What Happens If We Don't Ask Big Questions?
EPISODE 1 | GUEST David Kelley, IDEO COfounder & Stanford Professor
[00:00:28] Detria Williamson: We live and work in a world of interlocking systems where many of the problems we face are dynamic, multifaceted and inherently human. We believe that design thinking can help solve these problems, to provide answers, but big answers can only be found by asking big questions. Welcome to The Big Question - An IDEO Podcast. I'm your host: Detria Williamson. This is Detria, and I am so excited today in the first episode of The Big Question, we’re joined by David Kelley, founder of the Stanford d.school and IDEO. I would describe David as a maverick and a true pioneer of our century, really, but I'm going to allow him to first tell us who you are, and what you’re up too.
[00:01:26] David Kelley: Thanks, Detria. Yes, my credential reads professor at Stanford and founder of IDEO, but I feel more like somebody who's just bumbled around trying to make the most of, you know, design and how it can influence the world and how it can make a difference in people's lives. And that's led me to lots of really enjoyable places. And I feel like the luckiest guy on earth because I'm doing exactly what I want to do. And I think it feels quite rare in the world.
[00:01:58] Detria Williamson: Speaking of things that you really love to do. Can you tell me a little bit about The Sabers and your earlier career as a rock star?
[00:02:06] David Kelley: That's really silly. I was raised in a tiny little town in Barberton, Ohio, and I guess we were the best rock group in town. I'm not sure there were many others, if any others. And it was really enjoyable stuff. There were no such thing as roadies. We carried our amplifiers into the auditorium and we played, and it was a totally enjoyable feeling; Although I could never say that we had any super musical talent, but it was totally enjoyable. It's funny that that's what you bring up.
[00:02:44] Detria Williamson: You know, speaking of being famous when you're one of none, you really are a pioneer in design thinking, so talk to us and our listeners about why did you start IDEO? How did it even come about?
[00:03:02] David Kelley: Yeah, it's interesting. It wasn't my destiny. I think it was my destiny to have a much more conventional life as, you know, the people before me in my family had, but I started out as an engineer. I mean, I probably would have gone into art, but I don't think that's something that young boys from blue collar Ohio go into, but I became an engineer. And I really enjoyed the, ‘make it with your hands’ kind of part of engineering, the practical part of engineering. But when I got to Stanford, I started working with a company called Xerox PARC, which was wildly creative and it was all scientists.
[00:03:38] And so I noticed how enthralled I was by the ability of scientists to create. And then I also learned about the analytical side of engineering when I was in the university. And then we were all taught in my design classes by these people called industrial designers who were coming out of places like Hewlett Packard, who had an excellent design group.
[00:04:03] And so I saw the magic of the industrial designers who came up with “new to the world stuff” just out of the blue and drew beautiful pictures of them. And I could imagine how wonderful they’d be. So at that point in my life, I saw the practical side of engineering, the analytical side of engineering, the contribution of science and industrial design.
[00:04:26] And I thought, whoa, I'm really not any of those, but I really am in love with all those. And maybe I could be the glue that held them together, or maybe I could be the one that made them successful by synthesizing that. And so that was really the idea for the beginning of the company: That we would admire, participate and help these different disciplines who didn't seem to exactly get along with each other.
[00:04:53] And we want to be the ones that synthesized them and brought the full power of these diverse groups into the innovation space. That's what I was certainly interested in: “How can we come up with “new to the world ideas?” And it just felt that by bringing all these people into that space... And you'd have to say we were successful in bringing those people together and integrate them and starting basically a new discipline that was more holistic.
[00:05:20] Which is what we called design, at that point.
[00:05:23] Detria Williamson: Yeah. And speaking of when you started that way, do you think that the perception of the designer has changed since you started IDEO? Do you think the way that we tackle problems, do you think the fundamentals are still there? Talk to me a little bit about how you feel things have shifted.
[00:05:43] David Kelley: Yeah, no, it's an amazing change, such a really kind of joyous and important part of what happened for me and the design profession was... I like to say we moved from the kids' table to the adult table because design, which hadn't found itself yet and, you know, corporate America or the world really hadn't found what was the right thing to do with design.
[00:06:05] They were using design as a very specific kind of hit at a specific point. You know, whether you needed, you know, graphics or an annual report, or whether you needed to make something, you know, look more futuristic or whatever it was. As I’ve said, it was magical that what designers could do to envision some things, especially products, when they didn't exist before, you know, as in that, “Oh, wow. Look at that. How cool that is.”
[00:06:32] That's what your response was always. But along the way, as we started to integrate these other disciplines into them and call them designers as well. Then we started getting more and more important problems to work on. So we were seen as more strategic. So we were brought in to say, you know, how can we make this medical device more usable or more accepted to the nurses or to the doctors? And that was really different because that was usually done by business or technology people and then we had a small role in it, but as the power of design became more apparent, and the projects we got to work on, there was more breadth, and our role was more strategic and more at the beginning and less sprucing things up at the end.
