Tim Brown Discusses IDEO's View of a Changing World

The world is changing quickly, Tim Brown told a Yale SOM audience on April 2. If it was ever possible for a company to "get runway"—to have a clear, predictable path into the future—those days are over. "We live in a real-time world," he said. "It's as volatile as it's ever been."

As the president and CEO of IDEO, the global design consultancy, Brown's job is to help organizations innovate in response to that volatility. "Constant adaptation—and innovation is a form of adaptation—is the world in which we will need to operate," he said. He spoke as part of the Yale SOM Leaders Forum series, in a wide-ranging conversation with Dean Ted Snyder and an enthusiastic audience of students crowded into the General Motors Room.

In such an unpredictable world, how does an organization create a strategy with any degree of confidence? "The way to think about the future is to assemble the things you do know about and then wonder what things will be like in that world," Brown said. One piece of the puzzle that is fairly predictable, he pointed out, is us. "Human beings don't change that fast."

A company creating banking services, for example, is navigating major shifts in technology, but can rely on the fact that people's attitudes toward money are fairly static, Brown said (although, he pointed out, they vary sharply between countries). Other factors are changing quickly, but predictably, like demographics and computer processing power.

IDEO, a pioneer in the use of human-centered "design thinking" in business, starts engagements with the human end of the equation. "A lot of the people you need to ask the right questions are not in your organization. They are out in the world," Brown said. That doesn't just mean surveys and focus groups; rather, Brown said, "We have to be anthropologists"—looking in kitchen cabinets, for example, to learn about the foods that people buy and eat.

And throughout a project, Brown said, the designer needs to ask, "Is what I'm doing simplifying the world for the people I'm trying to help?" It's not possible to remove complexity from a system like healthcare, he said, but design can make it simpler and easier for a person to navigate. At the same time, IDEO has to consider the changing parts of the equation: "Can the core ideas that we're developing adapt to technological change?"

In an unpredictable marketplace, Brown said, organizations can't succeed by isolating themselves from change. To the contrary, they should force themselves to adapt by intentionally exposing themselves to disruptive forces, especially early on. "I'm a believer in the biological view of this," he said. "An ecosystem that is exposed to a disruptive force will either die or adapt. Organizations that have cultures that are a little more emergent, where everything is not controlled by the center, are more likely to respond to those disruptions and adapt."

One of IDEO's own sources of change is the OpenIDEO platform, a free, open online platform for innovation, in which volunteers around the world help generate solutions for social problems though an iterative design and evaluation process. On one level, Brown said, the platform could become a source of competition for IDEO. But, he said, "We're coming up with insights I don't think we would have seen otherwise"—and from sources that would never be considered in a conventional consulting project. Meanwhile, the platform is being adapted for use within organizations for IDEO's commercial consulting engagements.

"It's an experiment in disrupting ourselves," Brown said. "I honestly don't know where it's going to end up."