TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 June 2011
It is sad to say that, as a business writer, I read few business books. The reason is that the vast majority are bad: either they wildly exaggerate the novelty, hence the effectiveness, of some new technique or "movement," or they are supremely dull. Either way, the reporting in most of them is bad and conforms more to the ideology of the reporter than to any reality. A really good business book - one that stimulates genuine new thinking and that reports the facts freshly and accurately - are few and very far between.
I am happy to report that Kelley's book is positively excellent. Not only did it get me to re-think certain things I took for granted, such as the effectiveness of traditional marketing techniques, but it actually got me to imagine a different way of conceiving products, the "Ideo way." From now on, when I think of the flaws in things that I buy or processes that I encounter (and pay for), I will immediately question whether they could be better designed. As banal as it sounds, this book got me into that mode of thinking like virtually nothing else I have read in the business genre. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I found the book genuinely inspiring.
Even more astounding, the book reports accurately about a truly remarkable company, Ideo. It is a design and engineering company in Palo Alto, CA with offices worldwide, that designed the first mouse for Apple as well as an array of products that are working their way into the consumer mainstream (e.g. heart pacemakers, thick-handled toothbrushes, and the Aerobie football). From Kelley's telling of it, the place is full of creative individuals, healthy competition, and zaniness: with virtually no hierarchy or bureaucracy, they sit around playing and brainstorming and joking, coming up with innovations in great flashes of insight and lots of hard work. To put it mildly, I was skeptical: it sounded like many of the places that mediocre reporters extol as the "future" of innovative companies with ridiculous regularity and that are merely booster science fiction, complete with its own vocabulary ("Think verbs, not nouns"). When I went to the company for a writing project, I expected to find the ugly underbelly that went little reported, the "reality" that was typically hidden from all but those who worked there. Instead, I was delighted to find that I was being too cynical: I witnessed an organization that blended talent, discipline, and fun in its own unique way, the secrets of which Kelley attempts to pass on in "The Art of Innovation."
There are far too many nuggets of wisdom to summarize here. Regarding traditional marketing, for example, Kelley (and co-author Littman, who has a wonderful, clear writing style) argues that "observation-fueled insights" - both personal and via tests - will lead to more innovation than merely asking consumers what they like and want. This is, in my opinion, a fascinating insight that requires far more thought than the reader may imagine. All too often, market professionals take at face value what consumers say, rather than questioning whether they are trying to please the interviewer or don't really know their preferences. The key, Kelley asserts, is to anticipate their desires. He also shares the Ideo experience on the "perfect brainstorm" - and I watched them in awe myself - as they think outside the normal barriers of out thought. But there are many, many other subjects, such as their ideas on the control of personal space in the organization.
Nonetheless, in spite of their inspiration and irrepressible enthusiasm, Ideo engineers are not dreamers. They are down to earth businessmen and they know the limits of how far they can go in search of the "next big thing." Kelley continually warms the reader not to get carried away, not to become unmoored from deep-seated consumer preferences: as he puts it, "color outside the lines, but...stay on the same page." While a hit product combines good design and cost-efficiency, he warns, they also need good timing, which is extremely difficult to predict: you need some luck as well. In other words, there is substantial risk in what they do, and they fail often. Interestingly, Ideo employees are allowed to fail so long as they learn thereby to stay at the cutting edge or to take their idea and apply it in some new way in another product.
While most business books peter out long before the end - some do not even merit getting beyond the book flap - this book just kept getting better for me. The concluding chapters were just as interesting as the earlier ones, making new points and offering sound advice rather than merely recapitulating some banality. For example, at the very end, Kelley talks about one way that Ideo employees try to see the future: rather than seek to pull something out of thin air, they attempt to find "early adopters" of cutting-edge technologies that are not yet well known (or "distributed"). This is a subtle insight that I will study in the years to come. Indeed, this book seemed better to me on the second reading, which virtually never occurs, at least for me, in the business book genre.
Recommended with enthusiasm. I do wonder at times how much Silicon Valley is about hype. But this is an amazing company.