[00:07:25] Detria Williamson: Well, it's fascinating hearing you talk about the power of design then and how it always started out with what seems like a question that when you're talking about the problem, it sounds like in your story here that you're sharing that you weren't just stating the problem, but that you're asking questions around the problem.
[00:07:44] And I want to know at what moment in your life did you realize that asking big questions were important?
[00:07:52] David Kelley: I think for most of the time prior to this people like me were focused on problem solving, you know, the question the problem was posed, and then we were supposed to solve it. Right. And the question you're asking, what resonates with me about that is, it turned out what problem was worth working on in the first place was the big deal. And that's the big question. The question is not what's the answer cause I'm pretty convinced we're darn good at problem solving — we as a culture are really good at problem solving — if you're working on the right problem. You have to back up to what's the big question leads to the worthwhile problems to work on. Right?
[00:08:42] And so if you asked me when the first time I noticed it… There's a bunch of answers to that question. There's the personal answer to that question in my life. And there's the IDEO question. You know, the personal question is quite easy, which is, let's say I was late to getting married and I had my first child when I was 46.
[00:09:11] And prior to that time, I think, I thought. “I got another 50 years left and this global warming is going to play out over the next hundred years, so it's not my problem.” You know, I wasn't that insensitive, but there was a bit of that. But as soon as I had a child, then it was very clear that I owned these problems because she was the most important thing in the world to me.
[00:09:31] And I wanted to make sure the world was as good a place as it could possibly be for her. So I understood for myself personally, that my child was going to be affected by whether we were getting good at solving, you know, the health problems and poverty problems and the hunger problems. And all that was going to be in her lifetime...
[it] was going to really play out.
[00:09:55] And as you know, later, I had a serious bout with cancer. And that again — we’re talking personal — that really straightened me up to realizing that I had to get on some of this stuff around med tech and other things that I could firsthand see needed to be worked on.
[00:10:15] Detria Williamson: You know, speaking of that, David, what do you feel you've actually designed, which has had the greatest impact?
[00:10:22] David Kelley: I get this a lot: “What's your favorite thing you designed?” You know, it's like asking my favorite child. I refuse to answer that question because, you know, there's, I mean, certainly anything that we did social that we, you know… we did a portable defibrillator that saved people's lives and insulin pens...
[00:10:42] So there's all that, you know, stuff and schools that help kids in poverty gain education. Those are all projects that I'm proud of. Right. But you know, it's been a long time since I personally was deciding exactly what it is, but I'm still involved in probably… The stuff I am most proud of, which is helping cultures gain competence in their great ability.
[00:11:09] So you gotta look at me as I'm no longer the guy designing the thing. I'm the guy building the stage that lets other people do the design, right? Do the real impact kind of work. So what I'm working on, what I'm most proud of is helping a culture gain confidence in their ability. You know, we talk a lot about self-efficacy and, you know, just reducing the friction.
[00:11:36] As I talked about in the beginning of IDEO, there's still friction between these different disciplines that, that are not fully integrated because they have their own empires and, you know, they don't always concede. And so helping break down that and helping companies in particular, routinely innovate is the best thing I can do to help. And we've been doing that for a while.
[00:11:53] You know, the book Creative Confidence came out in what, 2012. And that's when we're really realizing that that was what we were put on earth to do, which is to help people gain self-advocacy and creative confidence.
[00:12:16] Detria Williamson: So in that way, would you say that you feel your design philosophy has shifted or do you think those fundamentals have really stayed?
[00:12:26] David Kelley: Oh, I think my value system has stayed the same for sure. And my philosophy, I guess it hasn't changed that much, but my philosophy has always been that I'm not that great a designer myself, but boy, if I can get a bunch of hot shots together, I have a methodology and together, you know, we know what to do.
[00:12:48] And so my philosophy is: get the most diverse thinkers together and do what the main part of our process is understanding people and then doing what we call enlightened trial and error. So I think my philosophy is to stay away from planning, you know, most situations that I see people trying to come up with “new to the world stuff”, there's a lot of planning and IDEO believes, and I believe that a better approach is to find a hot team and then just start proposing, making, prototyping and what we call enlightened trial and error.
[00:13:17] So instead of doing something serious that you have a lot invested in. Do something really light and fast. It's like writing the first draft. You know, if you write a letter, the best thing to do, it's all been proven as a book from Annie Lamont called Bird By Bird.
