IDEO’s Tim Brown and the secret to creating something from nothing

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IDEO’s CEO explains where his best ideas come from, and how design helps shape them.

The ability to recognize and develop good ideas is often the superpower that differentiates the merely employed from the uber successful at work. So is there a formula for how to do it? This week, I discuss this and more with Tim Brown. Having spent nearly two decades running the design firm IDEO, he’s in the business of helping people and companies come up with creative ideas. Then, Caroline Fairchild interviews Heather Hartnett, who founded and runs the startup studio Human Ventures.


JESSI HEMPEL: From the editorial team at LinkedIn, I’m Jessi Hempel. And this…is Hello Monday–a show where I investigate how we’re changing the nature of work, and how that work is changing us.

When we look back at the stories of how the greatest companies are founded, they usually start with a person who had an idea. Eileen Fisher thought women needed a clothing line with very simple pieces. Mark Zuckerberg dreamed up a website to connect his friends.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: So 10 years ago, I was just trying to help connect people at colleges and a few schools. And that was a basic need, where I looked around to the internet.

JESSI: But anyone who has ever actually tried to come up with something new knows that’s not ever really the full story. Dreaming up ideas is a messy process. And figuring out which are worth pursuing is a different exercise altogether.

This skill–knowing how to come up with ideas and then how to hone them–will be one of the most important skills for any of us to get down.

So this week, we’re tackling ideas. Where do they come from? How do we know if they’re good? And what do we do with them?

I’ll talk to Tim Brown, who runs IDEO. It’s a consultancy that helps businesses think up new things and solve creative problems.

When I first met Tim, 15 years ago, design was for making pretty objects. He believed it could be applied to anything. He was trying to spread the notion that anyone could use a basic design process to solve business problems.

Today, Tim’s thesis has gone mainstream. Many companies like Apple and Uber have entire design research departments dedicated to this.

Of course, once you’ve arrived at a good idea, you have to test it. Later in the episode, Caroline Fairchild will go deep with a company that attempts to build startups.

But first, Tim Brown.


JESSI: Tim, you have made a career out of um, helping people find their way to good ideas. So where do ideas come from?

TIM: They come from nothing.

JESSI: That’s so scary.

TIM: That’s what makes it such an exciting and difficult process. At some point a new idea doesn’t exist and then another point it does exist. So that coming from nothing, so there is no there, there are starting points, there are many, many starting points, but they are reference points or their points of what the, the, the, the points where you ask the question. Then if the world already had the solution for you, then it wouldn’t be creative. You what you are doing isn’t, isn’t creative. So you have to have this comfort with the fact that you start with nothing.

TIM: The thing that’s unique about trying to solve a problem creatively is that by definition it has never been solved that way before. Right? Which is different when you’re trying to solve a problem as an engineer actually, because the point of engineering is it is a problem that’s been solved before. Right? Somehow somewhere and there’s like, there’s an equation to support that idea. Right? Um, and so the search, when you’re, when you’re, when you’re creative problem solving, when you’re designing the search is not just for the solution, but it’s almost the search for the way of getting to the solution, which is why as designers, we spend so much time going out into the world. Taalking to people and looking at them and understanding them. We were almost searching for the right question to ask, what is it you need? What will make your, what will help make your life better?

TIM: Because we’re searching for the question, we’re  searching for the right way of, of getting to the solution. And then eventually we find the solution, right? We find the new thing, the new product, the new service, the new way of the new, the new form for that product to take so that it’s at, so that a better fit with your life and everybody else’s, everybody else’s life. And so that’s that, that mystery, that kind of ambiguity is what, uh, what really screws people up when they’re trying to become, when they’re trying to be designers. Because there’s no formula, right? You’re entering into an, into a sort of a imagine like it’s a fog.

TIM: You sort of, and you’ve got this little boat and, and, and that’s your, that’s your design process. You leave. But you know, you wrote into the fog, you’ve no idea whether where the other side of the river is or the other side of the lake, you know, that something, they’re probably somewhere, but until you start rowing and get it out there, you don’t discover it. And eventually, you know, through all this hard work of exploring different things, you know, the false starts to part and you see the new, you see the bank on the other side and eventually you get to it after a lot of hard work. Um, and it’s that confidence. It’s what my friend and colleague and founder of Ideo, David Kelly called creative confidence. It’s not just the ability to, it’s the, it’s not just the ability to have ideas, it’s the kind of, it’s the confidence to act on them. It’s the confidence to actually try and leap into this process even when you don’t know what the outcome’s going to be.

