Tag Archives: David Kelley

In Praise of ‘Old’ Ideas – like Justice, Service and Empathy

One of the biggest myths of innovation is that it’s all about ‘new ideas.’ “We’re stuck … we need new ideas here!” you’ll often hear someone say.

Yes, clearly new ideas are a core part of innovating. But we need to dispel the myth that they’re the sole part of innovating. Ironically, ‘old’ ideas may actually be more important in creating change.

Abraham Lincoln - courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President, 1861-65

Abraham Lincoln, perhaps surprisingly, illustrates this brilliantly.

Lincoln was an innovator in the sense that he helped create a new America, a United States that no longer permitted slavery. He transformed America from a country that treated slaves as assets on a plantation’s balance sheet to a nation where every human being would be free regardless of the color of their skin.

How did he do it? Did he simply champion this ‘new’ idea or go around calling for more new ideas? Not at all. He skillfully built his case for change upon some of the oldest ideas in the country: freedom, equality and justice.

You can see this beautifully in his most famous words of the period, the Gettysberg address. In this brief, eloquent plea for change, Lincoln invokes the ideals of the founding fathers – ideals they hoped would never change: a country “conceived in liberty” and built on the belief that “all men are created equal.”

Thomas J Watson, Jr., who spearheaded IBM in the 1960s, applied the same wisdom to make IBM at once both firmly grounded and innovative. He believed this so strongly he wrote a book called A Business and Its Beliefs. In the book, he captured the basic idea perfectly:

“any great organization … owes its resiliency … to the power of what we call beliefs and the appeal these beliefs have for its people. … the single most imporant factor in corporate success is faithful adherence to those beliefs. And finally … if an organization is to meet the challenges of a changing world, it must be prepared to change everything about itself except those beliefs as it moves through corporate life … . 1

In other words, it’s the old ideas, the core beliefs that don’t change, that actually produce the purpose that drives change and new ideas. That’s the philosophy that has kept IBM at the top of its field to this day.

Once again, it’s that kind of dedication to an ‘old’ idea that drives the search for the new ideas.

Take the idea of true customer service. It too is an old idea, as old as business itself. Unfortunately, it’s not always embraced in a world only looking for ‘new’ ideas.

Today, sadly, too few businesses really take it seriously.

Steve Jobs did, and the results showed. In fact, he took customer service to a level of near-obsession. It was all for the customer: if the customer isn’t a fan, you haven’t done your job. His mission was to provide the customer with an “insanely great experience,” not just customer service.

In the last several years, the world of Design Thinking is, fortunately, helping to bring back the ‘old’ idea of empathy. “Deep empathy for people makes our observations powerful sources of inspiration,” say Tom Kelley and David Kelley from IDEO. “We aim to understand why people do what they do … our first-person experiences help us form personal connections with people for whome we’re innovating … all to build empathy. An empathic approach fuels our process by ensuring we never forget we’re designing for real people.” 2

Unfortunately, not enough companies have yet embraced the ‘old’ idea of empathy. Often the fetish remains solely on short-term profit, and the result at best is to pretend to be innovating rather than actually doing it.

So the next time someone says “we need new ideas here!”, stop and ask, “Wait a second. What about the time-tested, old ideas we believe in? Do we really have any? What are the deeply-held beliefs that we’re not prepared to change here?

In other words, to think like an innovator, to bring about the real change you truly want, first ask yourself if you have deep beliefs that you would never change. When you find them, don’t be shy. Embrace them, and let them drive the search for the change you do want.


  1. Thomas J. Watson, Jr., A Business and Its Beliefs, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), pp. 5-6.
  2. Tom Kelley and David Kelley, Creative Confidence (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 21.

Design, Imagination, Creativity and Innovation – How they all Fit Together

Imagination and Creativity Illustrated: Mark Twain at his Writing Desk

Imagination and Creativity Illustrated: Mark Twain at his Writing Desk

These four words today are used often. They’re used interchangeably and some say they’re overused. But they’re also here to stay. So it would be good to get to know them better. Here’s a quick look at how leading experts have defined them.

