'Design Thinking' and the Art of Execution

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At the 99 Percent Conference, designers learn that innovation isn't just about ideas. It's about follow-through—and failure.

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NEW YORK — Lectures about "innovation" can make a smart group moody. This one, given by IDEO partner Diego Rodriguez during the first day of the 99 Percent Conference yesterday in New York, opened with the dictum "Be Awesome." An audience member interrupted right away. 

"What do you mean by awesome?" she said. "Ice cream can be awesome. I just don't see what you're getting at."

As far as business conferences go, The 99 Percent is stocked with smart and sanguine speakers, but the topic of innovation has a way of putting a crowd on edge. This is a career cram session, an expensive one, and people want answers. 

If people sometimes seem overzealous about buying the latest business books or attending conferences like these, it's because they're in search of whatever mojo runs in the veins of successes like Google and Pixar, both of which have speakers here, too. While other sectors of the economy have rebounded tepidly, designers and geeks in tech have had banner years, raising plenty of money and building projects like Facebook and Twitter, which after their un-serious debut a few years ago, have turned out to be revolutionary products that make hundreds of millions of dollars.

As Rodriguez listed the 21 principles he called his "Declaration of Innovation," it's easy to see why the genius of "design thinking," as Rodriguez labeled it, can feel supernatural. Some of Rodriguez's innovation principles:
  • Experience the world
  • See and hear like a child 
  • Play
  • Most ideas aren't new
  • Have a point of view
The reality is: It's hard to tell a group of accomplished people to "experience the world" or "have a point of view" without implying they haven't been doing this all along, perhaps at the expense of their own happiness. People here at the conference are excited and scared, not only because there is professional success at stake, but also some humanity, too.

Considering your failures is a big part of the approach being taught here: It means learning how to identify good ideas, root out bad ones, and move on without mourning your pride. Seats creak as people consider their job security, given all this failing they're about to embark upon, but it seems you get used to it. "I prototype everything," Rodriguez said, showing a photo of the napkin on which he scrawled his founding plans for Stanford's graduate design school six years ago. "I did 20 versions of this napkin."

The part of this design-y philosophy that is counterintuitive -- the part that makes the argument for a conference like this in the first place, and that makes it different from a conference like TED -- is its contention that "the big idea" is the easiest part of creating something successful. But the art of execution, the "perspiration" in that famous Thomas Edison quote for which the conference is named, feels like more than a business tactic. In fact, some of the principles here ("You only learn when you start breaking things") seem just as applicable to work as to, say, a marriage, perhaps because they are essentially hopeful about the future. Ice cream can be awesome, and shucks, it will be if you consider carefully your choice of flavor. Know what you want, Rodriguez advised us near the close of his talk. "If you don't, then you're lost."


Image: James Ryang

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Chris Dannen technology and business journalist who writes regularly for FastCompany and CBS Interactive. He has also written for Rolling Stone, the MIT Technology Review, Inc, Discover, and other sites and magazines.

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