JESSI: What happens if you’re rowing in the boat and the fog never lift.

TIM: Then you row back to the bank and pick another problem. Sometimes that happens actually. I mean obviously, I mean sometimes you explore something and you can’t make sense of it all. You can’t get to a point where you can do something real. I mean, you, you, it’s what sometimes I see design teams do this, they explore, strategize. There they are in this abstract world of what’s the problem? What’s the problem? They never actually get to something. Um, it’s why it’s so important in the world are designed to stop making something, whether it’s a piece of code or a physical thing or, or, uh, or, or making a movie, whatever it is, make something pretty early because otherwise it’s very easy to stay in this kind of abstract space.

JESSI: As a young child where you comfortable with not knowing.

TIM: I think it becomes a bit of a routine thing where if you just make things, and I spend a lot of time as a kid just making things, I mean, building thing, building models, making paintings and drawings and, and so the, the, the moment of having nothing was all, it was pretty short lived, right. Because I’d get up in the morning, so I’m going to paint this thing today or I’m going to make this thing and uh, you know, it all start it off with my obsession over Lego. Um, and they’re awesome. They are awesome. Yeah. Totally awesome. And, and uh, and so the it, so that, that comfort with having nothing becomes almost becomes a routine thing.

JESSI: But has several decades at Ideo, uh, giving you a formula for where ideas come from?

TIM: I don’t know that it’s given me a formula. Uh, although it’s given me a high degree of confidence that I know where they don’t come from and they don’t come from out of my own head. Uh, ideas come from interactions with the world, mostly through interactions with other people, to be really honest with you and the world that they live in a, and so if you’re not having those interactions, if you’re not putting yourself in the place to be inspired by how other people exist and the things that they do and the things that they’re excited by, you won’t have new ideas.

JESSI: I, you know, I depend on ideas. They are my currency as I, as a writer and a person working in media. And I’m always surprised to find that when I feel dry and I look up, I realized that I actually haven’t read anything new or outside of my bubble in a week or having sit and sat down with a colleague, I haven’t spoken

TIM: Totally, totally. Well, you get into these patterns of thinking you’re doing something new, but you’re reading the same things over and over again or right. You’re putting yourself into the same situations, uh, over again. And I think that the further you go into the career and your career, the easier that that it is to fall into that trap. I think and sort of, you know, arguably that’s why people change jobs and put themselves into different situation. Not something I’d be very good at actually

JESSI: Can you tell me about a time that you made a bet on somebody as able to bring in new ideas and that bet fell flat?

TIM: I mean we’ve had, I’ve had a few examples of, of getting excited about bringing in new craft or discipline and in the ideo and it, and it, not, it not working. I mean, the first one I can remember is when we started to realize actually in order to do what we do, we kind of needed to understand about business a bit more and get it. I get a little bit more open minded about that business was a useful thing. And the, the first time we tried that, you know, we, I remember one or two folks coming in to audio who, a traditional business consultants that come through the traditional consulting back background, um, and totally failed. And it failed because the way they thought and what they were trained to do, uh, was different from the way we thought.

TIM: They would talk to think very analytically in a very structured way and, and sort of extrapolate the past into the future. And that didn’t, just didn’t connect to either way, the way we way we thought and we haven’t figured out how to give them a methodology. Right. We haven’t figured out. And so when we tried it again, and we did a few years ago, if we get a feel get a few years later, we try it again. We went out and looked for people who were experienced in business but had got these weird backgrounds who maybe they’d been trained as an architect and then go on to business school or an engineer or at least they knew about making things. Um, and, and, and then we invited them in to audio, not to be business consultants, but to be designers. Right. And it worked beautifully.

JESSI: Right, right, right. Well, so you know, you work ideas, business is yummy or consultancies. So you help other businesses and nonprofits and other organizations think through how to solve a problem through your lens. But often you’re walking into their cultures and I’m curious if there are cultures where ideas go to die.

TIM: There are cultures that unfortunately are so focused on, uh, efficiency that there’s no space for newness. There’s no space for exploring the unknown. And so it’s not that the idea is good there to die, that I get, I ideas never live in the first place, right. Or they struggle to live in the post and they’re like these, these tiny little weedy plants that are trying to break through the surface and the 10 knots of makeup.

