Archives For business design



Hunter Gatherer, one of the inspiring international company examples in Leading for Creativity.

The world of business has never been more volatile or unpredictable. Sources of competition and disruption can appear anywhere—not just disruption in products, services, and technology, but also in channels to market, policy, talent, brands, and supply chains.

In order to survive in today’s complex world, organizations need to generate, embrace, and execute on new ideas. That takes creativity and a creatively capable workforce. It’s the secret sauce, or in evolutionary terms, it’s what keeps you fit. Organizations without it can’t compete.

When we first think of creative organizations, design firms, advertising agencies, or tech startups typically come to mind. Building a creative workforce takes more than hiring a bunch of designers and hosting happy hours. It requires a mindset shift that begins with leadership.

I’ve observed leadership styles across diverse industries: teams in financial services, working with frontline customer support; healthcare organizations, improving patient experiences; and tech companies, learning new ways to retain talent. These team leaders didn’t come from “creative” backgrounds — they weren’t innovation experts, designers, or writers; they were sales leaders, human resource specialists, and software engineers. And they led their organizations in ways that allowed every individual to participate creatively and arrive at better solutions, even when the path was unclear.

Creative leadership isn’t about leaders simply becoming more creative. It’s about individuals leading for creativity. That means you, as a leader, must unlock the creative potential of your organization, no matter the industry. It’s your job to set the conditions for your organization to generate, embrace, and execute on new ideas. It’s a competitive imperative that will keep you ahead in the marketplace.

Holding a curious mindset is a great starting point when you’re leading your team or organization. If you’re in a truly new space, you won’t always know the answers. Your team won’t either. You’re going to venture into the unknown together. Asking questions is one of the best ways to practice a curious mindset—questions that challenge assumptions, inspire others, open up a broader context, and cause reflection.


Supporting creativity requires a suite of approaches that empower individuals and teams to search for solutions and take ownership of what they do.

  1. The explorer. Leaders need to have an inspiring vision and set the course for a new direction. If they don’t, people won’t follow their lead. They hold to that vision and take risks to get that much closer to their destination.
  2. The gardener. Leaders need to set the conditions for creativity to thrive, such as providing inspiration when energy is low. When challenges crop up, they act swiftly to address them and make necessary adjustments.
  3. The coach. Leaders need to stay present and engaged. They’re on the field, at eye level, offering guidance on the fly. They help their team navigate ambiguity, learn from mistakes, and ask the right questions.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to explore on this topic. If you want to continue this conversation, I hope you’ll join my course, IDEO U’s Leading for Creativity, and help your organization thrive in today’s complex world.


IDEO Chicago’s roof garden, and some of its bounty
I love to cook almost as much as I love to eat. When making a meal, the spontaneity of grabbing fresh herbs and other homegrown ingredients from the garden is an essential part of the whole process. Over the years, I’ve given a lot of thought to what gardening, design, and creative leadership have in common.

Gardening is generative, iterative, and user-centered
When designers in our Chicago studio first planted a roof garden, they noticed people were picking and eating the strawberries and tomatoes and leaving the eggplants and tomatillos to rot on the vine. They soon realized that planting a work garden for 60 busy people is very different from planting a home garden for a family of four. Project deadlines simply took priority over cooking, so any plants that took extra steps to prepare were ignored. The next year, the designers planted a “Grab and Go Garden” that contained only fruits and vegetables that could be eaten straight away. This time, more plants were eaten, less were wasted. A good garden, like good design, needs to meet the needs of its users.

Gardening helps us frame future design challenges
The old assembly-line metaphors of the Industrial Revolution won’t help us design the future. Our world is complex. Like a garden, we must tend it, cultivate it, steward it, and encourage it to meet our needs instead of always trying to be in control of it. Our solutions must accommodate the competing needs of humans and the rest of nature. Successful design, like successful gardening, is never finished and is constantly changing.

Gardening teaches us how to be creative leaders
My colleague Michael Hendrix recently wrote an article about his experiences co-leading our Boston studio. He describes his approach to creative leadership as “Gardening, not architecture.” It’s a powerful thought. An architect makes the physical world obey. A gardener helps living things thrive through attentiveness and dialogue. Good leadership starts by finding talented people, giving them a safe space to cultivate their creativity, and letting them grow into their full potential under careful guidance—not a controlling thumb.

What personal pursuits have helped you with leadership challenges?

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Successful startups have a clear and defined purpose—an offering, product, or business model like no other. They also know when to evolve, redesign, or adapt, in sync with emerging market needs. But how?

