Tom Kelley on How to Inspire Creativity in Your Company

If you acknowledge that creative thoughts are the engine that drives innovation, suddenly creativity becomes really important. 

- Tom Kelley, IDEO Partner

Tom Kelley has been a partner at IDEO for over 30 years. He's helped grow the company from 15 to more than 700 employees and expand beyond solely product design to designing services and systems in areas including healthcare, government, and education.

In our recent Creative Confidence webinar series, we talked with Tom about scaling creativity and unlocking creative potential throughout an organization. Here are a few of our favorite highlights:

Reframe the Challenge

Sometimes the hardest part isn't solving the problem, it's identifying the problem. There's a step that comes before problem solving, we used to call it need finding and now we call it design research. Gaining a deeper understanding of customer needs is essential in reframing the problem and should happen before problem solving. By reframing, we avoid an overly narrow focus on the problem and open ourselves to the possibility of finding deeper, more meaningful problems to solve.

Our Insights for Innovation course can help you go deeper in customer research and discovery and our Leading for Creativity course can guide you through reframing challenges.  

Part of creative confidence is the willingness to try

Set the Conditions for Creative Confidence

Set the tone for experimentation

Leaders need to be thoughtful about the way they invite participation. There are unwritten rules of the culture. For example, if the tiniest failure gets punished, then people understand that in the unwritten rules of the culture failure is not okay.

Squint at early ideas

“Squinting” is a great method for keeping an open mind when hearing about ideas still in their early stages. When you squint, you ignore the surface details and ask yourself, is there a kernel of an idea here? It’s also a way to welcome ideas early before people are too attached to them.

Allow the free flow of ideas

Never let the hierarchy of decision making get in the way of the free flow of ideas. If you’re the leader in a large organization, you’ve got to make it easy for everyone (even the introverts) to have their ideas heard and seen.

Measuring Creativity?

One metric for creativity is the number of experiments being run. Another is the percent of revenue from ideas that came about in the last 5 years.

At IDEO, we also have a tool for measuring creativity called Creative Difference where we use survey data to find out where the pockets of creativity are in an organization and where they’re lagging behind.


Creative Company Webinar Chapters

(1:36) Tom’s journey: What did you do prior to IDEO?

(3:56) Changes at IDEO: IDEO’s transformation since the shopping cart video.

(6:50) Work in Japan: A venture capital firm that helps startups use the tools of design thinking.

(7:45) Creative leadership: Get in touch with your own creativity and nurture it in others.

(9:13) Creativity transformations: Personal transformations usually come from trial and error.

(11:41) Tom’s transformation: Becoming a public speaker when Art of Innovation came out.

(14:45) Creative problem solving in orgs: Importance of need finding prior to problem solving.

(18:17) Hierarchy + ideas: Never let the hierarchy of decision making get in the way of the free flow of ideas.

(21:48) Squinting at early ideas: Ignore the surface details, ask yourself, is their a kernel of an idea here?

(26:05) Design thinking in large orgs: Start small, find a small core team that’s already enthusiastic about design thinking and find something to work on.

(31:03) Digital transformation: Find a reverse mentor who is effortlessly in touch with all the digital trends.

(35:23) Experimenting in big companies: Set a metric around how many experiments you’re currently doing.

(38:33) Metrics for creativity: IDEO’s Creative Difference tool


Interested in learning more about design thinking? Check out our Design Thinking Overview page and our Design Thinking Resources page.

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Foundations In Design Thinking - IDEO U Certificate
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