Some great stuff at the Firestarters gig last night, hosted by Google. Neil Perkin curating as per last time, with presentations (or perhaps testifying is more appropriate) from IDEO‘s Design Director, Tom Hulme, and PHD’s Chief Innovation Officer John Willshire.

John’s stuff I’ve covered here before, and his highly intelligent – but lightly worn – weaving of references and metaphors always cast our assumptions about what we agency folk do in a new, not always palatable light. The blacksmith stuff bodes very well indeed for his new Smithery, ‘Innovation Works’ venture.

For a brilliant real-time take on the evening have a look at Hugh Garry’s Storify. It is excellent.

Tom’s dissection of Design Thinking was brilliant. More a series of approaches to problem-solving than a process to follow, it was a really inspiring guide to just how superficial planning solutions can end up being, given half the chance. This is not because planners don’t take sufficiently purist approach to briefs – if anything there was a sense at Firestarters that Tom was preaching to the converted in front of a community like us.

No, this was more a salutary tale of just how strongly odds can be stacked against truly ‘designed’ solutions taking hold, precisely because clients and agencies have got so good at what they do. The notion that bigger organisations have become practises at making decision suggests convergent thinking has assumed priority over divergent thinking – the very place where creativity has a chance to flourish.

I’d argue the most important of the approaches Tom identified was the first one – Challenge the Question. It’s incumbent on agencies to pick at the brief until it reveals the real problem that needs addressing. From experience it often emerges that the real problem sits with other stakeholders in the organisation – but it’s very rare that we pursue those internal blockages. Instead we’re fixated, perhaps fairly if misguidedly, that the solution to the brief is a communications one for those beyond the business – ie consumers.

Talking to Tom afterwards it seems that IDEO’s great, and brave, position is to not acccept briefs that don’t allow them to probe, roam and investigate across the entire business model to first identify the real problem, then have license to get creative with the solution – wherever the thinking takes you. That may be centred on changing pricing conventions, the balance between the message and the experience, or through persistent prototyping.

To identify the constituent components of the Business Model this diagram makes a great tool for start-ups

The digested digested version?

  1. Design systems together
  2. Trust in users
  3. Launch as quickly as possible
  4. Shorten the feedback loop

Some will argue that media, advertising, PR or digital agencies aren’t afforded the remit to roam like that. But I’m willing to bet no-one ever invited IDEO to do so in the first place either. Weirdly, I’d never heard the phrase about cobblers’ children going unshod before – but I heard it twice tonight. Once from Tom when he was explaining the impetus behind Open IDEO, and again chatting to an agency chap discussing how easily we sometimes give up the fight, even when we really know what needs to be done.

There’s loads more to cover on this sort of thing – particularly on the need to iterate and improve. For now, for more great stuff from Tom I urge you to go here.