If you’re not familiar with IDEO, the global design company founded in Palo Alto, California in 1991, you probably know some of its work. It’s the creative brains behind the first manufacturable mouse for Apple. IDEO (pronounced eye-dee-oh) is committed to creating positive change through design. From embracing ambiguity and learning from failure to collaborating and taking ownership, IDEO’s seven well-publicized core values are front and center of its business and people. (The company takes these values so seriously that it even created a book on the subject called the Little Book of IDEO.)
IDEO’s nearly 30-year history of producing innovative solutions to problems and fueling creativity around the globe make it a great candidate to look behind the scenes for strategies to help you unlock the creative potential in yourself and your team. Here are five lessons about innovative design thinking and collaboration that we’ve learned from IDEO.
Lesson 1: People Come First
IDEO keeps people front and center both as a company and in the solutions the company creates. According to IDEO, putting people first is “a key tenet of design thinking, and even as our methods evolve in response to new, complex challenges, we’re always designing solutions for people first. We’re building to learn, and learning as we build, through inspiration, ideation, and implementation.”
The worldwide IDEO team is made up of entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors, architects, programmers, journalists, anthropologists, engineers, toy makers, filmmakers, and more, each with a unique perspective. The common thread is that everyone thinks like a designer at IDEO.
IDEO’s human-centered design—described as the creative approach to problem-solving that starts with people and ends with innovative solutions—has three phases: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation. Put simply, human-centered design looks at how you think and what you do with it.
Tim Brown, IDEO’s president, and CEO explains: “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”
Check out a few examples of human-centered design projects from IDEO.
Lesson 2: Design Is Circular
The mainstream linear economy follows a take, make, and dispose of trajectory. Generally speaking, this isn’t a sustainable, long-term approach for businesses or the planet. That’s why IDEO supports a transition to a circular economy, where materials, nutrients, and data are continuously repurposed, and circular design will be a major force in realizing this vision. According to IDEO, “transitioning the circular economy into the mainstream will be one of the biggest creative challenges of our time. But we believe design thinking is an ideal approach for tackling this complex, systemic, ambitious challenge.”
In a nutshell, a circular economy focuses on designing products, services, and businesses that are good for people, the planet, and business. IDEO’s goal is to help innovators and entrepreneurs transition from the short-term thinking of a linear economy to an “alternative, restorative, and regenerative approach to business, one that creates new value and delivers long-term economic, social and ecological prosperity.”
If you want to explore circular design in more depth, hear IDEO’s Tim Brown discuss the role of circular design or check out IDEO’s circular design guide.
Lesson 3: Flops Happen
Unfortunately, not all products are destined for success. No matter how much blood, sweat, and tears go into creating a product, there is an inherent risk that it will fail. Even IDEO has released a few less-than-stellar products. It’s not so much about failure itself—it’s what you do with failure that matters. IDEO doesn’t see failure in terms of a tarnished reputation or public humiliation. Instead, the company sees failure as an opportunity to learn and grow together. In fact, Learn from Failure is one of the company’s seven core values. “We are constantly going into uncharted territory,” reads the Little Book of IDEO. “If we were not trying new things that failed occasionally, we wouldn’t still be in business.”
“As a product manager, don’t run from the possibility of failure. Use it as an opportunity to learn.”
As a product manager, you shouldn’t run from the possibility of failure. Instead, try to get comfortable with the idea. If and when flops happen, take a page from the IDEO handbook and try to see a flop as an opportunity to learn together and try again.
Lesson 4: Room to Think
With more than 700 out-of-box thinkers on staff populating nine offices around the world, IDEO has made it its business to create spaces where inspiration flows easily. The IDEO workspace in San Francisco serves as a perfect example of intentionally designing an environment that fosters creative thinking and encourages employees to shine. “As designers, you can’t expect to come to work and just roll up and create a hundred ideas,” says Ina Xi, senior interaction designer at IDEO. “So creating all of those moments that seem like they are distractions, are actually getting me ready to roll.” Oh, and offices with a view? Not just for IDEO execs. The company’s remarkable views of the San Francisco Bay are used as collaboration spaces.
But it’s not just about designing spaces that encourage creative productivity. It’s also about understanding how people use the space that informs IDEO’s design strategies in its offices around the globe. Group brainstorming, an idea-generating strategy that the company is well-known for, is a key way for IDEO to keep creative ideas flowing quickly in a non-judgmental environment. You can be a fly on the wall in the company’s Toy Lab to observe a typical brainstorm session. That iconic post-it board for brainstorming that you see in the video is central to the company’s creative approach to collaboration. (Here are a few brainstorming tips straight from IDEO.)
Don’t have a shared physical space in the office or have people spread around the globe? ProductPlan’s Table Layout feature is kind of like a digital post-it board. It provides a virtual creative spot to collect and curate a backlog of ideas that can be used for discussion and prioritization. It’s as easy as slapping a paper post-it note to a board to add a new item to the Table Layout or to import an existing spreadsheet. (And if you’ve integrated with JIRA, you can also import a list of issues directly from JIRA at once—a product manager’s dream!)
Lesson 5: Walk-in User’s Shoes
It can be challenging to step out of our own experience and into someone else’s. For IDEO, empathy is the key that enables the company to unlock its creative solutions. IDEO does this by observing user behavior for greater understanding and by putting itself in a user’s shoes to fully understand the user’s experience. According to IDEO, “When you understand the people you’re trying to reach—and then design from their perspective—not only will you arrive at unexpected answers, but you’ll come up with ideas that they’ll embrace.”
IDEO’s two-pronged approach to understanding user behavior and the experience was put to the test in the recent kitchen-of-the-future project with IKEA, the world’s largest furniture store. The project resulted in a full-size kitchen prototype and a solid understanding of how people’s behaviors around food, cooking, and eating will shape the design of the kitchen of 2025.
If you want to bring some of the IDEO creative mojo into your work life, the company offers online courses. IDEO’s nearly 30-year history of producing creative solutions to problems and fueling innovation around the globe provides many valuable lessons for creatively dissecting problems, discovering new ways of addressing challenges, and unlocking creative potential.
What are your strategies for unlocking creative potential in yourself and your team?