Office Hours: Leadership Lessons with David Kelley

David Kelley on camera

In this Office Hours episode of our Creative Confidence Series, David Kelley, founder of IDEO and the Stanford, chats with IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard and answers questions from our community on design thinking, creativity, and leadership. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to this episode on our podcast, and check out their full conversation to hear more of David’s thoughts on the core abilities of the most successful design thinking practitioners.

SUZANNE GIBBS HOWARD: Let's start off with a few questions on trying to increase the influence of a small team doing work with design thinking and creativity.

DAVID KELLEY: This comes up more than anything else. You notice that design thinking is working in other places, or think it has promise, but you're afraid that you can't actually make it work in your organization, or that your organization is not going to be as receptive to it. And I think that's a super valid point of view. But the good news is we've seen a lot of success in it happening. It maybe takes a little longer than you'd hope, but the main idea is that you have to find a clever way to show the power of this kind of thinking that results in something that's measurable, believable, and contributes to the company or to the organization you're working at.

So how do you do an experiment that will show off what this is in essence? I remember a large consumer products company where we just started out by educating everybody. We would throw design thinking workshops, and employees could opt in. We started to attract the people who were somewhat interested or curious, and once they came to the workshop, then you have more advocates in the organization, and in some ways that's the goal.

Then we started doing small projects that people were willing to do with extra budget, or that a particularly enlightened leader would want to support. It's all around getting little brush fires going in the company. If you can get it going, it's liable to be successful, and then you can use that small success.

SUZANNE: And once you get a big success, that's the story that starts that snowball rolling, and it gets more people on board.

DAVID: Yeah, because people are competitive. If you're running a division of the company, and this other division's getting all the attention and press because they came up with this new-to-the-world thing, you're probably saying, "We're going to do that in our space as well." And so it does snowball.

SUZANNE: We have a question building on that from Roger: "Can you talk more about how success in design thinking permeates the entire culture when it starts in one area? How do you navigate the competitive side of things and move toward more collaborative working styles?"

DAVID: One of the tenets of design thinking and the way we do things is radical collaboration among people from different disciplines, different contexts, and stakeholders both inside and outside of the company. It's inherently an open process. If you really believe the diversity of who you're including is going to improve your output, then it's not so hard to include everybody if you really think that including them is going to make you more successful.

If you're in the business of trying to come up with something non-obvious or something new to the world, having different people from different backgrounds and different life experiences, and having that mashup of their experiences and their intuitions is going to more easily result in something new. It's just better for the process and the ability to innovate if it spreads to different stakeholders and different individuals.

SUZANNE: So if you want to turn people from a mindset of competition into collaboration, you should invite them into your creative and generative process?

DAVID: Yeah. If everybody's on the same team driving for the same direction, and the stakes are all aligned, then it's hard to be competitive. I'd think you would have a goal of including everybody you could possibly include because it's not possible that just the senior people or just the knowledgeable people are going to have the best ideas. You really want the mashup between the variety of different people and different points of view. So including them is in your own best interest. Being competitive is not in your own interest if that's the way your methodology works that you build on ideas of others.


“The way you bring anybody into any kind of collaboration is to value their input, make them a part of the process, and help them with other things that they're not as expert in.”
David Kelley


SUZANNE: Tom is asking, "How do you explain design thinking to a marketing person or somebody who's deeply immersed in more evaluative thinking?"

DAVID: The way you bring anybody into any kind of collaboration is to value their input, make them a part of the process, and help them with other things that they're not as expert in. When I started the, it was very hard for the faculty to work together, because they weren't collaborative. But they really enjoyed and built quickly on it once we had a common goal of making fans of the people that we were trying to affect. Whatever discipline you’re in, if you can get down to the humanness of the situation, then people have a reason and a natural bias to join.

SUZANNE: Another question from Tabia: "What do you think is the best way to get people to really, truly, deeply buy in, not just be willing to try, but believe in design thinking as a methodology?"