JESSI: I want to know if somebody has say 22, um, what would you advise them to do if they’re interested in design?

TIM: I can say it’s the thing that, the important decision I know I made when I was actually before I was 22 I was probably 16 or 17 was not be dissuaded from the passion that I had to kind of cross normal boundaries in terms of what I was interested in. So I, you know, I went through the English school system where you’re expected to specialize really pretty early on. By the time you were 18, you, you’re, you’re, you’re supposed to have decided that you’re going to be an engineer or you’re going to be a doctor or are you going to be an artist or whatever it might be. Right near Oxford. Got It. Uh, and yet I was this weird kid who studied engineering, physics, art and history because I loved them all right. And, uh, that passion about crossing boundaries, I realize has been incredibly valuable to me as a designer because design is about crossing boundaries. Design is about worrying about the technology and the human being and the business or worrying about how something looks or how something feels and also how something works. Right? Right. And, uh, and so if you think that that idea of crossing boundaries, that idea of being interested in not what is inside a conventional silo or space or professional discipline, but what might, what might connect different ones together then designs a great place for you.

JESSI: Sure. Is it a growing place?

TIM: Seems to be, I mean, you know, I mean I just look at the world part of the world I live in. When I moved to Silicon Valley or San Francisco in the late 1980s, I’m guessing there were less than a couple of hundred designers living in the bay area. Now there are thousands. Yeah. Because every company has built design into what it does and not just every company. More and more, uh, more and more nonprofits are building design into their interactivities, uh, you know, in other parts of the world, not so much as San Francisco, but, um, governments are building design and when I’ve got many friends who, who play really interesting roles as designers within, uh, within parts of government around the world today,

JESSI:  If we think that the job market has changed in the last 20 years, the way that it might, we shift in the next 20 years, that’s artificial intelligence goes from something that we talk about and experiment with to something that sort of, we makes our economy.

TIM: Yeah. I mean, I kind of wondering what it’s going to be late when people start turning up as teams instead of individuals, not teams of people, but teams of individuals on that technology. Okay. Explain that to me. Well, if you have about it today. So the, the, the biggest asset I had any way in my career and many of the designers who come and join idea have, is they turn up with them themselves as a person and their portfolio, which is the evidence of the work that they’ve done. But I think that it won’t be that long before, before people are turning up with the, alongside themselves pieces of technology that I’ve learned with them over time that are personal to them. Nobody else could have them cause they’re based on that person’s experiences that make them better at what they do. So essentially they’re turning off as a team, uh, as a team of an individual human being and the technology, that kind of package of technology, if you like, that they bring with them. And it’s not skills anymore. It’s not the fact that they know how to use Microsoft Word or, or, or they know how to code, but there’s literally a, I mean, I can’t almost can’t imagine what they’re going to be, but I, I, I just don’t have this intuition that we’re, that we’re going to have. We literally have people turning up with, uh, uh, uh, technology that acts alongside them in order to make them better at what they do. And there will be hiring them as teams.

JESSI: So what’s the form factor, a factor for that? I mean that intuitively as somebody who has written about technology for a couple of decades actually sounds right to me to think about my relationship. For example, with Siri and my relationship with Alexa, just set it up.

TIM: I let that one sort of simple example, but relevant one here is, uh, you know, we already know that people turn up with their networks, right? Right. And those networks are valuable to the businesses that recruit them. So if you turn up with a great linkedin that work and you’ve used linkedin really well, you’re more valuable as an employee than somebody who hasn’t. So we’ll ready. You’re turning up as a team. I’m, you’re turning out with linkedin and your, and the way you’ve used linkedin. So that’s right.

JESSI: But Tim, my network, um, it’s people right now.

TIM: That’s people. Yes it is. But it’s managed by a piece of technology, right? Sure. The only way that, that, the only way that that network of people has, has an existence is because of the technology and then the knowledge that flows particularly through, uh, through a network you have within linkedin. It can be quite substantial. Right? So that’s a, a really early, maybe relatively crude version of it. I think in the future it might be, Hey, I’ve developed the tool for the way that I manage my time. That works really well for me, so that I can actually be more effective in the job that I do. There’s not available to anyone else because it’s, it’s been the way I’ve personally evolved over the last 10 years in my career or, or whatever it might be. I mean,

JESSI: So it’s essentially the idea that a software application or series of applications will grow with you. Yeah. Such that, um, and maybe we’re actually experiencing, uh, the unintended consequences, negative consequences of this. Now as we look for example at like the concerns we have over our social media profiles and the questions about the data that we’ve given the Facebook, but the other side of that remains that there is something there that will make us more efficient.

