IDEO is Changing the Way Managers Think About Thinking

IDEO’s human-centered design thinking is a systematic methodology used to help create new products and services. The best part: The company is open about how it works and how to adopt it. Professor Ryan Buell explores this process through the example of Cineplanet, a leading movie cinema chain in Peru. The company hired IDEO to help them determine how to better align their operating model with the needs of its customers. This case study may change the way you think about thinking.

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Brian Kenny: In the 1920s, air conditioning debuted in movie theaters across the country. It was a luxury available in very few places at the time, and people flocked to the cinema for the comfort as much as the show. In the 30s, theaters held lotteries and gave away kitchenware. In the 50s, when television was stealing the show, cinemas battled back with wide screens and 3D movies. And if you haven't been to the movies lately, get ready to recline in luxury with soft leather seats and chair-side food service. The truth is, movie theaters have long been innovating on the customer experience in an effort to stay ahead of the disruptive forces at work in the entertainment industry.

So, where will the next big idea come from? Today, we'll hear from Assistant Professor Ryan Buell about his case entitled IDEO: Human-Centered Service Design. I'm your host, Brian Kenny, and you're listening to Cold Call.

Professor Buell is an expert in managing service organizations. His research investigates the interactions between service businesses and their customers and how operational choices affect customer behavior.

Ryan, thanks for joining me today.

Ryan Buell: Thank you, Brian.

Kenny: I've heard of IDEO, but I never really looked into what they do and how they do it. Of course, it's centered around the entertainment industry--who doesn’t like to talk about the movies?

Buell: Absolutely.

Kenny: Set the case up for us. Who's the protagonist and what's on her mind?

Buell: The protagonist is Mildreth Moldonado, and Mildreth was the chief marketing officer and the chief financial officer of Cineplanet, which is the largest movie chain in Peru. Mildreth has had an interesting two months when the case opens. Fernando Soriano, the CEO of Cineplanet, has asked Mildreth to take part in a project for Cineplanet, to join a group of IDEO designers to reinvent the movie-going experience for the emerging middle class in Peru.

Now Mildreth has been at this process now for two months. They spent the first month in the field, talking to customers, talking to stakeholders, trying to learn all about the movies and the role that the movies and cinema plays in the lives of people in Peru. They used that opportunity to learn about the context. Then they got together and started to do concepting. They started to take all of the lessons that they had learned from the field, all the problems people experience around movies in the field, and they said, "How can we come up with concepts, ideas that might start to solve some of those problems?"

They went at that for a month, and it's been generative and exciting. There's a lot of ambiguity that Mildreth had to embrace, which was something that she hadn’t experienced before, but here she is at the end of the concepting phase. They have some concepts that they're ready to now take to the board and share with the board and say, "We'd like to actually try some of these things in the real world, in one of our cinemas with some of our real customers."

Mildreth is sitting there getting ready for this pitch, reflecting on the experiences that she's had out in the world, all the things she's learned about her customers, but also all the things she's learned about the process of creativity. Mildreth has in her gut this feeling that this isn't just about implementing some new ideas. This could be a complete organizational transformation. It could change the way that we learn about our customers and change our orientation as an organization going forward.

Kenny: And that’s a little scary for Mildreth, right?

Buell: Absolutely.

Kenny: She's anticipating what her colleagues are going to say about this. What made you decide to write this case? This is interesting in that it's a cinema chain in Peru… Why did you decide to write about this particular event?

Buell: It was a confluence of reasons. As you mentioned in the introduction to my research, I focus on how operations can be designed to better engage customers. That’s a question that is deeply fascinating to me, and here's this company, IDEO, that is doing this work all the time. They have a process in place where they're taking existing businesses and they're trying to reimagine them, “how might we do this differently?”

They have an incredible track record for producing new and innovative ideas, both in products but also in services. For me, that was an interesting question. How do you do this and can we take a lid off of it? Can we learn about this? Could I personally learn something about this for my own research, but could we also expose our students to this in a way that might shape their experiences when they go into the world. Eighty-six percent of our students last year went into service businesses, so this seemed like a big opportunity.

