From: Harvard Business Review: Thomas Edison created the electric lightbulb and then wrapped an entire industry around it. The lightbulb is most often thought of as his signature invention, but Edison understood that the bulb was little more than a parlor trick without a system of electric power generation and transmission to make it truly useful. So he created that, too.
Thus Edison’s genius lay in his ability to conceive of a fully developed marketplace, not simply a discrete device. He was able to envision how people would want to use what he made, and he engineered toward that insight. He wasn’t always prescient (he originally believed the phonograph would be used mainly as a business machine for recording and replaying dictation), but he invariably gave great consideration to users’ needs and preferences.
Edison’s approach was an early example of what is now called “design thinking”—a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos. By this I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.
Many people believe that Edison’s greatest invention was the modern R&D laboratory and methods of experimental investigation. Edison wasn’t a narrowly specialized scientist but a broad generalist with a shrewd business sense. In his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory he surrounded himself with gifted tinkerers, improvisers, and experimenters. Indeed, he broke the mold of the “lone genius inventor” by creating a team-based approach to innovation. Although Edison biographers write of the camaraderie enjoyed by this merry band, the process also featured endless rounds of trial and error—the “99% perspiration” in Edison’s famous definition of genius. His approach was intended not to validate preconceived hypotheses but to help experimenters learn something new from each iterative stab. Innovation is hard work; Edison made it a profession that blended art, craft, science, business savvy, and an astute understanding of customers and markets.
Design thinking is a lineal descendant of that tradition. Put simply, it is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity. Like Edison’s painstaking innovation process, it often entails a great deal of perspiration.
I believe that design thinking has much to offer a business world in which most management ideas and best practices are freely available to be copied and exploited. Leaders now look to innovation as a principal source of differentiation and competitive advantage; they would do well to incorporate design thinking into all phases of the process.
Getting Beneath the Surface
Historically, design has been treated as a downstream step in the development process—the point where designers, who have played no earlier role in the substantive work of innovation, come along and put a beautiful wrapper around the idea. To be sure, this approach has stimulated market growth in many areas by making new products and technologies aesthetically attractive and therefore more desirable to consumers or by enhancing brand perception through smart, evocative advertising and communication strategies. During the latter half of the twentieth century design became an increasingly valuable competitive asset in, for example, the consumer electronics, automotive, and consumer packaged goods industries. But in most others it remained a late-stage add-on.
Now, however, rather than asking designers to make an already developed idea more attractive to consumers, companies are asking them to create ideas that better meet consumers’ needs and desires. The former role is tactical, and results in limited value creation; the latter is strategic, and leads to dramatic new forms of value.
Tim Brown is the CEO and president of IDEO, an innovation and design firm with headquarters in Palo Alto, California. His designs have won numerous awards and been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Axis Gallery in Tokyo, and the Design Museum in London.