Arvind Gupta, a colleague in Shanghai, recently wrote about the importance of adaptive innovation cycles in emerging markets in Rotman Magazine. These are methods that I believe can be easily molded for businesses in both the US and European markets as well. Adaptive innovation involves stripping steps from the corporate R&D process and executing quickly in two modes: learning and creating. Some of us at IDEO refer to this as “the squiggle.”

This approach empowers designers to rapidly integrate information from in-market testing. Through repeated adaptive innovation cycles, a team can iterate an offering, product, or model in sync with evolving market needs and stay ahead of the competition. According to Arvind, there are four pillars of success to this approach: Purpose, Pace, Pulse, and Prototyping. Read more about the four pillars of adaptive innovation here.

Where could you be using adaptive innovation to improve an idea?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

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If you talk to people at the Santa Fe Institute, or read any of their books, you’ll learn that a key characteristic of a complex system is that the more complex a system is, the more information flows through it. If this is true, then we ought to be thinking more about these information flows when we are designing for behavior change in complex systems.

Harvard’s Nicholas Christakis has studied the relationships between people with respect to their health, and one of the conclusions he has come to is that if you are in a network of obese people, you are three times more likely to be obese yourself. Conversely, if you are in a network of non-obese people, you are three times more likely to not be obese. This is a very important insight for design: that the behavior of those around us significantly affects our behavior. Intuitively we might know this, but we don’t necessarily always think about it when we’re designing systems.

One way to exploit this insight is to put the tools of design themselves into the hands of people in the networks who may be delivering services. For example, at IDEO we’ve been working for several years with Kaiser Permanente, teaching nurses and doctors and technicians how to use design thinking to improve patient care. Kaiser now has its own consulting group made up of nurses who have become experts at this. They go around to hospitals working on different problems, creating wards and hospitals of the future, and evolving the designs over time as needed. Continue Reading…

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“When I walked into Heath it sounded so different from my office.”

It was this visceral difference between the sounds of a small ceramics manufacturer and those of a consulting design studio that got Cathy Bailey started on the path to co-leading Heath Ceramics. In partnership with her husband Robin Petravic, Cathy has shaped Heath into an icon of the San Francisco manufacturing revival. I got the chance to sit down with her after a recent IDEO Design Evenings event to chat about the challenges and rewards of designing a business. Some highlights from our conversation:

Ten years ago Cathy Bailey was tiring of design consulting. While out looking for ideas that might be the genesis of a startup, she came across Heath, a Sausalito-based ceramics manufacturer founded in 1947 by Edith Heath. While not a startup, Cathy realized that Heath was a business with “good bones”—and that the 50+ year-old company was a place where “people really cared about what they were making.”

What followed was a process of editing, rebuilding, and redesigning much more than the Heath product line. Cathy and Robin’s challenge was to redesign the business itself and create a company where “design is the whole thing”—the business model, the culture, and the story.

Many small manufacturers of craft-based products have disappeared, because the traditional business model of creating relatively high cost products distributed through wholesale channels results in prices that the market cannot support. Heath Ceramics has shifted to direct-to-consumer for the vast majority of its sales. This means that as a manufacturer, Heath must now go beyond the products and take responsibility for designing a great consumer experience both digitally and at its retail outlets. The reward for this broader investment in design is the capture of more profit margin. This is a lesson learned by the likes of Apple, as well as Heath—and one that could be a applied by many more high quality, low volume manufacturers.

“The culture had good bones but it was nostalgic.”

How do you go about evolving a culture that is more focused on the past than the future? One of the unexpected challenges, and one of the reasons it took a while, was the time needed to connect to and understand a group of people who were totally different in their backgrounds and experience. As designers, Cathy and Robin had been used to spending most of their time with people who were essentially similar to themselves. Now they were working with craftspeople who could offer considerable perspective when it came to the products and the craft but had never been asked to engage with the broader design of the business. The first step was to open the books to employees so that they had the opportunity to understand what design trade-offs might be necessary. This first step “changed the dynamic” of the culture.

Heath Ceramics is as much a story as it is a selection of products. It has a rich set of narratives ranging from its founding by Edith Heath in 1947 to its deep expertise in glaze. Celebrated restaurants such as Chez Panisse and The Slanted Door use Heath ceramics, making it a part of the San Francisco food movement as well as the manufacturing and craft revival.

Despite the challenges and risks of reinventing a small craft-based manufacturing business in the USA, Cathy tells me, “it’s not such a risk if we can tell the story.”

Might this idea of designing the whole business be the basis for a resurgence of craft and manufacturing elsewhere in America?

Photo by Jeffery Cross / Courtesy of Heath Ceramics

(posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)