Tim Brown is the CEO of IDEO, a global design consulting firm based in California. He has been called an evangelist of design thinking. Naoki Ono, the leader of Hakuhodo’s monom team, asks him what design thinking really means, and how Japanese businesses can use it.
Ono: Mr. Brown, you’re the CEO of IDEO, one of the world’s leading design consulting firms and a company that’s brought success to many projects for other famous businesses. You’re known as an evangelist for design thinking, so can you start by telling us how you came to that way of thinking yourself?
Brown: It’s been a long time now, but 35 years ago, when I was studying design in university, I wrote a certain article for a magazine. In that article, I asked a lot of questions. How does design need to change? How can design help people? What problems should design address? Who should address them, and how? Questions like that.
I was strongly influenced by Victor Papanek, who wrote a book that came out in the the 1970s called Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. He put forward the idea that a design perspective could be applied to solve problems faced by people in developing countries. I felt at the time that this was one answer to my question of how design could help people, and it left a deep impression on me. I’ve kept asking the same questions in my career ever since. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that repeating those questions has made me who I am today. IDEO’s designers share the same questions, and we’ve found answers to apply to a variety of problems. So we concluded that design can solve real problems, for real people. The way of thinking that we call design thinking arose out of that process. Design thinking isn’t something we invented, it refers to the tools and approaches used by designers.
Ono: In Japan, the idea is finally starting to take root that design is about solving problems, not just making things visually attractive. Most people understand design thinking as a thought process or framework for producing innovation. But using that framework requires a problem to apply it to, and sometimes we just can’t find the right problem or theme. When that happens, where should we start?
Brown: Design thinking is often misunderstood. It isn’t just a way of finding solutions. It’s equally valuable in finding the correct questions. The process of finding those questions can demand an incredibly high level of creativity.
To find the right questions, curiosity is very important. Of course, it’s impossible to be curious about every single thing that happens in the world. So everyone needs to decide for themselves what fields they should be curious about.
Ono: I’ve definitely experienced the importance of asking the right questions. When we start a new project, as soon as we know what it is, our team gets together for a brainstorming session to figure out which questions to ask. Some of the things we come up with are about fairly concrete details of the product—appearance and functionality—and others are much broader, about the usefulness of the product and what kind of user might need it. By asking all of these questions, we get closer to a single solution. I think that’s real design thinking.
But sometimes it’s hard to find the right questions. How should we go about it?
Brown: The most effective way to ask great questions is to look at things from the customer’s perspective. Don’t shut yourself up in a room, go outside, find out what your customers want. Thinking about what your customers will want in the future is the first step to asking good questions. What technology will you need to fulfill their needs, and what kind of business? You have to be constantly examining different ideas, and constantly thinking.
At IDEO, when a client comes to us with a question, we first define what that question is. Then we go out and observe the customers, and sometimes conduct research. During this process, we find questions entirely different from those with which we began. As we evolve our questions, we sometimes find a solution, and sometimes we find even more questions. Repeatedly switching between questions and solutions like this is important to the process of innovation.
Ono: What kind of questions do you think lead most easily to innovative solutions?
Brown: I’ve seen a lot of examples, and I can say that the more revolutionary the question, the more revolutionary the solution. Boring questions, on the other hand, produce only humdrum solutions. Many companies that try to adopt design thinking can only come up with standard questions, the kind anyone might think of, and they end up with dull solutions. The trick with design thinking is to identify the most essential question.
Ono: I think IDEO has a lot of Japanese businesses among its clients. Unfortunately, many Japanese companies have lost their former glories over these past twenty years. Do you think that Japanese enterprise can get back what it had in the 80s?
Brown: I think there is a chance, under one condition. Most Japanese businesses, beginning with the automotive industry, have pursued efficiency, and they’ve found success that way. And they aren’t wrong, you have to be efficient to win against your competition. But in society now it isn’t enough to chase efficiency, you need to be creative at the same time.
Ono: Efficiency can be measured in terms of numbers. The successes of creativity are harder to quantify, and trying something creative is itself a challenge to begin with. Japanese businesses tend to avoid failure, and it’s been pointed out that this makes it difficult for them to innovate. Does being more creative mean creating an environment where risks can be taken?
Brown: It does. Creativity is often misunderstood as referring to the physical creation of things, but I think that creativity is essential in every facet of business. In service, in user experience design, in human resources, and in the management of companies, creativity is necessary. At IDEO, we get a lot of consultations from companies that want to incorporate design thinking into their internal management.