On the other side of it, I was an MBA student here at HBS myself a number of years ago. Back in 2000, Stefan Tomke wrote a beautiful case on IDEO. IDEO was a much younger company, and they were focused almost exclusively on product design. In the 14 years between the time that Stefan wrote his case and the time that this case was written, IDEO innovated on its own process. It had come to realize that the process that it used, human-centered design to create interesting breakthrough products, applied equally well in lots of other contexts, and increasingly their portfolio was shifting over to services, which has a whole series of different challenges. I thought this will be interesting for us to study, too.

Kenny: I bet many of our listeners don’t know about some of the big ideas that IDEO has been behind. Can you just check off a few of those?

Buell: IDEO designed the first Apple mouse for the Apple computer. They designed one of the first laptop computers. They designed the Palm V PDA, if you remember Palm Pilot. On the service side, they were the minds behind the “Keep the Change” program that Bank of America had. They’ve been innovative on both sides of the equation.

Kenny: Did you spend time with the folks at IDEO when you wrote the case?

Buell: I did, and they were incredibly gracious and gave us a lot of access. The project that we focused on, this project around Cineplanet, was a three-month project. We visited three times during the project. To add to the complexity, we brought a film crew.

We were going into the homes of customers with them as they were conducting these interviews. We were there in San Francisco when they were going through concepting. We went back to Lima to rejoin them when they went into a real theater and prototyped their ideas. It was an incredible experience.

Kenny: Can we talk a little bit about the landscape of the entertainment space in Peru and Cineplanet and how they came into being?

Buell: Cineplanet was started in 1998 by three (HBS) MBA students that were Peruvians themselves. They had in their mind that they wanted to go back to Peru, and they wanted to do a startup and were trying to figure out, well, what might we do? They were enthusiastic about movies, and they saw the movie space as an opportunity in Peru. Over the 10 years leading up to them starting Cineplanet, the number of moviegoers in Peru had fallen from 15 million to three million.

Kenny: Wow.

Buell: There had been a huge drop-off. They looked at this industry, and they said, "This is a market where we see growth potential, and we think consumers are underserved here." They went in small. They bought a three-cinema chain that was based in Lima, and they invested in it deeply and built it out in Peru, and then they built it into Chile. They invested in technology. They were the first to be able to bring 3D movies to Peru. They invested in digital distribution, but they also, as you described in the introduction, were deeply thoughtful about the experience of going to the movies.

If you think about some of the most luxurious movie theaters we have in the United States, when I went down just for the first visit and went to one of their existing theaters, before they started doing any innovation, it was the nicest cinema I had ever been in. They had reclining seats, massive screens. They had service. They would come and they would bring you food. They had a full bar. The food was delicious. They had innovated in so many ways and were delivering an experience already that I thought was superior to the experiences that most cinemas had in the United States. Yet, they saw an opportunity to innovate and to reinvent themselves.

Kenny: Yeah, so kudos to them for finding a way to sort of stay ahead of the curve by not resting on their laurels. It sounds, by the way, like a far cry from what I remember as a kid with your feet sticking to the floor and seats that would fold up on you.

Buell: Yeah, flying M&Ms.

Kenny: They turned to IDEO. Let's talk a little bit about what the engagement was for IDEO in this equation. I'm also curious about the makeup of (people) who work at IDEO. You go into that a little bit in the case. It's a very unique environment, and they look for a unique type of person.

Buell: IDEO is fascinating in the way that they think about people, the way that they think about recruiting. They describe their ideal employee as a T-shaped person. The horizontal stroke of the T means that this is a person that is deeply interested and able to engage fluently in lots and lots of different topics, but the vertical stroke of the T is their expertise, their deep expertise in one area.

They bring in a lot of different T-shaped people with different vertical strokes in different areas. You might have an architect working alongside a social psychologist, working alongside a sociologist, working alongside a business person, working with an engineer. All of these people have different depths of expertise in different areas, and they're bringing their own unique lenses to the problem. But that horizontal stroke means that they're going to be able to work and riff off of one another and collaborate in a really beautiful way.

