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The Art of Innovation


One of the quirky things about the way that I dig into topics is that sometimes it’s like reading a book from the back to the front. I read the most recent things first before getting back to more foundational works. That’s absolutely the case with The Art of Innovation. I have previously reviewed Tom and David Kelley’s book, Creative Confidence, which made mention to this earlier work. It was also referenced in The Medici Effect and The Innovator’s DNA. Getting back to this classic book was just a matter of time, given the respect that other authors have for Tom Kelley and the team at IDEO.

Product Development

IDEO is a product design company. It’s known for its innovative solutions to the challenges of everyday life and the world. Tom Kelley starts the book explaining how IDEO became so innovative by first explaining their “research” on why organizations outsource their product development activities. It broke down to four categories: raw capacity, speed, specific expertise, and innovation. He mentioned that this final category, innovation, has become more and more important.

Though the book carries a copyright of 2001, the statement has continued to be true. Organizations today are still trying to find innovative solutions – perhaps even more than they were in 2001.

Human Centered Design

Kelley describes the IDEO process for creating in five steps: understanding, observing, visualizing, evaluating and refining, and implementing. This has evolved over the years into human-centered design and a three-part process: hear, create, deliver. (This is from IDEO’s Human Centered Design Toolkit.) Each of these parts has several steps.

At the core of the process is tapping into the frustrations, barriers, and challenges of the people for whom the solution is being created. It can be getting inside the head of the busy mom trying to navigate the isles of the store with a grocery cart whose last major revision was half a century ago or finding the hidden frustration of the mouse user whose hand is always uncomfortable after working with the mouse.

Liberal Education

The debate between core STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and a more liberal education in the arts rages. There’s a heightened focus on ensuring that we are competitive in our core skills. There are initiatives to ensure that minorities and women aren’t left behind. However, somewhere in the focus on STEM, we may have lost our focus on a broader education and its benefits.

When Kelley describes the skills that are necessary for innovation, he says, “Like an Olympic decathlon, the object is to achieve true excellence in a few areas, and strength in many.” The importance in this statement is understated. The underlying assumption is that, to achieve innovation, you must have a set of skills – not just one or two. An Olympic decathlon athlete demonstrates their achievement by demonstrating “good” in many categories and “great” in only a few – one or two.

A great deal of focus in business is spent speaking about how you must build your strengths and ignore your weaknesses. There’s certainly some truth to not focusing on your weaknesses, but it’s a different thing entirely to work on your weaknesses. Consider that Anders Ericsson explains in Peak that the highest performers are those who use purposeful practice to improve specific aspects of their performance. In How We Learn, Carey explains how varied practice leads to better outcomes.

We get better when we consider our weaknesses and find solutions to working around them. Once we reach competency, we may find it hard to maintain flow, and therefore become truly excellent, if we aren’t interested. (See FlowFinding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on the need for balance in challenge and skill in flow.) However, there’s no reason why we can’t become at least good at all the skills of innovation – and great at a few.

This need to have diversity is the heart of liberal education. It’s the diversity in what is being learned that makes a difference. (See The Difference for more on the power of diversity.) Kelley explains how IDEO uses a box of random things to spark creativity and innovation. In Creative Confidence, Tom and Dan Kelley come together to speak about how they encourage the kind of creativity that is the spark that ignites innovation.

I believe in an education that, in a broad set of disciplines, creates the kind of neural pathways that allow people to make huge insightful leaps. It was Steve Jobs’ interest in calligraphy that famously led to the focus on fonts for the Macintosh. There wasn’t a master plan when he stepped into the class. I’m sure there were many more classes that he stepped into that weren’t helpful at all. The point of innovation is to draw from as much as you can. So, too, does liberal education seek to give students a wide variety of things to pull from.

