In 2012, IDEO founder and longtime Stanford professor David Kelley took the TED stage in Long Beach and shared a deeply personal story. It was the tale of his own cancer diagnosis, of finding a lump in his neck and being told he had a 40% chance of survival. This was clearly a sobering moment, but he wasn’t sharing the story to seek our sympathy. Rather, he wanted to talk about his resulting epiphany. “While you’re waiting for your turn to get the gamma rays, you think of a lot of things,” he said drily. “I thought a lot about: ‘What was I put on earth to do? What was my calling? What should I do?'”
His conclusion: “The thing I most wanted to do was to help as many people as possible regain the creative confidence they lost along their way.” And that’s what he’s done through his work at the d.school, a program at Stanford teaching design principles and processes to students from all disciplines, and with executives and business leaders through his work at innovation consultancy, IDEO. The latest step along his own way: the publication of Creative Confidence, a book he co-authored with his brother Tom. We spoke about the book, his continued mission as a creativity-for-all evangelist, the real meaning of design thinking and why embedding innovation in organizations is such a fuzzy, imprecise process. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Innovation is scary. After all, no one knows what the outcome will be. How do you persuade people to take the leap and trust that this is the way to go?
The main thing that seems to work is to have a bunch of experiments where people dig in. We have trouble if it’s a linear path and everyone is heading towards a finish line. Then people start to feel it’s important that their idea is the one to follow. A better way to do things in early teams is to treat everything as an experiment. It’s a bunch of little brush fires looking to make a forest fire. Then people aren’t so precious — it’s not so important, it’s just an experiment. Then there’s the fact we really believe in this empathy stuff. If we really have two people disagreeing, then there’s one thing to do: get them to agree that if we go visit 9 people, we’ll let them help make our decision. The higher authority comes from the people we’re trying to please. That’s a part of the value system.
So how do you embed innovation in an organization?
The first thing a client doesn’t want to hear is that it’s probably a 10-year process. Generally, CEOs won’t last that long, and it’s hard to sign up to get payoff in 10 years when your tenure is two or three — that doesn’t make any sense to them. In order to get a culture to work up and down an organization, senior people have to want to do this. Then you build a fire in people who are doing projects, and that goes back to experiments. In any organization, people are fixed in their ways. They’re all good people, all well-meaning — and they have habits. They know if they just stick to these habits then things’ll come out… medium. This is what we call the fear of being judged. People don’t want to step out and say ‘let’s do this new thing.’
Our solution is almost always: ‘Hey, team. I know you do things in this way and that works for you, but we need to move the company. And as a way of putting our toe in the water, let’s do these three experiments.’ And actually, it’s really important that some of those experiments fail, that someone is proven right that an idea didn’t work. And you have to do a few experiments so people in the company realize we’re serious. I referred to my favorite psychologist, Albert Bandura, in my talk, and he has proven scientifically that the way to make big change is for people to to get over their fears of the new through guided mastery. He did it with people’s phobia of snakes, and we’ve seen it over and over again with cultural change: take people through a series of small successes. It sounds like common sense but it really is powerful.
You’ve been at the forefront of the so-called “design thinking” movement. How have you seen the thinking about design thinking evolve?
I’m a professor at Stanford, and we used to have lots and lots of meetings about the importance of being multi-disciplinary. We’d divide the pie and then everyone would go back to their respective labs and keep on doing the same things. Design thinking is a human-centered approach, and one time we got people to sign up to try it. So we would get the psychologist and business person and doctor and engineer in the room to work together and see if we might come up with something different. The first thing is to use design thinking to build empathy for the people you’re trying to help. It is so commonsensical, and so for some reason people were willing to sign up to do that. There was always something that was in one discipline’s wheelhouse and it turned out our method was acceptable enough to a bunch of people who wanted to work together, who got it that their life experiences plus working with someone different resulted in something more innovative than anything they might come up with on their own.
Some designers really get riled up about design thinking, imagining that it somehow dismisses the importance of design. What do you say to them?
At Stanford, it’s clean. They grant a degree — it’s the program I went through that offers degrees in product design. They’re the only people getting degrees in design. The d.school doesn’t give degrees to anybody, but is teaching how designers think. So I’m still making rockstar designers, and they’re not threatened by these other people. In fact, these other people are starting to value them more and more. You were a business person who never understood design; now you’re a business person and you’re intimate with the power of design and what design thinking can do. When you go into the world, you’re more likely to appreciate designers. Designers who are at odds with this are missing the boat. This is making them more important in the world.
So you’re not saying that by learning the design thinking process, anyone can be a designer?
It’s just giving people a tool. In some ways, we use design thinking to differentiate from design. I don’t want super talented design friends to think I’m saying a doctor can be like them. That’s not the case. But a doctor can solve his or her problems more creatively, look at them in human-centered way and attack them in the way a designer would attack them.
Who’s your favorite example of someone who’s mastered the design thinking process and is taking it forth in interesting ways?
There’s a guy named John Keefe. I think he was a Knight fellow and he ended up taking a class at the d.school. He didn’t think he was a designer — he was a producer at WNYC — but pretty soon the whole morning show was being run in a design thinking-led way, with prototyping, getting teams to work on stories on Tuesday that would go on air on Thursday. But we have literally hundreds of those stories. We’ll have military guys who sit in the back of the room, frowning, and pretty soon they’re design thinking’s biggest supporters.
How do you feel when you see that?
It’s magical to see these people flip. Especially in people who’ve been analytical their whole lives. It’s so emotional for them. Once it happens, people will say they always knew they were creative. They’re so convinced it’s biological, putting it down to an uncle being a dancer or a brother-in-law being an architect. How does that have anything to do with anything? They look for a reason, but the reason is: we’re human and wildly creative. We simply took the blocks away from keeping them from being creative.
Some people think that we’re teaching creativity at the d.school, but that couldn’t be further from truth. We’re taking the blocks away from people being naturally creative.
So what next?
We just got here! My focus will be on this, so I think I can take a breather from figuring out what’s next in general. The TED Talk was the beginning of me coming out and saying I was going to focus my career on helping people gain creative confidence. There are lots of ways to do that: I can bring in the management of a company and put them through a workshop. Through executive education I can get 30 people in a room and I’m sure I can move the needle for them and make them feel more creatively confident. So what about a book? That could surely affect more people around the world. Just how much damage can a book do in helping people gain creative confidence?
Creative Confidence is published by Crown Business.