[00:13:43] And it all correlates to, if you can do a quick and dirty draft and then edit it nine times, that's going to be a much better piece than if you think of yourself as so smart that you can write at one. Carefully. Right? So design is the same way; you get a bunch of people — I don't expect that I can pull everything out of my head — so you get as many smart people as you can and then you just build a crummy prototype of what you think the solution should be.
[00:14:03] You play act. If it's an experience, you play act how the people are going to be admitted to the hospital and how they're going to make it to the surgical room or whatever.
[00:14:23] And then you just play act that and see where the problems are, then you do it again and again. So if we can get a whole bunch of iterations, and the only way to do that is to just not be precious about your ideas and try to defend them. The opposite of my philosophy is when someone comes up with an idea and then just defends it.
[00:14:34] I believe you're much better off to come up with an idea that's quick and dirty. You don't have a lot invested and then you improve it and improve it. And oh, by the way,
[then] you got a lot invested and you really defend it by the end, but not in the beginning.
[00:14:57] Detria Williamson: Well, that really resonates because I think when we talk about planning, even now, the world is steeped into things which are so concrete. But when you think about your philosophy, it's about departing from that, which is really what drives innovation getting to, as you were saying, “new to the world” ideas.
[00:15:18] David Kelley: I couldn't agree more. The most interesting things happening is, because of COVID you can't plan. Like, you can make a plan, but then a month later, everything has changed.
[00:15:22] So you gotta be light and fast. You gotta have an idea, but you got to abandon it and go somewhere else quickly. And that's been true for everything, always, in coming up with innovation. But the COVID thing has made that very clear because the data isn't present till late, if you wait until you have all the data, you're already past the time when you need to act. Right?
[00:15:52] And so COVID has been very interesting along these lines.
[00:15:56] Detria Williamson: Speaking of light and fast, because you’re obviously a maverick in these different worlds, you’re at Stanford d.school, but you know, walking around with arguably young up and coming designers, but you also have a Rolodex that many of us aspire to have of CEOs who are quite experienced.
[00:16:17] So have you found that this community of light and fast designers or thinkers — Do they sort of rest in certain places, are you finding a pattern where they are or is it a mindset?
[00:16:31] David Kelley: Well, it comes down to senior management, right? Does senior management value light and fast. Right? So in cultures where the design team is preparing to present to the CEO, and they're worried what that person's going to say.
[00:16:47] And they're thinking that they might have this one chance to get their project in front of the CEO. Well, we know that that's wrong. We know the CEO's not doing their role, right. They're used to having everything polished and beautiful graphics and world-class movie actors doing the soundtracks. And I mean all that stuff, right?
[00:17:09] Well, that may be good for the advertising at the end, but what you really want is a kind of: “this is what we're thinking. We've got these three ways. We're not really sure where to go. What do you think boss?” And then you get that feedback. And we think that the user, the person who's going to use it, the person is going to benefit is as least as important as the boss, but the boss is very important in the implementation, whether it gets out there in the world.
[00:17:35] So I want to know which way that's likely to go on what their preferences are as a mix into this stew of what we're trying to do.
[00:17:45] Detria Williamson: So when we talk about half-baked ideas, are there any half-baked ideas or thoughts that you have that sort of lead to maybe big questions that you find that you're asking yourself?
[00:17:59] David Kelley: Oh, yeah. So take any big question, right.
[00:18:03] You know, whether you want that to be poverty or lack of education or people being hungry or homeless or take any of those things. Well, it's hard. Right? So if we can break the problem down to places where we feel enthusiastic, that we can solve them, you know, then that kind of gets the ball rolling. And then there's another one.
[00:18:26] And another one. That series of small successes seems to be a much better strategy than talking about the whole problem that leads to planning and, you know, bureaucratic-ness and stuff. But if we just cut the problem down into smaller pieces, and then you start assigning that to teams, it doesn't even matter if they solve them exactly right or if they're exactly integrated with the other ones.
[00:18:50] You just feel like you're making progress, you know, you're moving down the path, right? So this quarter with my students, I'm working on helping farmers and farmer's markets. Well, it seems like a pretty small problem, but if he can get that going, you might find that you're solving the food waste chain.
[00:19:15] That's just the one that's on my mind, but I mean, there's a million of them like that where I really strongly believe that the solution to the big questions is to break them down into small enough questions that the people who are assigned the task are enthusiastic and believe there's a good chance they're going to come up with some big ideas in this size problem. And then rolling those up seems relatively easy compared to talking about the problem in a holistic way. Not that that isn't important. I mean, people like me are totally empowered by the big thinkers who are like painting the framework of what the problem is.
[00:15:52] That's how I'm able to divide up into small pieces is some big thinker has laid out and the frame, and then we can cherry pick the things within that frame where we can get a little brush fire going over here that solves the problem, that small problem.