Diego Rodriguez, who is a partner in the Palo Alto office, said something that stuck in my mind. He said, "You know, we're looking for people who have accomplished great things together," so that can mean that they were on a terrific soccer team or they won a state championship, or it could mean that they were in an amazing band when they were in high school or a terrible band when they were in high school. These are people who thrive on creating things together, and then they create an environment around those people that just makes the atmosphere electric.

Kenny: What draws somebody to work at IDEO? How do you get an opportunity to even be part of that kind of an organization?

Buell: They receive thousands of applications every year is what I'm told, and I think the way to do it is to apply on their site.

Kenny: I did the math, by the way, because you give the numbers in the case. I think they had 17,000 applications for 63 openings. That gives you a .003% chance. That’s harder than getting into Harvard, I'm pretty sure.

Buell: It's very competitive to get a job at IDEO, but I think that that is one of the reasons that they're able to do the job that they do so well. They're very, very selective. They're trying to find people who are deeply enthusiastic about ideas, who get excited about different problems, and that thrive on diving into these problems and seeing something incredible emerge from their effort, going in with a clean sheet of paper, embracing ambiguity as a team, with the confidence and optimism that you're going to come out on the other side with something that’s really exciting and that you'll be proud of.

Kenny: They bring the clients along. They sort of embed them in that process. How did they work with Cineplanet?

Buell: They don’t do it for every project, but in many projects, and the Cineplanet engagement is one example of this, there's someone from the company that goes along on the adventure with the team. I think for Mildreth, this was very, very eye-opening. Here she is the chief marketing officer and the chief financial officer sitting in the living room of a customer who's describing his mother smuggling a Frappuccino and a hamburger in her purse into the cinema because she didn’t like the food options. They get exposed to questions and perspectives that bring them out of the C-suite and that put them directly in touch with the customers and the challenges that those customers are facing, things that they would never, ever hear or experience.

Then they go into the concepting phase and they have the opportunity to basically be unbound and creative and generative in their brainstorming. Rather than thinking about implementation challenges, they're able to think more expansively, "How might we solve this challenge that was revealed to us in the field that our customers are experiencing?" That unbinds managers in a really beautiful way that often isn't our stance when we're in a meeting trying to identify how we are going to address this problem.

Then they take those concepts and they actually bring them out in the field, and they test them with real customers. They’ll run experiments and learn from how customers engage, and then they’ll make changes and then they’ll iterate and they’ll make it better and better. There's this systematic process that the managers have an opportunity to go along on that journey. They learn a lot about their organization, they learn a lot about their customers, but they also learn a lot about the process of creativity.

Kenny: One interesting thing the case highlights is how they approach these studies in real time. They don’t send you a survey after you waited in line for a half an hour to get into the theater. They survey while you're standing in line.

Buell: They care very much about the context in which they're engaging with customers or prospective customers. For example, in the case, we have a video that we shot in the home of a prospective customer. He's actually a customer of a competing cinema chain, but this is a guy who had a home theater system, who loved movies, and it was really important for them to conduct the interview in his home, one, because he would be comfortable there; two, because so many of the decisions he makes around movies and the way to consume cinema in his own home happened there.

If he would bring up something, a challenge he faced or a thought that came to his mind or an example of how he thinks about, for example, watching previews, he'd say, "Well, you know, I watch previews on my phone." They say, "Oh, can you get your phone? Can we do it together?" They'd actually be able to experience the way that he interacts with movies with him, on his terms, in his way, and see through the lens of his own eyes how he experiences that interaction.

Kenny: What you're saying sounds very sensible, but also sounds like it should be common practice for people or organizations that provide services or build products to do this kind of thing. How common is it?

Buell: It's not as common as you'd think. It makes complete sense. But I think that the logic that goes on often among managers is, "We have an idea and we know our business better than anyone. Who is the customer to tell us how our business should be? We deeply obsess over this. The way that we'll test drive it is we'll design a survey, and we'll ask people, you know, 'How are we doing on this dimension?'"

The reality is you might ask about one dimension, but there are a hundred dimensions you didn’t even think to ask because you didn’t go to the field in the first place and have this opportunity to really genuinely, inductively learn from your customers.

