Ideo’s 3 Steps To A More Open, Innovative Mind

According to Ideo CEO Tim Brown, innovation springs from curiosity. So where does curiosity come from?

Ideo’s 3 Steps To A More Open, Innovative Mind

“Any organization that wants to innovate, wants to be prepared to innovate, I think, has to have a few things in place,” Ideo CEO Tim Brown tells the Yale School of Management. “Perhaps the most important thing is methods for having an open mind.”


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Ideo, as you may know, is one of the world’s leading creative consultancies: our profile of their founder David Kelley shows how they build their design thinking methodology: the careful defining of problems and sussing out their solutions in a way that would make Einstein proud. And fittingly enough, Brown says innovation requires a certain passionate curiosity.

Incuriosity, isn’t it curious?

You need inquiry to innovate–so companies can navel-gaze themselves astray, Brown says:

“the quickest way for removing curiosity in my opinion is to have organizations that are too inward-facing, that don’t spend enough time out in the world”

Why is this case? Because, as Tina Seelig has noted, the basis of creativity is keenly observing the world: you need to understand, the way Twitter does, how users and other shareholders get value from what you do. If you’re always facing inward, you’ll miss out.

Why empathy is required

“A sense of empathy for the world, for people whose problems they might be trying to solve–that’s essential,” Brown says, echoing Ginny Whitelaw’s advice that empathy is the most powerful leadership tool.

Brown says he has a lot of empathy for their clients, since Ideo needs to keep innovating for itself. His job–and we can assume that of other executives–is to “do some pattern recognition” across all the people storming their brains and ideating on their iterations. They key, then, is to find the places to focus more of their resources.


Why you don’t want to be the expert

“We come with what we might call a beginner’s mind,” Brown says, borrowing a phrase from a Zen Master who keeps popping up around here.

While Brown notes that over the years Ideo has built knowledge in fields like healthcare and financial services, they still mostly approach problems unencumbered by expertise. They’re wizened in their methodology, but fresh-faced with each new circumstance.

“We do rely somewhat on the value of having an open mind when we approach a new question,” he says. “I think that’s perhaps the reason that we succeed in working across a lot of different industries.”

How do you build a culture of innovation?

[Photo by Alex Finlay]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.