Innovate, but do it for consumers

Paul Bennett, creative director at Ideo, explains why the most inventive organizations listen to customers-and then involve them in the creative process

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Creativity and innovation have been touted as the things that will ultimately make the most difference to a company's growth. Do you get the sense that most major companies get that, or is it just another trendy thing to talk about? What is the real role of creativity in business?

I think more and more companies are realizing that they have to start to do things differently. Consumers have massively shifted in their expectations of products, services and the marketing of them. Increasingly, companies are valued more for what they can offer tomorrow than what they can offer today. It's become pretty apparent to a lot of organizations that they are going to have to look elsewhere than the old-and-familiar way of cooking up new ideas in an internal vacuum in their laboratories and doing some focus groups to "validate" them.

The other factor, of course, is that there are more examples of organizations-P&G being one obvious one-that are publicly talking about their innovation philosophies and processes and are being very successful with the results. The role of creativity and imagination when applied to the business context is innovation.

From your observations, what are the characteristics of the creative marketer?

Truly creative marketers consistently do two things: 1) they really listen to their consumers and 2) involve them in the gestation and creation of whatever it is that they are making. Many times I have sat in meetings where clients have made huge sweeping statements about consumers, their lives and what they need, and I have realized that they are talking about themselves, not the people that they are designing for. The ability to get out of your own world and truly immerse yourself in that of your consumer is the key to success. And, of course, we all know that consumers are out there now creating masses of content-opinions, blogs and websites-so harnessing that creativity in some meaningful way to learn and adapt your own perceptions is just smart business in my opinion.

You've written before about simplifying the language around marketing. Aside from marketing speak, what are some of the other things you see that get in the way of developing and acting on creative ideas?

I always tell clients to be aware of creating "dinosaur babies," the theory being that a dinosaur baby is usually pretty ugly and that only a dinosaur's mother would love it. Often a client has heavily invested personally and financially in an idea that isn't really all that good, and they spend a lot of time and energy defending it because they feel overly vested-they've created a dinosaur baby. Better spend less time and money on something, prototype it quickly and cheaply, so that if it doesn't fly, you can let go of it without feeling bad.

What does your own company do to keep creativity at its core (from your space to your process to your attitude to the kinds of people you look for)?

We spend quite a lot of time thinking about the intellectual spaces we'd like to occupy and the big problems we'd like to solve, be they societal, political, technical or creative. We're very interested in seeing if the tools of design problem-solving-"design thinking" as we like to call it-can be applied to as diverse a set of problems as possible. We encourage the people who work here to bring new ideas and thinking to the rest of the community, be they points of view about specific areas, new ideas about research or design, etc. Generally Ideo feels a bit like a cross between a university campus and an art school, and the interactions and overlaps between the disciplines always spark new ideas. Our R&D, if it could be called that, is to encourage perpetual curiosity.

What kinds of people do you find yourself most in need of now (whether that's by discipline or disposition)?

I think not just having good ideas but being able to communicate them in a compelling and visceral way is now cost of entry for our industry. Storytelling has really evolved at Ideo and, more often that not, we are finding ourselves in the situation where our end deliverable is not just the product but something dynamic and time-based that brings the entire story of the journey from insight to action to life. We're making lots of movies, writing lots of books, building lots of spaces and generally telling stories in as three-dimensional a form as possible, so we are looking for storytellers who can use narrative techniques but apply them in new ways.

IDEO works across a range of disciplines and sectors. How do the different disciplines within your company work together?

We have a people philosophy that we describe as "T-shape," by which we mean we look to hire people that have a depth in some aspect of craft but a breadth and empathy for the other things that we do. We have a rigorous and some would say complicated hiring process where we expose as many people to the potential candidate as possible so that everyone is informed and comfortable with what this person brings to the table. I always describe it here as like being in a shoal of fish where everyone swims in the same direction-people who function as "islands" don't tend to work out. We also work hard to staff projects with a good mix of people-experts and novices, senior and junior-and we tend to "surround" a problem with people as diverse as possible and see what happens. It can be quite volatile at times, but it usually produces good ideas.

Most smart marketers are listening better to their consumers. How has the consumer's role in the design process changed-and how well are marketers using consumer insights in design?

Open-source is the way ahead; it's a whole new day with respect to the consumer. They're firmly in charge, and they know it. Not only do they now have an expectation of some degree of participation in the way a brand is presented to them, they are demanding it. And if you don't encourage them, they'll do it anyway, and better to have them as a friend than as a foe. Brands that pay lip-service to this concept as opposed to truly embracing it are going to struggle I think. I sat in a meeting recently where a senior marketer at a big company said, "One click of a mouse can take us down these days, so we'd better walk the walk here." I thought that was spot-on. Getting consumer insight at the beginning of the process, using those insights consistently and respectfully throughout the process, and communicating them in a compelling form when you go to market is critical to a product's success in the market these days.

How do you personally keep your edge? What inspires you?

I view myself as a professional consumer, which I always tell my clients gives me the right to comment so strongly on what they do. I'm an avid consumer of products and services and view shopping as my own personal form of R&D. I read voraciously, but I can't stand business books, which I think are just the same ideas over and over again with more silly jargon, which I can't abide. Give me The New Yorker or, even better, US Weekly. ... I love tabloid culture.

What's the most fun part of your job?

As an adult, the greatest luxury you can have is still being able to learn. I learn something new every day here from the most diverse group of people I could imagine assembling. I sat in an early meeting when I first came here and remember everyone going 'round the table saying what they did; there was a psychologist, a cultural anthropologist, a chemist and a guy who made the robotic whale in "Free Willy." I remember being impressed by that.
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