Kenny: Surveying is a very common practice, but going into the field and actually seeing it and talking to somebody in real time, particularly probably when they're having a frustrating moment with your product or service, is probably much more eye-opening.

Buell: Absolutely. If you can engage them in that moment of pain or engage them in that moment of excitement, you can see a completely new perspective on the challenges, but also the opportunities that face your business.

Kenny: You’ve discussed this case in class with MBA students?

Buell: I have. We've had the opportunity to teach the case to over 3,500 students. We've taught it at HBS to first- and second-year MBA students. We've also taught it to executives, and some of my colleagues have gone outside of HBS and taught this case to undergraduate students as well.

Kenny: I'm curious as to how they all come at it, because executives obviously are older, and I can say that because I'm older. You’ve got your MBA students, and then you’ve even got sort of rising MBA students perhaps. Do they all come at it slightly differently?

Buell: They do come at it differently. Everyone, I think, brings their own lens to the challenge of how do we innovate, how do we create new ideas. One of the things that’s really fascinating from my perspective is to go into an MBA classroom here at HBS, and I often will start the conversation just with the question, "How many of you consider yourselves to be creative?" The shocking thing for me the first time I asked the question--and now I've seen this again and again…--very few people will raise their hand and confess to feeling like they're a creative person.

Buell: When you dig a little bit more and ask who considers themselves to be creative or not, you say, "Think back to the last time you've had a great idea," and have them describe the process used to come up with that idea. They often describe bolts out of the blue, these fleeting sources of inspiration that just struck them one day when they weren't expecting it. I think that might in a large way explain why so few people feel like they're creative, because they don’t feel like they have any real control over that process.

What's incredible is that when you actually take the cover off the ball of IDEO, these are people that are creating new ideas all the time, you realize that it's not bolts out of the blue, that there's a systematic process at play that they use to create new products and new services that are going to be meaningful for customers. And taking the cover off, actually learning about that process, is something that I found students to be absolutely fascinated by, but also unleashed by, because they no longer feel shackled to their own kind of haphazard theory of the way to create new ideas. It certainly changed the way that I think about generating ideas, new research ideas, new topics, new ways of teaching. This is a case that in a very tangible sense has changed the way I think about thinking.

Kenny: Do you think it's possible for an organization to learn how to do this themselves, or is there something magical about bringing in people that are objective, that approach it differently?

Buell: I think organizations can absolutely learn these principles themselves. IDEO was very open with us and they've been very open outside of HBS as well about what their process is, and it's a process that any organization can adopt, and this case is just one way to learn about that process.

Kenny: Which they call sort of a human-centered approach to design.

Buell: yes, human-centered design or design thinking.

Kenny: Thanks so much, Ryan, for joining us.

Buell: It's been my pleasure. Thanks, Brian.

Kenny: You can find the IDEO case along with thousands of others in the HBS case collection at HBR.org. I'm Brian Kenny, and you've been listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

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Brian Kenny: In the 1920s, air conditioning debuted in movie theaters across the country. It was a luxury available in very few places at the time, and people flocked to the cinema for the comfort as much as the show. In the 30s, theaters held lotteries and gave away kitchenware. In the 50s, when television was stealing the show, cinemas battled back with wide screens and 3D movies. And if you haven't been to the movies lately, get ready to recline in luxury with soft leather seats and chair-side food service. The truth is, movie theaters have long been innovating on the customer experience in an effort to stay ahead of the disruptive forces at work in the entertainment industry.

So, where will the next big idea come from? Today, we'll hear from Assistant Professor Ryan Buell about his case entitled IDEO: Human-Centered Service Design. I'm your host, Brian Kenny, and you're listening to Cold Call.

Professor Buell is an expert in managing service organizations. His research investigates the interactions between service businesses and their customers and how operational choices affect customer behavior.

Ryan, thanks for joining me today.

Ryan Buell: Thank you, Brian.

Kenny: I've heard of IDEO, but I never really looked into what they do and how they do it. Of course, it's centered around the entertainment industry--who doesn’t like to talk about the movies?