Ono: Japan’s major businesses are often criticized for being slow to change. How can such businesses become more creative?
Brown: Honestly, it’s not easy. Changing the character of a company takes effort over an extended time. One year isn’t enough, we’re talking about more like ten years.
Ono: Ten years. That’ll take some patience.
Brown: Yes. But I think Japanese businesses are in a better environment to effect protracted change than American businesses are. In America, the voices of the shareholders are very strong, and the pressure is to produce results in the short term, so long-term changes are difficult to execute, but things are different in Japan. More than a few Japanese businesses are capable of taking the long view and making long-term commitments. That’s the strong point of Japanese business.
Ono: That’s very interesting. Once Japanese businesses do make a decision, their stance is to follow it through over a long period. People tend to focus on the negative aspects of Japanese companies’ slowness to act, and their tendency to take risks both infrequently and gradually. The thought that their patience is an asset is a very refreshing perspective.
Brown: One more important element is faith on the part of an organization’s leader. If the leader doesn’t really believe in the necessity of change, it’s impossible to realize it. The leader needs to clearly express the necessity of change. To that end, the leader needs to be deeply involved in the process of increasing creativity. But the leader doesn’t need to produce ideas personally, in fact I wouldn’t recommend it. The leader’s role is to proactively support the growth of creativity in the organization.
Ono: Definitely. Projects to create innovation for clients sometimes go well, but they sometimes come to an impasse. Most of the time, when we encounter an impasse, it’s because nobody has the authority to make a decision. Innovation is impossible without a leader, and the way you involve people with authority can be the key to successful innovation.
Ono: A lot of Japanese businesses, maybe because they’re technology-led, tend to think in terms of how to use existing technology, and don’t try hard enough to understand what their customers want. Can design thinking be applied to reverse this paradigm?
Brown: It’s true that the advance of technology has solved a lot of human problems in the past. However, in the modern world, that’s becoming harder and harder to do. The more accustomed people become to the rapid march of new technology, the less interested they are in it, and the less willing they are to buy in simply because a technology is new.
Ono: I see. Modern society is already so full of technology that new advancements make less of an impact.
Brown: Everyone is familiar with drones now, but it took a while for them to find their market. That was because people didn’t realize what they could use them for. But once everyone noticed how useful they were for agriculture and film production, the market expanded in a flash.
I think that design thinking would have discovered that path to success at an earlier stage.
For a heavily technology-driven company, design thinking can help identify the customer needs that the company’s technology can fulfill. In some cases, this may require changes to the technology, but it’s only natural for technology to evolve to become more useful.
At IDEO, we have a project called CoLab, where we work with other companies to identify needs that can be served by the possibilities of new technologies like blockchains and AI. We can do research before things hit the market, with no competitor companies, and that lets us do a lot of exploration at low cost. Applying design thinking before releasing a new technology to the marketplace has been extremely effective.
Ono: I think excellent leadership is indispensable if you want to see great results, but what do you think is the difference between a leader who can use design thinking and one who can’t?
Brown: It’s a question of participation. Leaders who make good use of design thinking involve themselves in the process of innovation, and are very interested in what the company can do for its customers.
Creativity is directly linked to design thinking. As you said yourself a moment ago, creativity is a vague concept, and unlike efficiency it can’t be accurately measured. That’s why leaders need to be involved, and why they need the intuition to identify the correct questions and solutions.
Ono: Experience breeds intuition. I understand the importance of intuition to make judgments about creativity, because it isn’t quantifiable. Unfortunately, the accuracy of those judgments depends on how broad and how deep the intuition runs. It isn’t enough to survey the marketplace and surrounding conditions, or even to do research and interview sei-katsu-sha to understand them better. The only way to get that intuition is to be personally involved.
Brown: That’s right. Business leaders need to have “creative confidence.” That’s a term we coined to refer to the combination of the creativity to come up with new ideas and the courage to execute them. It isn’t that difficult to come up with new ideas, but turning them into action takes time and resources, and always comes with risk, so most companies hesitate to follow through.
Design thinking is a process that includes action. Putting ideas into action and finding out whether the customer agrees that they’re the right ideas is an essential process for a creative organization.
Ono: So design thinking always goes with action. If more businesspeople had creative confidence, we might see a greater number of innovative businesses.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.