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IDEO's Tim Brown On Innovation In The Harvard Business Review.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on June 25, 2008

The fact that the Harvard Business Review asked IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown to write about Design Thinking in the current issue is as important as what he had to say in the piece. It marks the acceptance and legitimization of design/innovation as an important business process and strategic tool for managers.

HBR was behind for a time in covering innovation and design but it is running some very interesting pieces now and Brown’s article brings it up to date. I think that lag reflects the reluctance of business schools to embrace design thinking and innovation process. This is now changing, but slowly. Harvard Business School is making efforts to incorporate innovation, but in the end, we are talking about a sharp paradigm change embodied in curricula and teaching, and that is happening in only one B-School that I can think of—the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto run by Dean Roger Martin.

Brown’s HBR piece is an excellent primer. He begins by showing how

Design Thinking is a formalization of the methodology used by none other than Thomas Edison who not only invented the lightbulb but envisioned and built a whole electric industry (we'd call that an ecosystem today) devoted to meeting the unmet needs of consumers (needs they couldn't yet visualize). He used a team-based approach to innovation in his famous lab, iterated famously (his "99% perspiration" comment), failed often and learned from his mistakes.

The HBR piece has great stories on medical service innovation at Kaiser and the Aravind Eye Care System in India. There's another on the Keep The Change program at Bank of America.

At the end of the article are two short takes. One is A Design Thinker's Personality Profile (Empathy, Integrative Thinking, Optimism, Experimentalism, Collaboration). The other is How to Make Design Thinking Part of the Innovation Process (check out the piece).

I also like Brown's definition of design thinking--"it is a discipline that uses the designer's sensibility and methods to match people's needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity."

Does that work for you?

Reader Comments


June 25, 2008 3:58 PM

Speaking of "innovation" in the media, what is your take on the TV show "The Business of Innovation" on CNBC? I realize there are many big names involved, but the production is so cheesy that I find it very difficult to watch - I can't stomach an hour of QVC-meets-pep-rally.


June 25, 2008 6:03 PM

I still call this "design". But if it sells more magazines or draws more advertising eyeballs, I suppose there's no stopping it.

Christa Avampato

June 26, 2008 4:11 PM

Hi Bruce,
Let's hope that finally corporations and business leaders will begin to see innovation and design as an investment and not as an expense.


June 26, 2008 11:55 PM

perhaps designers should think about learning "business thinking" instead of getting up on their high horse


June 30, 2008 3:45 AM

Not many publications in the business community put innovation and design under the same tab on their Web site. This explains my affection for BusinessWeek as a publication and advocate for design thinking.

As an MBA (Carlson School, Minnesota) with design colored blood, I've started to see the cross-over MBAs coming from other respected institutions. Its turning out to be more than an select occasion when design, business and innovation coming up in the same sentence. Perhaps the business of teaching business is not getting to real innovation and some are seeking higher ground.

I say all welcome aboard. But, quickly, the train will not wait.

Ric Grefé

July 8, 2008 9:11 PM

Bruce, I agree that HBR's invitation to Tim Brown is a solid step in the right direction, recognizing that design thinking is critical to competitiveness in the market dynamics of today. And Tim is as good as they get at articulating it.

However, I am not sure it reflects a watershed for Harvard Business School. For five years, AIGA contracted for a wonderful and stimulating program at HBS, engaging some of the best faculty with those bringing a different perspective to problem solving. This past year, the HBS lost interest because there was no faculty member who would claim design thinking as a primary focus.

Fortunately, Dean Joel Podolny at Yale School of Management gets it completely and has not only personally championed our program of Business Perspectives for Design Leaders, but also added a course for business students taught by design thinkers Michael Bierut and Bill Drenttel. Watch Yale. Something's happening there.

Anne Keehn, CEO of Quantum Thinking

July 13, 2008 5:31 PM

Teaching design thinking & business thinking in Georgia- The Creative Coast...
Two years ago at the request of Paula Wallace,President of Savanah College of Art & Design,I joined Victor Emoli the Dean of the Design School,other distiguished Department Chairs and faculty members in a design thinking expedition that resulted in a M.F.A. and Design Management. The objective was to develop an integrated program that would equip designers with better business acumen and teach business students the priciples of design thinking and innovation. As a business executive and practitioner of the "Art of Business, I voiced the needs of the business community and they, the needs of designers,etc. Together, we designed the program which launched in the Fall of 2007. I'm sure, in time, the courses will continue to evolve and innovate in keeping with market dynamics and good design thinking and theory. Tim Brown's HBR article is further validation of the great things that can be achieved when we use both the left and right brain in solving today's challenges for business, education and society as a whole. Great article..Great program! Check them out!

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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