Buell: Absolutely.

Kenny: Set the case up for us. Who's the protagonist and what's on her mind?

Buell: The protagonist is Mildreth Moldonado, and Mildreth was the chief marketing officer and the chief financial officer of Cineplanet, which is the largest movie chain in Peru. Mildreth has had an interesting two months when the case opens. Fernando Soriano, the CEO of Cineplanet, has asked Mildreth to take part in a project for Cineplanet, to join a group of IDEO designers to reinvent the movie-going experience for the emerging middle class in Peru.

Now Mildreth has been at this process now for two months. They spent the first month in the field, talking to customers, talking to stakeholders, trying to learn all about the movies and the role that the movies and cinema plays in the lives of people in Peru. They used that opportunity to learn about the context. Then they got together and started to do concepting. They started to take all of the lessons that they had learned from the field, all the problems people experience around movies in the field, and they said, "How can we come up with concepts, ideas that might start to solve some of those problems?"

They went at that for a month, and it's been generative and exciting. There's a lot of ambiguity that Mildreth had to embrace, which was something that she hadn’t experienced before, but here she is at the end of the concepting phase. They have some concepts that they're ready to now take to the board and share with the board and say, "We'd like to actually try some of these things in the real world, in one of our cinemas with some of our real customers."

Mildreth is sitting there getting ready for this pitch, reflecting on the experiences that she's had out in the world, all the things she's learned about her customers, but also all the things she's learned about the process of creativity. Mildreth has in her gut this feeling that this isn't just about implementing some new ideas. This could be a complete organizational transformation. It could change the way that we learn about our customers and change our orientation as an organization going forward.

Kenny: And that’s a little scary for Mildreth, right?

Buell: Absolutely.

Kenny: She's anticipating what her colleagues are going to say about this. What made you decide to write this case? This is interesting in that it's a cinema chain in Peru… Why did you decide to write about this particular event?

Buell: It was a confluence of reasons. As you mentioned in the introduction to my research, I focus on how operations can be designed to better engage customers. That’s a question that is deeply fascinating to me, and here's this company, IDEO, that is doing this work all the time. They have a process in place where they're taking existing businesses and they're trying to reimagine them, “how might we do this differently?”

They have an incredible track record for producing new and innovative ideas, both in products but also in services. For me, that was an interesting question. How do you do this and can we take a lid off of it? Can we learn about this? Could I personally learn something about this for my own research, but could we also expose our students to this in a way that might shape their experiences when they go into the world. Eighty-six percent of our students last year went into service businesses, so this seemed like a big opportunity.

On the other side of it, I was an MBA student here at HBS myself a number of years ago. Back in 2000, Stefan Tomke wrote a beautiful case on IDEO. IDEO was a much younger company, and they were focused almost exclusively on product design. In the 14 years between the time that Stefan wrote his case and the time that this case was written, IDEO innovated on its own process. It had come to realize that the process that it used, human-centered design to create interesting breakthrough products, applied equally well in lots of other contexts, and increasingly their portfolio was shifting over to services, which has a whole series of different challenges. I thought this will be interesting for us to study, too.

Kenny: I bet many of our listeners don’t know about some of the big ideas that IDEO has been behind. Can you just check off a few of those?

Buell: IDEO designed the first Apple mouse for the Apple computer. They designed one of the first laptop computers. They designed the Palm V PDA, if you remember Palm Pilot. On the service side, they were the minds behind the “Keep the Change” program that Bank of America had. They’ve been innovative on both sides of the equation.

Kenny: Did you spend time with the folks at IDEO when you wrote the case?

Buell: I did, and they were incredibly gracious and gave us a lot of access. The project that we focused on, this project around Cineplanet, was a three-month project. We visited three times during the project. To add to the complexity, we brought a film crew.

We were going into the homes of customers with them as they were conducting these interviews. We were there in San Francisco when they were going through concepting. We went back to Lima to rejoin them when they went into a real theater and prototyped their ideas. It was an incredible experience.

Kenny: Can we talk a little bit about the landscape of the entertainment space in Peru and Cineplanet and how they came into being?

