Lessons in Creativity from IDEO,
America's Leading Design Firm
By Tom Kelley with Jonathan Littman
Currency/Doubleday -- 307pp -- $26
Since the subject is the craft of developing breakthrough products, it's only fair to analyze consultant Tom Kelley's The Art of Innovation, written with journalist Jonathan Littman, as if it were a new product. Seen through that lens, the book might look like a long shot. After all, it enters a market cluttered with how-to primers on innovation.
But Kelley has leveraged some strengths to fill a real market gap. The company he works for, IDEO (founded by his brother David), has a reputation for being perhaps the outstanding new-product and design consultancy. Its projects have ranged from Apple Computer Inc.'s first mouse and the Palm V digital assistant to the breakthrough Heartstream defibrillator. (It's also a perennial winner in BusinessWeek's annual Industrial Design Excellence Awards.) "We don't just teach the process of innovation. We actually do it, day in and day out," says Kelley.
And unlike certain other entries in the how-to-innovate arena, this one is rooted in the practical. Kelley walks readers through everything from masterminding "the perfect brainstorm" to the benefits of rapid prototyping and configuring offices that are congenial to creativity. For example, Kelley offers some compelling reasons why brainstorming sessions should run about an hour, yield around 100 ideas (duly numbered), and should not occur at a plush, off-site location (which would undermine the sense that brainstorming is an everyday activity, not a special occasion).
Written in an informal, straightforward manner, The Art of Innovation offers an enjoyable ramble through cultural and historical byways that have had an impact on design. You'll learn, for example, why it would be foolish to target a new vacuum cleaner at a global audience (Japanese like them quiet, but Americans equate noise with power), and why aspirin makers hesitated for years before yanking the cotton from bottles (consumers mistakenly assumed it eliminated moisture).
From the anecdotes and examples, a few broad themes emerge. The most crucial has to do with the benefits of limitations: For instance, "crazy deadlines and seemingly unreachable goals are often the sparks" that turn a project team into what Kelley calls a "hot group." At the same time, having too many resources can hinder the can-do mind-set essential to innovation. Another theme is design simplicity--having the discipline to strip out unneeded features. Here, the ideal is, in the words of AT&T executive Carl Ledbetter, the "Wet-Nap interface"--as in the moistened towelettes that come in packages demanding, simply: "Tear open and use." The book falters when Kelley strays from his firsthand knowledge to secondhand platitudes, such as the one about good customer service on Southwest Airlines Co. Thankfully, such lapses are rare.
Kelley indirectly acknowledges that there may be a gulf between IDEO's operating style and that of most established outfits: He derides companies that are "control freaks--even when they imagine they're loosening their grip." So is product innovation beyond their reach? Well, they can always hire IDEO. By Gerry Khermouch