At the Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, shared some of his insights with me. The Palo Alton based design firm is famous for having invented such things as Apple’s first mouse and the Palm V PDA. It shot to fame when ABC Nightline made a short documentary on how they designed a new shopping cart. Tim Brown describes the company as “a group of people that come from many different backgrounds that use design thinking to tackle a broad range of systems to level challenges from all kinds of organisations.” With such a wide-ranging team, Ideo has become famous for the diversity of its employees.
In the second part of this interview, Tim Brown talks about the international aspects of the firm and gives some career advice to students on their future career choices.
Many companies today are outsourcing their research countries such as to China or India. Are there no pressures on a design company to do the same thing?
We are the outsourced designers for all of our clients so we benefit from that. We are great connectors, we always have been, it is one of the great advantages in working in almost every industry you can imagine. We get to connect to others all of the time, so at some level we outsource our research because it is us being out in the world, meeting people, working with people and doing what we do in a kind of anthropological style research or ethnographic research. This is research for our clients but it is tremendous research for us to. So outsourced research is something we do naturally without thinking about it.
Is all of your business US based?
No, I mean the majority of it is, but we have offices in Europe and Asia. For me, it is not so much about the business growth, we are not actually very interested in growth, only enough growth to keep us healthy but that is about it. We are interested in impact and we are interested in working on the edgiest, most difficult problems. That is where we learn fastest and that is what keeps us evolving. I am a big believer in ecological and biological principles and ecologies change fastest when the outside pressures change, and the outside pressures change when you are in unusual places. The reasons we have offices in China, Japan, Singapore, South America and Africa is because that is where the pressures are different and the context is different and it forces us to learn new things and develop new approaches so that is the value of doing things in an international sense.
IDEO is known for the diversity of its staff. What would you say are the qualities and weaknesses of the business students who apply to IDEO?
We do filter rather carefully. Last year roughly 17 000 people applied to work at IDEO and we had about 100 spots. That means that it is a lot harder than getting into Harvard. Many of those applicants were business students. In business school graduates we look for people who know how to go from thinking to doing, who exhibit the creative confidence in one form or another. Many of them have had some kind of creative experience before, they may be designers, they may be engineers, they may be architects, and then they have gone to business schools. They may also be entrepreneurs who have done something at business school or before business school. I just hired a graduate from Yale who had been an architect before going to business school and she has many of the skills that are necessary to survive in our environment. We’re looking for business school graduates who have the business skills and in many cases have the ability to think analytically but they also need to have some level of creative confidence.
So having different experiences is seen as a plus?
It is almost a necessity I would say. I am not sure but I doubt that we have any business school graduates at IDEO who went straight from undergrad to gradschool, unless the undergrad was a design school.
So there is a certain type of skill that you are looking for.
Exactly, people talk about the idea of being ambidextrous and it is a slightly strange term but at IDEO employees get thrown into the design process at nearly every stage and they have to be comfortable with the idea of doing so, even if they do not yet have the skills.
What advice would you give to someone coming out of a business school or a university for managing their career?
This is easy to say for someone who has been extremely fortunate, but the more of a sense or purpose you have the easier it is to manage choices. The more you have some sort of guiding principle that is not only about getting the next job or making more money, the easier it gets to make the easy choices and also the hard ones. Many graduates coming out of business schools today have that purpose, they do want to help the world in some way and want to work in companies that matter. They want to work on things with meaning and the more that you can have that point of view and develop that point of view, maybe while you’re at business school, the better I think. There are so many hard choices, even in a tough job market like it might be today, and it is so easy to end up on a path that you didn’t proactively choose and then struggle.
Many students are often concerned about making the wrong choice in their careers. What would you say to this?
It’s not about making the wrong choice it is about positively making the right choices. Do not overthink it, the opposite problem is that you are trying to plan out too much and in the end you do not do anything because you are constantly looking for the perfect solution. That gets people into just as much trouble, so you do must have some confidence. The way I think about purpose is that it is not a plan, but a set of guiding principles. Whatever choice you are making you have a better chance of nudging the decision in the direction of that you most want to go. For me it has always been about making choices that allow me to push forward my desire to help design and have an impact in the world so I use that to help me choose what clients to work with, I have used it to decide what jobs to do inside IDEO or where to take IDEO. That was not a plan but it was always based on the question: is this helping me do better design or help people through design? If yes then great, if no then I should be making a different choice.