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On The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelly February 5, 2012

Posted by Kay Ashaolu in Uncategorized.

The Art of Innovation is written to encourage anyone employed or involved with a company or organization to rethink the way that things are done in order to better respond to the rapidly changing world that we are in. The book exclaims that it is not enough to assume that you know what customers want or that you can do the same thing you have been doing for 30 years and still be successful. The book proposes a method that keeps product development in tune with the realities of the marketplace and a mindset that encourages “thinking outside of the box” practices that have the potential to create truly inspiring products. Because of the technological age that we live in, customers expect more and more from the products and services that they use every day. I believe that this book is a timely reminder of the importance of creating customer-centered products.

I generally agree with the IDEO method of user research, brainstorming, and rapid prototyping as tools to generate new ideas. In order to truly allow ideas to flourish and be tested dynamically, Kelly stresses the need to create an environment where ideation is encouraged. I find it very important to pair the process of failing fast through prototyping with an environment and culture that does not penalize its members for making mistakes, as well as allowing anyone regardless of years of service to speak up. Because of this collaborative environment, “hot groups” become possible driving innovation throughout your entire company. It is this energy that I believe is needed in corporations today that are stagnant, stuck on either previous successes, or filled with initiative-stifling bureaucracy that prevents them from creating products that users love to use.

However, I would like to see more about the analogue of what the IDEO method would look like in corporations that cannot hang their bicycles in the wall, wear whatever they want, or need some form of hierarchy in order to run their businesses effectively. For example, the military: it would be a very disastrous thing if the U.S. Armed Forces got rid of their entire hierarchical structure in an effort to innovate and think of new ways to make their operations more efficient. The examples given seemed to be focused on the San Francisco / Silicon Valley crowd that may not resonate with the people on Wall Street in New York City, but the core concepts are absolutely relevant in those places. The book does mention the importance of culture in product development by mentioning barrier jumping and ensuing your product is relevant in the market it is being sold in. However, I believe more could be said with companies whose culture is different from what you find in the Bay Area. Nevertheless there is a ton of value in this book due to the concepts introduced and the step-by-step bullet points it lays out in order to inspire innovation in a corporation. I found that reading this book may require a sort of internal translator that translates phrases like “hang your bicycle on the wall” to having the option to remove the divides on their cubical if employees desired.

Despite the culture influence of the book, I highly recommend that people should read this book if they are interested in creating an area where great products and services can be created. I have worked at companies ranging from rigid Fortune 500 companies to free-willing gun slinging startups and what I found was that in order to combine the best of both worlds you need to find a structured process within an open environment that encourages innovation. I believe this book gives a good roadmap on how to create that combination of structure and culture in an organization.

Here’s more from IDEO and their focus on human-centered design



1. jhpittman - February 16, 2012

Kay – good analysis. I was intrigued by your comment on the military. I recently met a guy from the NATO “transformation command”” whose job it was to innovate. He was very specific that his group was separate from the operating part of NATO. I’m sure his methods are not quite as free wheeling as NATOs but they are less rigid than you might imagine.

2. Tom Kelley - February 17, 2012

You make an excellent point that The Art of Innovation does like to celebrate companies with a strong culture of innovation, making it a bit more like Jim Collins’ “Built to Last” than like his follow-up “Good to Great.” Learning from Collins, I tried to spend more time in “The Ten Faces of Innovation” on how an entrepreneurial individual–or small group–could influence and impact organizations that do NOT have innovation at their core. As for very large organizations and government bureaucracies, you might be interested to know that, although I haven’t written about it yet, my colleagues and I are deeply involved in such challenges. NPR did a piece quite recently that touches upon the Wounded Warrior housing program that IDEO was lucky enough to be able to help with: http://www.npr.org/2012/02/14/146585160/building-better-houses-for-wounded-soldiers
Meanwhile, thank for the thoughtful analysis, and good luck with all your innovations.
Tom Kelley

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