workplace culture.

This book is not a step by step process on how to give your company an “IDEO Makeover”. Instead, this is an excellent resource on how to foster an environment that promotes creativity.  This book lays out the methodology and practices that foster a creative environment for its employees to come up with the brilliant concepts for their clients.  These concepts and phases of creating designs are richly described with a variety of real-life experiences presented through a collection of case studies and vignettes that illustrate their success.    Kelley outlines IDEO’s simple process of design. This process includes extensive research based on observation and understanding their use cases; using their observations as focused brainstorming sessions to include initial prototyping; finally refining a final product to be transferred to the clients factories.

In the observing and understanding phase Kelley provides a multitude of techniques so that this can be done more effectively. These include watching customers directly, or envisioning other use cases using a product. It is clear that observation of the problem, is the most difficult, yet essential step to successful design.   A great example includes the kids Oral-B toothbrush. For decade’s kids toothbrushes were designed as smaller versions of adult brushes. The IDEO team observed by putting brushes in the hands of children and they quickly noticed the “fist phenomenon”.  Children would grip the brush with their whole fist, unlike older kids and adults, who use their fingertips. The insight that smaller hands need fatter toothbrushes seems counter-intuitive until you see them in use.

The next phase, Kelley describes the process of brainstorming at IDEO, and the manner in which brainstorming is truly an art, which must be refined. IDEO believes that innovation is a team sport, and the myth of the lone genius can actually hamper a company’s efforts in innovation and creativity.  By emphasizing the importance of working in groups he also describes the environmental conditions suitable for a really “hot team”. He offers several tips for improving the effectiveness of group brainstorms. Kelley offers a variety of tips for upper management to create a workplace that can breed creativity.  These conditions include a corporate culture non-critical of failed concepts and a work space resembling a play space. Kelley emphasizes the rapidity with which the team can move from brainstorming to prototyping. Prototyping brings out specific problems, which can be refined.  The story of the start-up of Amazon is a lesson in rapid prototyping; there are also some terrific descriptions of the early days of portable computing and handhelds.

Finally, Kelley describes elaborating on ideas of design. This is done not just with prototyping, but with a mentality which drives thinking of everything as an ‘experience’. By envisioning every step allows users to have the full experience when using the product or design.  While a hit product combines good design and cost-efficiency, it also needs good timing, which is extremely difficult to predict, you need some luck as well. There is always substantial risk and its ok to fail often as long as you learn along the way.

This is a beautifully written book that weaves a tapestry about the process, spirit and culture of real innovators.  I found it truly inspiring and with far too many nuggets of wisdom to summarize.  I was moved by their action and infectious story telling. Throughout the book, Kelley’s your friend and mentor. By the end, innovation is your partner and passion.  From now on, when I think of the flaws in things that I buy or a process that I encounter, I will immediately question whether it could have been better designed.

Ultimately, if in business or not, The Art of Innovation provides valuable techniques, but the most important message to take away is that any and all of us can be innovative; we just need to use the tools and practices to foster what is inside us.

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