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"Good companies embrace a culture of mini-failures."

In The Art of Innovation, tour through the systems used by design firm and idea factory IDEO provides an insider's view of how innovation works and why it's a necessity for any business. The sometimes vague concepts that are a part of innovation, like brainstorming and creativity, are broken down and explained clearly enough to make them more practical to use for start-ups and established companies alike. Real-life examples and applications help bring insight into how seeing things from a fresh point of view can result in better services and products that help companies stay competitive.


"It's not about just coming up with the one genius idea that solves the problem, but trying and failing at a hundred other solutions before arriving at the best one."

Innovation at work

LEGO was nominated in 2015 by Forbes as the most powerful brand in the world. But just over ten years earlier, in 2004, the toy company was on the edge of bankruptcy. Suffering losses of $300 million and facing the potential end of their once successful company, they realized that typical innovation efforts weren't going to save them. They didn't want a new product; they wanted to revive the popularity of their existing product and brand. Like many companies in similar situations, they hired a new CEO and restructured. But it was by embracing innovation that they were able to bring the company back to life.

The toy maker's first step was to tap into their loyal, and obviously creative, fan base. They hired adult fans of the LEGO brand for their design team and began using crowdsourcing for new toy kit ideas. When the crowdsourcing efforts began to produce useable results, they adopted an open innovation policy by opening up the LEGO Ideas portal. Through user feedback, their online platform began to generate hundreds of new product suggestions each year. They began to use a variety of innovate techniques, from social media to peer selection to encourage fans to contribute new designs.

This invaluable feedback and the willingness to take new and different approaches for their existing product and brand, LEGO found themselves back in business. They eventually implemented a process of rapid prototyping to keep the momentum going. David Gram, head of marketing at Lego's Future Lab, describes this new approach: "We only develop the few key features that are really needed. A typical engineering mistake is wanting to invent all the things the product might consist of in one go … we throw that into the market and get feedback from consumers."

Innovation in motion

Just like LEGO discovered, companies must learn to innovate to compete, and the IDEO method identifies some basic steps to working with an innovative mindset. Innovation is all about asking questions that reveal opportunities and pitfalls.

Understand the market, client, technology, and constraints.

  • Who is the end user and what do they want or need?
  • What other companies offer similar products or services?
  • What technology is available and is it enough to create the product effectively?
  • What are the obstacles that must be overcome?

Observe people, products, and services in real-life situations.

  • Data and analysis approaches can provide a lot of useful, necessary information but people's behavior can reveal critical, practical points that must be considered.
  • How does the end user use similar products or services?
  • Can the concept be designed in a way that makes it easy to use?
  • Look for flaws or inconsistencies with a critical eye. These are the very things the end user will see all too quickly.

Evaluate and refine prototypes quickly and frequently.

  • Even the crudest prototype reveals something useful.
  • A rough sketch or basic outline is the beginning of understanding if the concept will have value.
  • As a concept begins to take shape, it can be fine-tuned with more sophisticated methods to move it towards realization.

Implement new concepts and get them to market.

  • Innovation is all about moving quickly and steadily forward.
  • Time is the enemy of innovation. The first one to market has the advantage.
  • It doesn't have to be perfect; it just has to be out there. The market will eventually provide the feedback needed to tweak and improve.

IDEO didn't wait till they had everything perfect to launch their innovation company; they forged ahead using the resources available. By getting their service to market quickly with a concept that was "good enough," they eventually landed key accounts with Silicon Valley staples like Apple. Had they waited until they had the "perfect" offering, they would have missed out on valuable feedback and collaboration.

"Noticing that something is broken is an essential prerequisite for coming up with a creative solution to fix it."

Prototyping is the shorthand of innovation

Prototypes should be created rapidly to get a project moving forward. Building something and getting it into people's hands is the best way to learn how to fine-tune a design. This lesson is well illustrated by using Amazon as an example. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, quit his job after learning about the explosive growth of internet commerce. He didn't wait until he had the perfect model to launch his own e-commerce business, he used trial and error by throwing out prototype after prototype. By using the feedback from users, he was able to improve upon each trial until he eventually created the world-wide phenomenon that is Amazon.

The perfect brainstorm

IDEO uses hour-long brainstorming sessions to create and improve upon ideas. These sessions are frequent and have a certain "wide-open" atmosphere where (just about!) anything goes. The result is a flurry of activity and conversations that are focused on quantity, not quality.

Sharpen the focus

  • What is the goal? Is it a better mouse trap or a more economical mouse trap? Unless everyone understands the goal, those ideas flying around have no real relevance.
  • Create a vision of customers and their needs. Who is the typical user and how will the concept benefit them?
  • What does the end product or service look like? Even in the beginning stages, there has to be a somewhat defined picture of what it will look like when it's completed.