TIM: Well, it may be more efficient or maybe more creative. So, you know, as a, as a creative person and the thing that’s most important, right, it makes me most effective is where I get my inspiration from. Right. Where do new ideas come from? Right, right. Well, you know, for a lot of people is new experiences. They go off and travel or they meet new people, have great new conversations. Um, but you, you could imagine building over time away that you get inspired that works for you. That might be pulling images from around the world. It might be pulling the right news feeds. It might be connecting you to the right people and the way that you curate that and Marshall, that makes you a far more creative person than somebody who doesn’t do that well. And if you turn off as a package with those two things, you’re, you’re, you’re a more valuable, you know, a credit person. So I could easily imagine that happens in the future.


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Catch new episodes of Happier in Hollywood every week on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get super-awesome-kick butt podcasts.

Alright, back to my conversation with Tim Brown.


JESSI: Um, so I also just want to go back to this idea of, um, me as a, we as, as the, as the team me, um, the idea that in the future I’ll have some sort of a technological assistant or a series of assistance in that world that you into it. Do the ideas ever come from the technology or do they always come from the human?

TIM: I mean, I suppose in theory, if the technology reaches a level of consciousness that, that, that, uh, it can understand the relevance of something going from nothing to something, then he asked the ideas could come from the tea today. That’s not possible because the technology isn’t capable of that level of consciousness. Right. Um, um, because it’s not so much having the idea is realizing you’re having an idea that’s the important piece. Right. And that requires a high level of consciousness about what it is you’re doing, about what, realizing how it’s new, where it’s new, why it’s new, um, why it applies to the problem that you’re trying to solve. Um, that’s very, it’s hard for me to imagine that being done through something that’s purely kind of Algorithmic,

JESSI: So it’s sort of like an idea is not about the creator but about the editor and that you need to be your own editor.

TIM: Well, uh, I, I’ve, I’ve always believed that, um, it’s, it’s why the world of your world and my world is pretty close together actually because sure. The creating the words and editing the words in your world are all part of the, ultimately the same act. Right? And that’s true in design that creating the idea and then editing the idea, refining the idea of making the idea makes sense to other people is all part of having the idea. Yeah.

JESSI: Well, it’s interesting to me that we’ve been talking about ideas And we haven’t labeled them good ideas or bad ideas. And as I just note my fear around this, and I do have this sort of visceral fear as you’re talking. It’s, yeah, I might have ideas, but they might be bad ideas.

TIM: The good news about ideas as the world tells you whether they’re good or bad, you don’t have to decide whether they’re good or bad, right? It’s why we test things where we build prototypes so that the world can tell us whether we’ve got a good idea, a bad idea. Sure. So your job is just, is to create ideas and the more, the better you get at being the designer, the better you get at this process. We w we loosely call design thinking. The more often your ideas will be ones that the world will decide will be good And worthwhile. Um, uh, and that’s the, that is the satisfaction of mastering the art of design is to, is, is that more and more of your ideas will be good ones at the beginning. Most of them will be terrible. Just like when you start learning to play a piano. And most of those notes sound awful at the beginning, right? Violins even worse, right? But eventually more of them will, will, will sound good and eventually all of them will sound good.

JESSI:  You know, earlier in the season we had Seth Meyers on the show and uh, it strikes me that we are saying is actually so similar to his discussion in writing and he says, you k now, I write all these jokes, we write all these jokes he says a lot of the jokes I write don’t land. A lot of them don’t fall. You just keep working, just keep doing it. And you depend on the people around you to hone it in and help you find what Lynn’s Yup. Yup. So yeah, yeah,

TIM: Yeah. I mean old creative processes have some social component to them in that way. Right. I mean, some people take a long time before they expose their ideas to others, but it sounds like Seth does that very early. We do. I do it very early. It’s like I’d rather expose my ideas early and know that they’re bad before I’ve invested too much effort in them. The wait too long for them to be so precious that I’m frightened really of what people think about the idea at that point. I don’t want to be frightened about what people think about my ideas.