[00:20:18] Detria Williamson: Do you ever find yourself in situations where you come in as that coach or that guiding light, where maybe the question is too big or the problem stated in too big of a way, as the maverick that you are in design, do you ever find yourself coming in as that guiding light or that coach to say, wait, this is way too big up here. We need to break this down the way that you were just mentioning, do you find yourself in that situation?
[00:20:41] David Kelley: I mean, the problem with can't be too big, as long as it's laid out intelligently. I mean, there’s fuzzy problems. There's problems that haven't been considered intelligent in a systematic way. And so those just seem like hard to get started. Right. But there's a kind of person who's very intellectual, very strategic who paints the picture of what the problem is. And that's essential.
[00:21:18] Even though the problem's too big. They've painted that thing so that we can divide it up. And so, I don't think there's any problems too big. It's just, you haven't broken them down to the essence of what's possible right now, because it may take a technology in the future, you know?
[00:21:28] Well, the way I have it in my mind is, it's like an outline and there's, you know, Roman numeral one and then there's A, and B and there's Roman numeral two. Well, as long as you can see that Roman numeral one's the big deal, but I'm working on small “a” under
[Roman numeral] one and that I'm inspired and it rolls up to eventually Roman numeral one in the outline. That's empowering.
[00:22:08] Detria Williamson: Well, and it sounds like what you said earlier, which really resonated that as you're doing that, making sure that you have this group of diverse thinkers alongside and with you and joining you as you're breaking all of those things down, I think that's really useful for everyone to hear.
[00:22:26] So, David, I have our final question here, which is, what do you think is the most important question right now that few people are asking, are there ever moments or situations that you're in and you stop and pause and think they're missing the big question here that we should be thinking about or asking?
[00:22:47] David Kelley: Yeah. You know, when you say that I'm afraid I go way out of my league to kind of philosophical questions like, “understanding human consciousness” or, you know, “is there a life after death” or… the question is how big do you want to go of the questions that are not asked?
[00:23:10] …so I get a little stuck into the “what level are the questions that are not being answered?” You know, like, so there's that up there, and there's questions down here that are like, “what's something that I can do today that's useful?” Right. So I can say that I have felt for a long time and anybody who knows me knows that the question that I think can make the most traction is that it's back to the creative confidence.
[00:23:32] So self-efficacy is defined as that people have the sense that they can accomplish what they set out to do. Right. So the big problem to solve... the big question is once everybody thinks of themselves as a player, a creative person, somebody who has something to contribute to this, to the problem. So they know global warming or the fact that not everybody has enough to eat is a big problem.
[00:24:00] And they know that. And it seems like getting them to take action, even in the smallest way, has to do with the fact that they don't think they're capable of that. Or if they had a sense that what they did next was going to help that problem, I think most of the big problems would be solved. You think about, I'm a big believer in the wisdom of the crowd.
[00:24:21] So to me, the big problem that I believe in that I'm focused on is getting people to feel that they're capable of doing just a little thing. You know, whether it's you know, licking stamps on letters and sending them out for their political agenda or building a neighborhood homeless facility or going and volunteering in grade schools to help students with their social, emotional health.
[00:25:03] It's like, you just think of the capacity of humans if they believe that what they wanted to happen could happen rather than this kind of, oh woe is me, I can't do anything. So I think that's it... the apathy of, I can't do anything to, I can do this small thing and that would add up to something big.
[00:25:27] That's what I think about.
[00:25:36] Detria Williamson: Well, David, it's been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for your time, particularly what you said about self-efficacy, talking about the importance of making sure that when you're, you're painting the picture of what you want to go out there and solve that you're doing it in an intelligent way and ultimately saying the power of bringing together diverse thinkers is how we're going to solve some of our biggest problems. It's really impactful to hear. And certainly for our listeners.
[00:26:10] David Kelley: Thank you, Detria
[00:26:11] Detria Williamson: Thank you, David. The Big Question is brought to you by IDEO. To find out more about us and how we create positive impact through design, head to ideo.com and then make sure to search for The Big Question in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere else, podcasts are found. Make sure to click subscribe so you don't miss any future episodes. On behalf of the team here at IDEO, thanks for listening.
David Kelley is the cofounder of the global design and innovation company IDEO. Kelley also founded Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known as the d.school. As Stanford’s Donald W. Whittier Professor in Mechanical Engineering, Kelley is the Academic Director of both of the degree-granting undergraduate and graduate programs in Design within the School of Engineering, and has taught classes in the program for more than 35 years.
Combine the outlook of a visionary with the rigor of a high-performing athlete and you’ll begin to get a sense of IDEO ALUM Detria Williamson. She has spent more than 20 years as an innovative brand experience marketer who gives companies a brave push forward, bringing the discipline and mindset needed to create new brand ecosystems while building on the resonance and value the brand already has to its audiences.