Do truly original ideas exist in the world of business? I am not so sure the next mobile app, restaurant, or service is providing a really unique experience in the marketplace that doesn’t already exist, especially with everyone proclaiming that their idea is the Uber of ‘X.’ In his classic book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton M. Christensen notes that sustainable innovation focuses on incremental improvement, while disruptive innovation focuses on meeting unmet needs by identifying niche opportunities. Most organizations and business owners strive to keep their customers happy by tweaking what already exists.
“Is your leadership team still black?”
I will never forget when a venture capitalist asked me this in a meeting. Much had changed since the last time my black co-founder, black CTO and I had connected with this insensitive investor, but certainly not that. I answered in the affirmative and quickly, awkwardly ended the meeting. The firm did not invest. Perhaps it was our business model they didn’t like.
This was one of the most overt, but certainly not the only time, my identity was at the center of an outsider’s analysis of the worth of my company. I started Partpic because I observed a significant pain point that I wanted to solve. While working at an industrial distribution company, I found our customers struggling to describe the parts they wanted to purchase from us. Agents on my team would try their best but often err in trying to help customers locate products. Based on customer feedback, it seemed taking a picture would be a better way to search for items that were not labeled with a part name or number. Partpic was created to solve this problem for everyone. We built a computer vision API that can recognize part images and match them to a specific SKU. Read More →
When I was at NPR years ago, I did a story on public education in California. I don’t remember the angle, but I remember looking up a stat to use in the script. I used that stat in a few places, and after fact-checking, I realized there was an updated number available. I went back and changed the references to the new number, relieved that I’d caught this mistake before handing over my script to the host. But I missed one. I heard it over the speakers when Michelle Martin, the host, read it out loud during the interview, and my heart stopped. I knew it was my duty to report it, so I went up to my editor and told her. She didn’t say anything, but I could feel her disappointment in me. I melted into a pool of shame. Read More →
I’ve always wanted to be a designer.
I grew up drawing and painting (traditional artist) and knew I wanted to be able to do that for the rest of my life. I was good. I still am, I think. When I was 9 years old my mother gave me an art school test booklet she saw on TV. It had a turtle or pirate character and a couple other exercises to test your ability.
Like so many other talented young black artists in my neighborhood, I mimicked the examples, found different pencils to replicate the shading and ended up with exact replications of the tests. Then, I drew a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (Leonardo for those who know the deal) in a perfect pose to top it off. Read More →
Growing up, I had one dream and one dream only—that was to play ball. While my friends were gearing up for summer breaks filled with swimming and barbecues, I competed in basketball tournaments across the country. I was a star in my region and flourished against guys that were nationally known. My commitment to basketball as a means of success is not a foreign concept in the inner city. Like most Black males, my only exposure to the achievements of men who looked like me was through watching sports. When I saw Allen Iverson or Tracy McGrady play, instinctively I saw myself. Therefore, basketball for as long as I could remember was all I knew. Read More →
Organization design – the attempt to structure systems to produce the outcomes we want – has been an established field for decades. But if you step back a bit, putting the two words “organization” and “design” next to each other is actually quite contradictory — the historical rigidity of a typical organization, next to the inherent complexity of the humans in that system, combined with the fluidity of design.
My career has always been characterized by juxtaposing two concepts that live uncomfortably together, and exploring the fertile ground for innovation that could result. A psychology major obsessed with why people behave the way they do, my interest was first piqued by the idea of “Change Management”: Can change really be managed? “Research Strategy” at the MIT Media Lab followed later: Can research truly be strategized, or is it better left to serendipity? Similarly, “Media + Partners” at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD): What can businesses learn from what goes on at an art school? And how can an insular academic institution open itself up to the world?
Like “organization design,” each coupling reveals a tension between chaos and structure; linearity and the non-linear; closed and open systems. I’ve come to see that innovation needs a bit of both.
As an organization designer at IDEO, much of what I’ve been asked to do is not just design organizations, but teach and coach our clients to work more innovatively. To that end, IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown recently launched an IDEO U course, “Leading for Creativity,” designed to help leaders enable creativity throughout their organizations.
A little more than a year into my journey at IDEO, here are some things that have struck me about what can be taught and to whom:
1/ Design Thinking can be taught to business people; learning Design is harder.
Design Thinking, as practiced at IDEO, strikes a wonderful balance between structure and chaos – it’s a messy process, but it’s also broken down into a set of linear, repeatable, and now well-known steps: Research, Synthesis, Design, Communication. In IDEO’s Cambridge studio, we’ve noticed a difference, however, between teaching this process to business people, and teaching them classical, or what we call “big D” Design; fields like graphic, interaction, or industrial design. The former is now taught in business schools the world over; the latter is the domain of art school.