JESSI: Ideas also feel generative to me. If you get them going, it’s like a spigot of water. They keep going. Yeah. But if you go for awhile without one or if you get very attached to one,

TIM: it’s also how you make, uh, at least in my world design a team sport. If you take that attitude of have that mindset, then it, then it absolutely can be a collaborative act. If instead you want to hone the idea and make it perfect, it becomes an individual act. Sure. And there’s nothing wrong with either version except that when it’s a team, you can think about bigger, more complex ideas.


JESSI: That was Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo. A decade ago, he wrote the de facto handbook for using design in business and it has just been re-released. It’s called Change by Design.

There was some solid advice wrapped up in his musings.

I really connected to Tim’s thoughts on creative confidence: Having an idea is not enough–you have to believe in it enough to act on it

If you’re feeling dry, it’s probably because you aren’t exposing yourself to enough new people and experiences. Ideas beget ideas.

He urges us not to get lost in the spiral of thinking, but to start to making things. Test ideas as early as possible.

There are a growing number of businesses that have sprung up to help people do this. They go by different names–accelerators, incubators, some call themselves startup studios. This week, Caroline took a look at one of them. Hi Caroline.

CAROLINE: Hey Jessi, after hearing from Tim and understanding more where good ideas come from, I wanted to speak with someone who turns ideas into companies.

HEATHER: A good idea. It’s something to start from. I think it will never end up being what you thought it was originally.

That was Heather Hartnett. She founded Human Ventures, which both invests in companies…and works with founders who want to build them. Her success depends on recognizing good ideas before other people do, and then helping them flourish.

HEATHER: So we actually have a term, the myth of the big idea because I think people put a lot of emphasis on ideas when it’s really a lot about understanding the market and seeing where the opportunity is testing how you’re approaching that market and then listening to the customer and building accordingly. And so I think it’s a match of having an insight and then knowing how to listen…

CAROLINE: At Human, Heather will often start with a person who has an idea that she wants to test out..

HEATHER: once we say we want to work with this founder, we put them through what we call our workshop process, which is about a hundred days testing that, um, uh, angles going into the strategy, into that market, seeing what the customers want to buy, um, putting up landing pages, putting some marketing and messaging around it and seeing, you know, what is gaining traction now at the end of that 100 days, give or take, we then, um, we’ll, we’ll either green lights that company to really start, incorporate and go full speed ahead with it and put some capital behind it or we scrap it… And we start back from the drawing board

CAROLINE: So I asked Heather to tell me about a time this process really worked. She told me about this startup which makes baby food. But what the founders first came to her with had nothing to do with food at all.

HEATHER: They had a company idea in the parenting space around creating a memory book for new parents. The digital version. But they ended up, with Tiny Organics and it’s a brand around baby food and it’s creating baby-lled weaning food in the early stages of baby’s life. And their brand is really, you know, taking off in there, they’re creating products that are going to be synonymous with their vision but their go to market strategy of how to create that company. They saw the white space, which was her Kanick food, um, that uh, you know, that wasn’t puree but whole food and source locally and there. And so that’s what they ended up launching with.

CAROLINE: But finding the white space isn’t everything, so much is about timing

HEATHER: I think some of the ideas that are really innovative are quite simple and the ones that really make an entire market shift you couldn’t hear them in this state of mind, uh, and understand them for where the, where the market was going. So an example of that, what I mean by that is something like Airbnb, when you, before airbnb existed, you heard of that concept and you weren’t in the right mindset to be able to think that that could be a big idea because it was unheard of that you would have the trust in order to, to have somebody come into your home and that sharing economy didn’t even exist yet as a generation went through a mind shift, right? The entire generation that went through the recession, there might shift sifted and then you mindset shifted and then you can see that opportunity pretty clearly.

CAROLINE: E: Heather shows us that ideas that turn out to be big like Airbnb or smaller like Tiny Organics all have one thing in common: They weren’t what they are today when they first started.

HEATHER: I think that it’s a constant flow state. And so I think gaining momentum in either building or creating that flow of ideas is just as important as settling of the ones. So I think to get ahead, you have to start, you know, that was one of my favorite things. And I think starting and seeing that momentum, having the direction, um, and then being really agile to be able to pivot, that’s what makes a great idea come to fruition versus starting with the idea first and being very rigid around it.

JESSI: Thanks Caroline.

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