I just finished reading an excellent piece of journalism; an in depth look at IDEO founder David Kelley that appeared in last month’s issue of Wired Magazine Fast Company (hat tip @socialentrprnr). Earlier this month I wrote about IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown and the concept of T-Shaped People. I’ve been intrigued by IDEO for some time, but until reading the Wired piece I wasn’t quite sure why I thought a design firm held important lessons for philanthropy.
The way Kelley sees it, [the United States’] polyglot populace gives us an extraordinary advantage in generating truly creative ideas. That idea was one of the animating forces behind the d.school — a place that would help analytical Stanford types become creative thinkers. The school would welcome students from business, law, education, medicine, engineering — the more diverse, the better.
“When David was making the case for the d.school at Stanford,” says [David’s brother], “he went to [university president John] Hennessy and said, ‘Look, we’re good at “deep.” We have Nobel Laureates drilling down into esoteric topics. But what if there are problems that aren’t solved by deep, but broad? We should have a side bet in broad.’ “
This concept is the activating principal behind T-Shaped people. In the article Kelley explains to a group of d.School students that Ideo and the d.School is focused on “design thinking”, not “design”.
“You’re sitting here today because we moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers,” he continues. “What we, as design thinkers, have, is this creative confidence that, when given a difficult problem, we have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before.”
…”They went meta on the notion of design,” says Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, referring to the shift from object design to focusing on organizational processes. “They concluded the same principles can be applied to the design of, say, emergency-room procedures as a shopping cart.”
And this is where we make the connection to philanthropy. If philanthropy is going to fund new, innovative ideas we must engage in design thinking. If our field is going to advance despite the absence of market forces requiring funders to make smart grants, we need design thinking. If the social benefit sector as a whole is going to produce high impact, systemic change, we need design thinking.
The article continues:
Design thinking represents a serious challenge to the status quo at more traditional companies, especially those where engineering or marketing may hold sway. Patrick Whitney, dean of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), who sends many of his graduates off to Ideo, says he sees this resistance all the time. “A lot of my students have MBAs and engineering degrees. They’re taught to identify the opportunity set, deal with whatever numbers you can find to give you certainty, then optimize.”
But some problems need to be restated before a big, new idea can be hatched. It often helps to take the problem and break it apart, before putting it back together in a whole new way — the synthesis or abstraction step. That’s where the creative leap often occurs and what Ideo’s process is designed to unearth.
I can’t think of an approach more finely tuned for philanthropy. So many problems that philanthropy seeks to fix are products of unsatisfactory, but stable equilibriums. Producing impact in many cases is not just about “optimizing” the current situation, it is about taking the problem, breaking it apart, and then putting it back together in a whole new way.