Buell: Cineplanet was started in 1998 by three (HBS) MBA students that were Peruvians themselves. They had in their mind that they wanted to go back to Peru, and they wanted to do a startup and were trying to figure out, well, what might we do? They were enthusiastic about movies, and they saw the movie space as an opportunity in Peru. Over the 10 years leading up to them starting Cineplanet, the number of moviegoers in Peru had fallen from 15 million to three million.

Kenny: Wow.

Buell: There had been a huge drop-off. They looked at this industry, and they said, "This is a market where we see growth potential, and we think consumers are underserved here." They went in small. They bought a three-cinema chain that was based in Lima, and they invested in it deeply and built it out in Peru, and then they built it into Chile. They invested in technology. They were the first to be able to bring 3D movies to Peru. They invested in digital distribution, but they also, as you described in the introduction, were deeply thoughtful about the experience of going to the movies.

If you think about some of the most luxurious movie theaters we have in the United States, when I went down just for the first visit and went to one of their existing theaters, before they started doing any innovation, it was the nicest cinema I had ever been in. They had reclining seats, massive screens. They had service. They would come and they would bring you food. They had a full bar. The food was delicious. They had innovated in so many ways and were delivering an experience already that I thought was superior to the experiences that most cinemas had in the United States. Yet, they saw an opportunity to innovate and to reinvent themselves.

Kenny: Yeah, so kudos to them for finding a way to sort of stay ahead of the curve by not resting on their laurels. It sounds, by the way, like a far cry from what I remember as a kid with your feet sticking to the floor and seats that would fold up on you.

Buell: Yeah, flying M&Ms.

Kenny: They turned to IDEO. Let's talk a little bit about what the engagement was for IDEO in this equation. I'm also curious about the makeup of (people) who work at IDEO. You go into that a little bit in the case. It's a very unique environment, and they look for a unique type of person.

Buell: IDEO is fascinating in the way that they think about people, the way that they think about recruiting. They describe their ideal employee as a T-shaped person. The horizontal stroke of the T means that this is a person that is deeply interested and able to engage fluently in lots and lots of different topics, but the vertical stroke of the T is their expertise, their deep expertise in one area.

They bring in a lot of different T-shaped people with different vertical strokes in different areas. You might have an architect working alongside a social psychologist, working alongside a sociologist, working alongside a business person, working with an engineer. All of these people have different depths of expertise in different areas, and they're bringing their own unique lenses to the problem. But that horizontal stroke means that they're going to be able to work and riff off of one another and collaborate in a really beautiful way.

Diego Rodriguez, who is a partner in the Palo Alto office, said something that stuck in my mind. He said, "You know, we're looking for people who have accomplished great things together," so that can mean that they were on a terrific soccer team or they won a state championship, or it could mean that they were in an amazing band when they were in high school or a terrible band when they were in high school. These are people who thrive on creating things together, and then they create an environment around those people that just makes the atmosphere electric.

Kenny: What draws somebody to work at IDEO? How do you get an opportunity to even be part of that kind of an organization?

Buell: They receive thousands of applications every year is what I'm told, and I think the way to do it is to apply on their site.

Kenny: I did the math, by the way, because you give the numbers in the case. I think they had 17,000 applications for 63 openings. That gives you a .003% chance. That’s harder than getting into Harvard, I'm pretty sure.

Buell: It's very competitive to get a job at IDEO, but I think that that is one of the reasons that they're able to do the job that they do so well. They're very, very selective. They're trying to find people who are deeply enthusiastic about ideas, who get excited about different problems, and that thrive on diving into these problems and seeing something incredible emerge from their effort, going in with a clean sheet of paper, embracing ambiguity as a team, with the confidence and optimism that you're going to come out on the other side with something that’s really exciting and that you'll be proud of.

Kenny: They bring the clients along. They sort of embed them in that process. How did they work with Cineplanet?

