Q&A with IDEO's Tim Brown
August 29, 2018 | Design Thinking
by ExperiencePoint

IDEO’s CEO shares his thoughts on how to become a master of design thinking, and why optimism is the most powerful tool an executive can wield.

Q&A with IDEO's Tim Brown and ExperiencePoint's Andrew WebsterWhen it comes to design thinking, Tim Brown is a legend. The CEO of global design firm IDEO is a leading voice in promoting the value of design thinking for business and society. Through his writing and speaking, Tim champions the interdisciplinary, multi-faceted nature of design, and has become a widely sought expert in industry, academia, and the nonprofit community to help organizations achieve innovation transformations.

We had the great pleasure of sitting down with Tim at ExperiencePoint’s 2018 Summit to talk about what it takes to achieve design thinking mastery, and how companies can democratize design and bring creativity to their everyday work experience.

A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and concision, follows.


Andrew Webster: What can you tell us about the design thinking journey?

Tim Brown: Design thinking is not something you just switch on and start using in one go. It’s more like playing the piano -- it’s a journey of mastery and you get better with practice until it becomes an inherent part of your mindset. If you are a great musician, you don’t think about how to play, your body and mind just knows how to do it. The same applies to design thinking.

Webster: How do you know when you’ve achieved mastery over design thinking?

Brown: That is an interesting question. I’ve been trying to master design thinking for 30-odd years and I still consider myself to be okay at some things and not very okay at others.

Though when you’re really starting to master the mindset of design thinking, you start to develop an intuition that allows you to deal with the complexity in problems without having to think everything through. Our brains have a limited capacity to think rationally about a problem, but we have a much greater capacity to think about levels of complexity if we’re being intuitive about it. If you look at results of people who’ve attained this level of mastery, they tend to create things that connect emotionally to people, and they are able to make solutions that are more meaningful. I think that’s a tremendous thing to aim for.

Audience Member: How do you create organizational structures to support design thinking? Because a lot of the work we do faces failure when we take it back into the workplace.

Brown: The only way to change the way employees work, is to also change the attitude around how work gets done. The shift from process-driven work towards project-driven work, for instance, supports the adoption of a design thinking attitude. Any kind of innovation-focused work needs to be structured in a project-driven way so people can focus on outcomes, not updates. In process-driven organizations, people go to meeting after meeting because most of what they do is check up on a process.

The single biggest competitive advantage we have at IDEO is that our teams spend all their time working on projects. They don’t spend hours in meetings, which means they move much faster. Organizations have to shift from being process-oriented to being more project-oriented if they're going to support this kind of work.

Webster: Why do you think people outside of the design team need to use design thinking?

Brown: We need to break away from the idea that design is just for the elite priesthood of people who dress in black and wear designer glasses. I believe so many of the roles we might think of as professional services or skills can benefit from design thinking. Saying this hasn't always made me popular, but I think questioning the hierarchies and systems that have been put in place -- often for good reason -- is one of the things that we need to be able to do as designers to create a more project-driven and optimistic workplace.

Webster: What can leaders in the organization do to help foster a project-driven, design-thinking workplace culture?

Brown: Be optimistic. Design thinking is an optimistic act -- you wouldn’t do it unless you believed you could come up with a better solution. I’ve talked to so many people over the years who said that getting involved in this work has changed their lives because it allows them to be optimistic about what they are doing. That's a pretty dramatic thing to be doing for people.

I can guarantee you that when you're helping people bring their creativity to work you will increase engagement significantly, so be optimistic about what you do and know that you are making work a better place for a lot of people.