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Are IDEO’s consultants “hackers”?

Here’s a great video on Innovation with Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, by the Yale School of Management.  In case you don’t know, IDEO is “A Design and Innovation Consulting Firm” headquartered in Palo Alto, CA, with offices all over the world.  They are one of the most innovative firms ever and pioneers in the field of “design thinking.” Some of their projects include Apple’s first mouse, Microsoft’s second mouse, and the Palm V PDA.  They work with clients like  Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Microsoft, Eli Lilly, Ford, and Steelcase.

Discussing what’s needed to foster innovation, Brown says:

First, you must have an open mind.  Innovation requires inquiry,  curiosity openness, and empathy for the world.  The best way to kill curiosity is to be too inward facing.  Thus, innovators must get out into the world and spend time with customers and people who they want to be customers.

Second, you must build spaces of trust where people can take risks.  Too often, we try to remove risk to protect ourselves.  However,  you need risk to innovate.  You can’t penalize people for failure, at least not for the types of failure that they learn from.  Indeed, we often learn more from our failures then from our successes.

Third, part of IDEO’s secret as an innovation consultancy is that they are able to approach problems with what Brown calls “Beginner’s Mind” (borrowing the terminology from Zen Buddhism).  They bring their expertise in innovation to a project while their clients bring the domain expertise.  This allows IDEO to be open to all the possibilities and potential.  Many problems do require expertise (it likely will take heart surgeons to design an innovative new tool for performing heart surgery) but being able to approach a problem without the constraints of existing expertise in the area opens up the possibilities to new and innovative solutions.

Fourth, innovative people are always looking for new problems solve and probably are at least a little ADD.

Brown says many people might find this surprising, but the creative process is not all intuition.  Intuition is actually the result of large amounts of input.  Innovation involves pattern recognition and analysis.  IDEO does tons of anthropology.  What innovation and creativity really require is informed intuition.

IDEO's Design Thinking

IDEO’s Design Thinking Process

Tying this back to the idea of hackers and hacking, many of the same concepts apply to what makes a great hacker.  A hacker must have an open mind when approaching a problem.  Whether it is breaking into a computer system or coming up with an elegant solution to a programming challenge, hackers approach a challenge with curiosity and openness.

Hackers also work in an environment in which risk is embraced and failure is seen as a learning opportunity.  Each failed attempt at solving a problem is seen as a learning opportunity and success usually only happens after a number of failures.

Hackers in many ways personify the idea of “Beginner’s Mind.”  Going back to Y-Combinator, the Silicon Valley based startup incubator I talk about in my post Why Hacking?, Y-Combinator accepts teams based more on their mind set than on the actual business idea that they pitch initially.  Domain expertise can be built, and Y-Combinator can introduce their participants to people with that expertise through their huge network of connections.  They want people to approach problems with a fresh mind.  For example, would someone in the hotel industry ever have come up with the idea for AirBnB?

To say hackers are always looking for new problems and are just a little ADD would be an understatement (I’d guess Adderall would be nominated as the drug of choice in the hacker community).

And finally, informed intuition is clearly the tool of choice for the hacker.  Hackers are experts at what they do, they spend large amounts of time learning everything they can about the project they are working on or problem they are trying to solve.  Their intuitions are driven by their experience and know how combined with a ton of research.

In my next post I’ll spend a bit more time looking at the IDEO way of approaching a problem.