Use playful rules

  • Creativity doesn't have to be fun, but it sure helps. If everyone takes themselves too seriously, it makes it hard to think outside the box.
  • Just like in any other learning environment, games can often be the best teaching and learning.
  • Playing the devil's advocate may not seem playful, but by doing rounds where ideas are dissected using a sort of mischievous give and take can keep things lively. Just make sure everyone gets their shot.

The space remembers

Using different methods for creating and recording ideas can lead to different views and more ideas. It's the variety and diversity that keeps the ideas flowing.

  • Use the wall and fill it up with sticky notes. Move them around, organize them into categories.
  • Write on windows, whiteboards, and other big spaces, so they are within view of the whole group. These diverse methods keep ongoing ideas front and center, creating a foundation for new ideas.
  • Draw pictures and diagrams with different types and colors of markers.
  • Physically act out scenarios presented from a manufacturer's or customer's point of view.

"Good brainstorms are extremely visual. They include sketching, mind mapping, diagrams, and stick figures. You don't have to be an artist to get your point across with a sketch or diagram."

In search of the "wet nap" interface

Even the most innovative and creative products or services can't succeed if they are difficult to use. Consumers want, and expect, a certain ease-of-use and tend to lose interest quickly at the first signs of difficulty. This "user interface" element is so critical, but it is often overlooked. Nearly everyone has experienced user interface issues at one time or another.

The website that doesn't provide clear directions or steps for using their service or buying their product is an all-too-common experience. The instructions for putting together an end table or swing set can often seem like they require some special knowledge to follow the directions. This confusing and frustrating lack of simplification sends many brands and products to the bottom of the customer's @#%& list!

A simple, but revealing, example of a useful interface can be found with the common Wet Nap. Their directions for their product are right there on the packaging and couldn't be any more clear:

"Tear open and use."

While it probably didn't take a lot of brainstorming, it serves its purpose beautifully. By making a product as easy to use as possible, this ease-of-use becomes a significant feature with clear benefits.

Sometimes, the bells and whistles that seem to be benefits are more harmful than useful. Innovation should be about simplifying without devaluing.

Creating experiences for fun and profit

The customer experience has become as important as customer service and customer satisfaction. Consumers don't just buy things and services; they buy experiences. When the experience of using a product or service evolves into a genuine feature, that experience can become the major selling point. A good idea can outperform a great one if it provides a better or more entertaining experience.

  • Experiences should be entertaining. Customers who are entertained stay longer, spend more, and come back more often. Think Disney. Disney understands entertainment obviously, but they also understand that by appealing to children, parents are certain to follow.
  • Tell a story. The story of a brand or service must be clear and consistent. Most people know that their life won't be completely changed by buying a new car, but the commercials and other media sure make it seem that way.
  • Fix it. Progressive companies look for flaws in the customer experience and fix them. The popularity of cell phones with large, easy-to-read buttons with seniors is a perfect example of how finding a problem and addressing it leads to more sales.
  • Rethink services often. By focusing on making services easier and better, companies can often find ways to stand out from the competition and provide a better experience. Staples understood this concept, and it led them to create the "Easy Button." While the "button" isn't really a tangible feature, it's extensive use in marketing helps promote their commitment to making their services "easy."
  • Little experiences make a big difference. A great illustration is the JanSport warranty card. The card uses humor to change the traditionally dry topic of product warranties into something a little more personal. It reads: "Hi. Warranty Service Camp is really cool. They say they're sending me home soon...gotta run...we're doing zipper races today!" A little humor goes a long way.

Zero to sixty

A climate of innovation must have a sense of urgency. The world of business, entertainment, and especially the digital world are moving fast, and the only way to compete is to innovate faster. The quicker the innovation, the quicker the service or product goes to market. Just like with prototypes, the overall innovation efforts have to be put out there fast. Creating this atmosphere of speed not only fuels innovation, but it also creates an exciting and dynamic climate where innovation thrives. Remember, the first to market often wins in the end.

Coloring outside the lines

It's tough to break old habits and question the status quo. Innovation requires breaking away from traditional methods and ideas and getting outside that comfort zone. Pushing the limit requires a thick skin and a willingness to fail, sometimes miserably.

  • Fail often to succeed sooner. There is no success without risk.
  • Don't focus on what might be lost, but on what might be gained. Fear cripples creativity.
  • Break the rules. Rules breakers are traditionally the people who have positively changed the way things are done or made.
  • Don't go too far! At least color on the same page.

Live the future

Knowing what the future holds just isn't possible, but that uncertainty is at the heart of innovation. There's just no way to know, but there are plenty of ways to make an educated guess. Learn what products or services are currently state-of-the-art by doing research and seeking out other innovators.

Seek out empowerment products that make people more effective, smarter, prettier, popular, etc., and build ideas off of them. Find the hotspots for an industry, from physical locations to publications and observe to learn.