As we have worked with clients who are increasingly “embedding” with design teams to learn our process, it’s more difficult to integrate them into the parts where more classical design takes hold. Yet just because it can’t be taught to all doesn’t diminish its value; to truly create something new, you need both Design Thinking and Design.
2/ All leaders can strive for a new set of creative mindsets.
Underlying the design thinking process is a set of mindsets that enable it, which can be embodied no matter the task at hand. John Maeda and I articulated these mindsets long ago as a way of understanding the leadership style he embodied as an artist and designer when president of RISD. Things like making ideas tangible quickly, learning from mistakes, being comfortable with ambiguity – when I arrived at IDEO, these mindsets were on full display.
Having worked in both traditionally run large corporations, and creatively run businesses like IDEO, the things people feel motivated by seem to be very different. Recognition fuels both worlds, but comes in different forms: climbing the ladder versus celebrated work. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but I’ve seen organizations differently optimized for each.
3/ Equally, creative people also need to lead.
Those who embody creative mindsets most naturally — artists and designers — bring important values to leadership. Witness the success of this generation of designer founders at companies like Airbnb, Etsy, and Kickstarter.
In my work with students at RISD, and with the Berklee College of Music at IDEO, I’ve seen firsthand how a creative education prepares graduates to chart unknown territory and create something new. What was most interesting to me about that work is that it wasn’t just employers that needed convincing of these students’ leadership abilities, it was the students themselves. I believe there is much to be gained by encouraging those who consider themselves “creatives” to inhabit the practice of leadership in a way that’s authentic to them — inspiring the next generation of designers who work alongside them.
I see the push and pull of navigating between structure and chaos in my work with organizations looking to be more innovative; I feel it myself in my own work. We all have moments where we want to retreat into the mode that’s most comfortable for us; it’s our collective challenge to push through that into the new.
Becky Bermont is a Senior Organization Design Lead at IDEO Cambridge. She is passionate about the intersection of creativity and leadership, and how design-led approaches can help organizations thrive in a highly dynamic world. Prior to IDEO, Becky spent six years at the Rhode Island School of Design, leading the marketing and communications group and serving on the leadership team for the College. She has built out an organizational design strategy to advance innovation at eBay Inc., and has also lead innovation partnership programs between academia and corporations at the MIT Media Lab and RISD, and started a quantitative market research consulting practice at Forrester Research. Her obsession with understanding how people and organizations respond to change has motivated all of her work. Becky has an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a BA in Psychology from Wesleyan University. She co-authored the book Redesigning Leadership with John Maeda. She enjoys creative direction in the kitchen (though her husband does the cooking), and her weekly religion is yoga.
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Being a creative leader is usually nuanced — it can involve balancing business, user, and client needs, as well as managing a team and developing compelling creative solutions. It was especially so at the White House during my time serving as Creative Director. There the pressures were great, but there was no rule book or long line of examples for how the role could or should function in that environment.
I worked from within the Office of Digital Strategy (ODS), and my position, as well as the office itself, were both very new to government. ODS was an innovation that President Obama himself brought to the White House. The President had seen first-hand the ways in which his 2008 presidential campaign used clear communication, digital engagement, and design to connect him with the American people. He, rightly so, wanted this work to continue for the American people and administration from within the White House. Read More →
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”
– Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
When I was young, I had a voracious curiosity for the arts and sciences. I loved to sketch and enjoyed going to museums with my parents and siblings. They were big on opening their children’s eyes beyond what we experienced in school. As an African American family in a predominantly white community, my parents stressed the importance of knowing where we came from, respecting the sacrifices of our ancestors, and stepping forward in life with courage … especially in environments that weren’t always welcoming. I vaguely remember the brick getting thrown through our back patio door and other assaults for the the simple act of being different in the neighborhood. My parents and their parents saw much worse during their upbringing in the South. As I navigated those early years, being different was often accompanied with a cloud of doubts and implicit innuendos. I had the grades and the extracurricular accomplishments, but I was not immediately identified as someone who would go to a great college like my similarly qualified peers. It was like an invisible door was in front of me, and it was locked. After getting accepted to the University of Notre Dame, a few decided to credit affirmative action versus my own merits. Read More →
The hardest thing about going back to school to get my MFA was not giving up the respected fashion brand I had founded and built (I was done there). It was not the struggle to balance a full-on family life against a challenging full-time program (I never had a chance). It was not even the relentless pursuit of artistic development that frustrated and confounded me more often than not (a necessarily ongoing state of affairs). Read More →