Design – and Design Thinking

Tim Brown, David Kelley and Tom Kelley from design firm IDEO have been leaders in the movement that transformed “design” as artistic work into “design thinking” as a process. Here is how they describe design thinking:

“Design thinking is a way of finding human needs and creating new solutions using the tools and mindsets of design practitioners.” “Being human-centered is at the core of our innovation process. Deep empathy for people makes our observations powerful sources of inspiration.” Design thinking is thus “a methodology … [it is] our process for creativity and innovation.” 1

To produce design-driven innovation, IDEO developed their methodology into a 4-step process: 1. Inspiration – which is primarily the step of “connecting with the needs, desires, and motivations of real people [to help] inspire and provoke fresh ideas”; 2. Synthesis – which is the challenge of “sense-making” – reframing the problem and observations to identify the possible solutions; 3. Ideation and Experimentation – the step of testing, experimenting and finalizing; and 4. Implementation.


In his book Out of Our Minds, Sir Ken Robinson broke the whole process down into three parts: imagination, creativity and innovation.  Here’s how he described imagination:

“Imagination is the source of our creativity”.  Indeed, “every uniquely human achievement in every field” is the “product of the human imagination.” It’s “the ability to bring to mind things that are not present to our senses. We can imagine things that exist or things that do not exist at all.” It is the “primary gift of human consciousness.” In imagination “we can anticipate many possible futures.” The imagination “liberates us from our immediate present circumstances and holds the constant possibility of transforming the present.” 2

Imagination and creativity “are not the same thing,” Robinson stresses. “Creativity is a step further on from imagination,” and this leads to …


Creativity is a step further on from imagination, because it involves a lot more than just being imaginative. It is:

“the process of having original ideas that have value.” Being creative “involves doing something. It would be odd to describe someone as creative who never did anything. … Creativity involves putting your imagination to work. In a sense, creativity is applied imagination.” 3

Creativity is thus a process, and Robinson says the three key words in the definition are process, original, and value. The process, simply put, is about generating ideas and then sifting the ones that are original and have value from those that don’t.

How does this differ from innovation? “Innovation is applied creativity,” he says, which leads to …


According to Robinson:

“Innovation is the process of putting new ideas into practice. … By definition, innovation is always about introducing something new, or improved, or both and it is usually assumed to be a positive thing.” 4

Peter Drucker, in The Discipline of Innovation defined innovation in similarly broad terms:

“What all successful entrepreneurs have in common is … a commitment to the systematic practice of innovation.” It is the “specific function of entrepreneurship, whether in an existing business, a public service institution or a new venture” Innovation is thus “the effort to create purposeful, focused change in an enterprise’s economic or social potential.” 5

In both definitions, innovation clearly is not just new products or inventions: it’s bringing about purposeful, focused change that has value in practice, in any sphere of society.

Putting It All Together

Putting all the above together, what the above definitions have in common is that innovation is a process.

Whether you call it design thinking or some other term, it’s the process of transforming ideas from your imagination into a creative output or solution that has value and thus amounts to an innovation.

What’s the upshot? The simple upshot is that everyone already has  the first two: You already have an imagination. And you already have a process (it’s whatever you do routinely each day).

The question is whether you are tapping your imagination to  actually become creative, and whether you’re using that creativity to produce new solutions that have value. In other words, whether you learned … to think like an innovator. It’s a choice we all make, as individuals, and as a society, every day.





  1. Tom Kelley and David Kelley, Creative Confidence (New York: Random House, 2013), pp. 21-25
  2. Sir Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds (UK: Capstone Publishing, 2011), pp. 141-42.
  3. Out of Our Minds, p. 142.
  4. Out of Our Minds, p. 142.
  5. Peter F. Drucker, “The Discipline of Innovation” (Harvard Business Review).