BBD CEO Summit – Tim Brown

Tim Brown is the CEO of IDEO, and one of the thinkers who energised the beginning of the design thinking movement in New Zealand. He now says we need to move beyond that phase, noting that life expectancy of companies is dropping. The average life of a fortune 500 company is 45 years, with 40% lasting less than 10 years, and the average for all companies of 12.5 years. (This is nothing new – the longevity of companies on the S&P500 has been the subject of several studies, and it is rare that a company doesn’t go through some sort of major financial event within each, say, 12 years)

He sees a move from simple to complex, planned to emergent, from efficient to resilient and so on. The example of the last is the aftermath from the Japanese tsunami, where companies were unable to cope with the shock to their supply ecosystem.

He sees that the conventional design approaches, aimed at developing individual products, are beginning to fail. That’s related to the speed of change, the complexity and volatility.

The number of decisions required in the face of this complexity increases, and it seems to a stage where it is just too hard to make all of the the decisions, as we cannot imagine the complete system. Brown uses the example of Darwinian evolution, which is bottom up change which is never finished rather than Newtonian physics, where everything is defined.

(I think he’s veering towards but missing fractals, where everything changes and changes again until there is incredibly diversity. Design is about feeding the seed of the fractal. He is also describing how the web start-up ecosystem already looks at design.)

His ideas for a Darwinian approach, which is still early thinking, includes:

  • Design behaviors rather than objects. Aim to design to change the person’s behaviour rather than a stand alone beautiful object.
  • Design for information flow. COmplex systems are those with more information flowing through, and today we are dealing with increasing information flows.
  • Faster iteration is faster evolution. He used viruses as an example of fast iteration, but could just as easily use any successful dot com. (Indeed all of this so far is already known by successful web start-ups).
  • Use selective emergence. This is about self-improving algorithms, being intentional, intelligent and emergent
  • Take an experimental approach. He mentions Eric Ries’s Lean Start-up book, which is finally recognition of where this thinking is coming from.
  • Focus on Simple rules. He compares this to genetics, with the genetic code as the seed. He uses Apple as an example of simple rules, such as the mandate to do things that are ‘insanely great’. (Also fractals – complexity based on simple rules.)
  • Design is never done. This is hard for Tim as a traditional designer, but as anyone in web or business knows things are constantly changing, and you need to adapt, lead even, or fade away. (Straight from the web start-up playbook.)
  • The power of purpose. Designing for a customer cause, or purpose. He uses the conscious capital movement as an example. Also Patagonia as a company with a purpose beyond making money. (I’ve long been a fan of putting a customer cause or purpose first, and money as a secondary reason. Money of course helps deliver to the purpose, and is not an intrinsically bad thing, but focussing on making money as a primary reason is generally short term and doomed, as Goldman Sachs has recently found.)

Brown uses Amazon as an example company that has used design across all of their business, moving beyond the market and value proposition to all of the business.

He sees we have to change behaviours to fix the underlying problems today, including the climate change, financial crisis and so on. He is a fan of measurement, which we increasingly do, giving a shout-out to the quantified self movement. (There is a lot of measurement – the real opportunity is in the space of understanding the data and providing meaningful feedback that changes behaviour. I’m working with PLTech who are on to this, providing real time coaching advice based on historical and live data.)

Apparently the 21st century is the creator economy, (Paul Saffo). Ideo created OpenIdeo  to get global collaboration on social good ideas. One trick they use was to allow people to spend anything from seconds to hours on contributing to ideas.

The notion of a blueprint is outmoded, and we should be thinking of design as genetic code, a set of instructions for an idea to go out into the world. (Sounds like fractals again, and sounds like web-design).

In Q&A he sees the ability to deal with ambiguity as crucial for designers – and business people.

Published by Lance Wiggs