Work Should be Play

Good-hearted, practical jokes and play are the heart of creating an innovative team. In Play, Stuart Brown explains that there must be an evolutionary imperative for play. It’s too ingrained in too many species. He claims that it’s useful to teaching animals the skills they need for survival. In humans, our primary survival skill is the ability to connect with and care for each other. As a result, our creative, innovative teams should be ones where play is supported and expected. (See The Art of Loving for more on our need to be connected, and Mindreading and The Righteous Mind for the mechanisms that maintain our ability to work together.)

Things as Verbs

Is it a noun or a verb? Things that we truly love become verbs. Things that are active in solving our problems and fulfilling our desires are verbs. They’re not constrained to a static thing frozen in time. Instead, they’re there for a purpose. When working to innovate, it’s important to see the reason for the thing – rather than just seeing the thing as a static item. It’s not a hammer, it’s used for hammering. How are the things we create going to work to make the lives of people easier or better in some way?

Safety is Required

How Children Succeed speaks of the mother rats and their propensity to lick and groom their pups. The greater the licking and grooming, the greater the adventurousness of the pups. The more that they know they’re safe, the more willing they are to take chances. Teams are the same way. In my post on Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, I explain how trust creates the safety needed for vulnerability and ultimately leads to the intimacy that makes life worthwhile. Intimacy in a team means that the team can be themselves. This means that they’re not spending time worried about protecting themselves, they’re spending all their energy trying to work for the good of the team. (See How to Be Yourself for more.)

Would you rather have the team worried about how their team members will protect them or how they can solve the challenge put in front of them? Clearly the problem put in front of them; but all too often, organizations make decisions that erode trust and make it difficult for teams to trust each other – or the organization – and end up diverting some of their precious energy and creativity away from the task at hand.

Eight Characters

Kelley describes eight characters that make for good innovative teams (which he calls “hot groups”):

  • The Visionary – Sees the future vision and seeks to paint that picture.
  • The Troubleshooter – Solves problems and cuts to the chase.
  • The Iconoclast – Challenger of the status quo.
  • The Pulse Taker – Always trying to check in and assess the team and the situation.
  • The Craftsman – The person who will convert the idea into the actual.
  • The Technologist – The deepest knowledge from all the most unusual sources.
  • The Entrepreneur – Keeper of the question, “How is this going to be converted into a viable product?”
  • The Cross-Dresser – The person who has a thirst for learning and whose passion and intensity shifted from their formal learning.

In my opinion, these are more prototypical perspectives than they are necessarily individual contributors. Good innovators see themselves as multiple characters. For instance, I’m always digging back to the root source, which would identify me as a technologist. However, I’ve spent more than a dozen years as a small business owner, which necessitates a focus on how things will be profitable. I’m a cross-dresser, in that I started my career in information technology but spend most of my time today helping organizations be more effective.

Continuous Improvement

Kelley tells a story how he and his brother Dan were building snow forts in Ohio. They kept upgrading their practices until they had the mother of all snow forts. They continued to refine their practices until they came up with what was the best snow fort construction technique that they could muster at the time. Somewhere in my childhood, I had a similar experience in Indiana. I started gathering snow and kept trying new ideas to increase efficiency. By the time I was done, I discovered that sliding square trashcans across the ground would capture and transport snow in greater volumes and at greater speed than any other method.

It’s not that snow fort building is a technique that I use in my daily work. It’s that I use the continuous refinement to try to discover the best way to do anything. I prototype on paper and in sketching tools. I rough screens together to show them to clients before I have everything working.

Office Spaces

I’ve never seen an office space that is a snow fort, but I’ve seen plenty of interest in creating office spaces that foster innovation and creativity. The problem is that most of these efforts are done for design aesthetics without a deep awareness of how people work. In Joy, Inc., Richard Sheridan speaks of their open concept for developers. I cringed when I read it, because I know that developers need ways to get into flow, and that requires uninterrupted space. (See Flow for the effects of flow and Peopleware for the need for flow in developers.) Kelley explains that Chiat/Day (an advertising agency) created a space that The New York Times praised as “a remarkable work of art” – but more importantly, workers felt lost. It wasn’t practical for the ways that they worked, and a few short years later, the design was replaced with a much more practical design.