DAVID: What we've seen is that people have self-interest, and I'm all for that. I think people should self-gratify. We have had examples where a company needed a shot of innovation, and somebody inside of the company started using design thinking methods and did something extraordinary in the company, and then they got promoted four or five times. That makes other people pay attention. I think that finding a way to make yourself more successful, which is really doable here, is the way to get people to buy in.

The methodology we use is called guided mastery. It's hard to jump from designing a small piece of something to doing something that's meaningful to the company in one fell swoop. That's not usual. It's really noticeable, as it turns out, when you do something that's done in this kind of human-centric way as opposed to a business or a technological way.

SUZANNE: One more question about design thinking from Yuri in Montreal: "Can you elaborate on design thinking being more of a mindset than a process?"

DAVID: It's both. A process is like what you learn in a cookbook. Initially, to get involved in design thinking and start to use it in your life and at work, you do need help. I see this kind of methodology as absolutely worthwhile because it really gets you going. But long term, you're going to have to make a lot of creative leaps and have a bunch of insights that are not obvious. Somebody can say, "Design thinking is not that big a deal because it still requires you to be creative." I agree. The ability to look at all the data, or look at all the interviews we've done, or look at all the kind of prototypes you've built, and to come to an insight out of that requires this creative leap. The only way to do that is to have a mindset that allows you to go fast and light to the right place. If you're following the steps, that works, but only to a point.

SUZANNE: We've got a question from Donatella who asks, "How do you know when a project can be led through design thinking, and when can't it? What is a kind of a project that you would say, ‘You know what? It's not worth it to try to use design thinking here.’”

DAVID: Lots of times you’re adding to something existing, and you really don't have to go all the way back to the user understanding to do it. Design thinking isn’t as impactful when a problem is well-defined, you know what you want, and you already have the metrics. I'm not saying that there aren't some small advantages by having creative thinking involved in that, because there are. But that's not the kind of projects that we would invest in heavily, because we want to make a real impact using our methods, and there'll be marginal gains.

I can think of a project in Nairobi where we were doing fire prevention. If you're designing a fire extinguisher, you can kind of guess you'll have fewer fires. But that project turned out to be about scanning documents that would have got burned in a fire, and that was what was the real need. Those solutions are so different that there was no way in the beginning to be able to know where you were going or what you were going to measure. That's a good design thinking project.

SUZANNE: In our live webcast with you, we talked about your relationship with a couple of very significant leaders in the world. You put so much emphasis on the ability to learn from others, the constant ability to have a growth mindset, and broaden out your own ways of working and doing things. So we wanted to talk about some of these leaders from that angle.

Let's talk first about Jim Hackett. You met him when he was working at Steelcase, and he’s now the CEO of Ford Motor Company. He's a fascinating character, and I'd love for you to share some of the things that you've grown into through your relationship.

DAVID: Jim is an amazingly bright guy. He reads voraciously and he remembers everything that he reads, which is not me, so I'm in awe of that. Most leaders I meet are pretty sure they know what they're doing, and they're pretty sure that they have the compass of where they can go. And Hackett's absolutely that way, but he's also constantly trying to improve his view of the future of the company by being open to new ideas. I realized in my own life that once I lock onto something, I'm pretty stuck and I'm maybe overconfident that I know where to go.

As confident as Hackett is, he keeps modifying his ideas based on what he’s learned. I think that's unusual. All of these major corporate executives that I work with and admire value authenticity. Hackett is amazingly authentic. He uses this frame called "Now, near, and far." Now I use this idea all the time. It's so convenient and useful to put things in these buckets.

SUZANNE: Let's talk about a slightly different leader. Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor is the head of Intercorp, a very large company in Peru that includes many different businesses. Tell us a little bit about some of the things that you've learned from this very impressive leader.

DAVID: The main thing about Carlos is he has a higher purpose. That’s such a refreshing thing compared to the business leader who's all about self-interest and shareholder value. Carlos is not like that at all. He has a moral compass that's just intoxicating. I really like being around him because of that.

He's wildly creative. The banter with him and everybody else in the room is just really exciting because he's open to new ideas. Carlos would be upset if you if you weren't coming up with new ideas.

SUZANNE: What are some of the places where you see him leverage his creative power?

DAVID: He's world class at talking less and doing more. If you just look at what the guy gets done, he doesn't have a lot of time for sitting around the conference table with your laptop open, looking at each other, talking about things. He is out there doing things.

SUZANNE: That kind of energy and enthusiasm in action is incredibly inspiring.

DAVID: Some of it has to do with this: he has a higher purpose. Even if it appears to be a conventional business purpose, when you actually get to the bottom of it, it’s about improving the middle class in Peru, or having a better education for all people in the world. That's his bias, and I think it drives a lot of his ability to get things done.


“One of the tenets of design thinking and the way we do things is radical collaboration among people from different disciplines, different contexts, and stakeholders both inside and outside of the company. It's inherently an open process.”
David Kelley


SUZANNE: If you were to pick one more person whose leadership style has inspired you personally, who would that be?

DAVID: Several come to mind. Ray Dalio has taught me a lot about principles, and idea meritocracies, and radical honesty, which I use constantly in my life. I used to think that by not telling somebody when I thought they were not doing a great job, I was being nice to them. And Ray's taught me that you're really doing them a disservice, and they'd be much better off to have the hard conversation. That's going to be better for them.

The relationship that I learned the most from, or the client that I did the best work for in my life, is Apple. And that's because of Steve Jobs. He was driven by, in my opinion, his point of view about what the future was going to be like. I'm not talking about just technology. He wanted to be right about that future for personal reasons and for humanitarian reasons. That drove him, and in some ways, that's a higher purpose—not a social one in the same way that Carlos' is, but it was a higher purpose.

The reason that we all did our best work for him was that he drove you. So many times I remember where you'd present something to him and he'd say something like, "I thought you were good." And you just sink. When you went back the next time you were not going to get that comment. You were going to knock yourself out.

He did everything with intent. If you look at Apple, I think that's obvious. I have hundreds of stories of talking about some really small thing in a product, like a screw, and it just mattered so much to him. That rubbed off on you. You started doing everything with intent. I found in my life that I was noticing things that needed improvement. Things would bug me more quickly because I was looking at everything like it could be better, with intent to improve it.

He was tough, but not that many people know how sweet and caring as a friend he could be. But he drove you in a way that made you a better designer, a better innovator. I'm thankful for that because he had a bigger worldview than I had, because my world was small relatively.

SUZANNE: Last question. If somebody was talking about you and the things that they had learned from your leadership style, what do you wish for them to say?

DAVID: You'd have to say, what have I been criticized for? Normally, the opposite side of what you're criticized for is your superpower. So the people that I care about at IDEO that give me direct feedback always say something like, "This is a business, but for you everything's personal." And I think their intent is trying to get me to have my relationships be less personal and more business. But the other side of that is I started the company because I wanted to work with my friends. I didn't like being in a place where I didn't choose the people I worked with every day. And now as I get towards the end of my career, it's gone the other direction. My business acquaintances are turning into my friends. And so I guess I'll agree that everything's personal with me.

What I really hope for people is that they have work in their life that feels good. So many of the people at my age that I talk to had a job their whole life that looked good to society, but felt bad to them. I feel super lucky that I've enjoyed my job, and continue to enjoy my job, and will for quite a bit longer I hope. I was put on earth to do this work.

SUZANNE: Well, that's certainly a good lesson to learn in all the right ways. Thank you for talking with us about creativity, about design thinking, and especially about some of the leadership lessons that you've learned over the years. We definitely appreciate you being here, and sharing that with all of us.

DAVID: My pleasure.

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