While I believe in the power of a space to enable creation and innovation, I equally believe that most people don’t understand how to create spaces that really help. Take our office, for instance. We have an indoor pergola. It is complete with 36 fairy light green ball jars and three plants that are being grown indoors on it (see below). I had a custom conference table made years ago that looks like the trunk of a tree with a glass top. That and 27 linear feet of windows helps us feel like we’re working outside. I’ve also got a stoplight that hangs from the pergola as an ever-present reminder that what we can do is a yellow light. What we should do is green – and what we shouldn’t do is red. It’s a way that we use the visual environment to cue us into the right thoughts – and behaviors.

Seeking Status

Quick. Pour through the new office space and stake out your office. How do you place your mark on the best office? It could be position, or it could be size. But for size, how do you know exactly how big an office is? If you’re good at the game, you count the ceiling tiles. You can get a good sense for the size of the office just by getting a quick count of the tiles. This is exactly what some people did when they were allowed to place their mark on an office in the new space. That’s great, but what does it say?

The actual size (in square feet) was not material to their happiness. Heck, some larger offices may not be as functional due to the shape. However, that wasn’t the point. The person with the largest office won the status game. Contrast this with people being focused on their contributions to the team and to the overall success. The difference is between cooperation or collaboration and competition. Competition – internally – isn’t good for business or innovation. (See Collaborative Intelligence for more.)

Societal Norms

Humans as a group are a funny lot. There are some things that we cling to that isn’t necessary, but we can’t help ourselves. In American homes, ketchup normally goes in the refrigerator even though we find it sitting unrefrigerated on the tables in restaurants – and in most European homes. Heinz even states that their ketchup is shelf-stable (meaning it doesn’t need to be refrigerated) but advises refrigeration. How’s that for hedging your bets and trying to keep from being on the wrong side of public ire?

One of the most difficult challenges that any innovation must face is the societal norms that it violates. More challenging still is that it’s often hard to predict which societal norms will stick and which ones won’t. Cell phones don’t emit a dial tone, and people seem to have adapted just fine. Answering machines were once considered rude, and now they’re considered old-fashioned. We’ve moved on to voicemail.

However, contrast this with wine corks. Our belief is that wine with corks is better and more expensive. Only cheaper brands use alternatives. However, the fact of the matter is that we’ve got better ways to protect wine today, but we can’t sell them, because the perception is that it cheapens the wine. Imagine how hard it would be to innovate when you end up on the wrong side of a societal norm.

In Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers explains how innovation may be hampered by social or societal norms and how the innovation may disrupt the social order, as was done innocently when steel axe heads were introduced to an aboriginal tribe.


Today, even more than when The Art of Innovation was written, we’re in an experience-driven world. People aren’t buying brands. They’re buying the promise of brands. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups.) A large part of the promise of the brand is the experience. Whether that is the in-store experience, like legendary customer service, or it is the amazing out-of-the-box experiences, consumers are buying the experience as much as they’re buying the product.

After all, we know that the newness wears off, and we’ll find we need a new product to lift our spirits again. We should get the added lift of the experience if we can. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about how our happiness fades.) Disney is a master of experience. The attraction begins before the ride, with things designed to interest, intrigue, and engage guests before they even get on the ride. (See The Wisdom of Walt for more.)

Noble Failures

It seems strange that anyone would claim that the heart of innovation is failure. However, when you consider the importance of prototypes and the realization that they’ll have to be refined continuously, you can begin to see why the first one is never right. Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc. explains that even Pixar’s first drafts of stories for movies sucked. It’s the process that makes the stories not suck.

The unfortunate reality of innovation is that you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. Innovation is hard work. It may be financially and personally rewarding, but you never know which ideas will succeed and which ones will fail. Venture capitalists have a blended portfolio, expecting that many of their investments will fail – but that the investments that make it will have such an amazing return that it won’t matter. In short, innovation means failure – with a few successes.

Will your first work be a success or a failure when you try to practice The Art of Innovation? Who is to know?