Buell: They don’t do it for every project, but in many projects, and the Cineplanet engagement is one example of this, there's someone from the company that goes along on the adventure with the team. I think for Mildreth, this was very, very eye-opening. Here she is the chief marketing officer and the chief financial officer sitting in the living room of a customer who's describing his mother smuggling a Frappuccino and a hamburger in her purse into the cinema because she didn’t like the food options. They get exposed to questions and perspectives that bring them out of the C-suite and that put them directly in touch with the customers and the challenges that those customers are facing, things that they would never, ever hear or experience.

Then they go into the concepting phase and they have the opportunity to basically be unbound and creative and generative in their brainstorming. Rather than thinking about implementation challenges, they're able to think more expansively, "How might we solve this challenge that was revealed to us in the field that our customers are experiencing?" That unbinds managers in a really beautiful way that often isn't our stance when we're in a meeting trying to identify how we are going to address this problem.

Then they take those concepts and they actually bring them out in the field, and they test them with real customers. They’ll run experiments and learn from how customers engage, and then they’ll make changes and then they’ll iterate and they’ll make it better and better. There's this systematic process that the managers have an opportunity to go along on that journey. They learn a lot about their organization, they learn a lot about their customers, but they also learn a lot about the process of creativity.

Kenny: One interesting thing the case highlights is how they approach these studies in real time. They don’t send you a survey after you waited in line for a half an hour to get into the theater. They survey while you're standing in line.

Buell: They care very much about the context in which they're engaging with customers or prospective customers. For example, in the case, we have a video that we shot in the home of a prospective customer. He's actually a customer of a competing cinema chain, but this is a guy who had a home theater system, who loved movies, and it was really important for them to conduct the interview in his home, one, because he would be comfortable there; two, because so many of the decisions he makes around movies and the way to consume cinema in his own home happened there.

If he would bring up something, a challenge he faced or a thought that came to his mind or an example of how he thinks about, for example, watching previews, he'd say, "Well, you know, I watch previews on my phone." They say, "Oh, can you get your phone? Can we do it together?" They'd actually be able to experience the way that he interacts with movies with him, on his terms, in his way, and see through the lens of his own eyes how he experiences that interaction.

Kenny: What you're saying sounds very sensible, but also sounds like it should be common practice for people or organizations that provide services or build products to do this kind of thing. How common is it?

Buell: It's not as common as you'd think. It makes complete sense. But I think that the logic that goes on often among managers is, "We have an idea and we know our business better than anyone. Who is the customer to tell us how our business should be? We deeply obsess over this. The way that we'll test drive it is we'll design a survey, and we'll ask people, you know, 'How are we doing on this dimension?'"

The reality is you might ask about one dimension, but there are a hundred dimensions you didn’t even think to ask because you didn’t go to the field in the first place and have this opportunity to really genuinely, inductively learn from your customers.

Kenny: Surveying is a very common practice, but going into the field and actually seeing it and talking to somebody in real time, particularly probably when they're having a frustrating moment with your product or service, is probably much more eye-opening.

Buell: Absolutely. If you can engage them in that moment of pain or engage them in that moment of excitement, you can see a completely new perspective on the challenges, but also the opportunities that face your business.

Kenny: You’ve discussed this case in class with MBA students?

Buell: I have. We've had the opportunity to teach the case to over 3,500 students. We've taught it at HBS to first- and second-year MBA students. We've also taught it to executives, and some of my colleagues have gone outside of HBS and taught this case to undergraduate students as well.

Kenny: I'm curious as to how they all come at it, because executives obviously are older, and I can say that because I'm older. You’ve got your MBA students, and then you’ve even got sort of rising MBA students perhaps. Do they all come at it slightly differently?

Buell: They do come at it differently. Everyone, I think, brings their own lens to the challenge of how do we innovate, how do we create new ideas. One of the things that’s really fascinating from my perspective is to go into an MBA classroom here at HBS, and I often will start the conversation just with the question, "How many of you consider yourselves to be creative?" The shocking thing for me the first time I asked the question--and now I've seen this again and again…--very few people will raise their hand and confess to feeling like they're a creative person.

Buell: When you dig a little bit more and ask who considers themselves to be creative or not, you say, "Think back to the last time you've had a great idea," and have them describe the process used to come up with that idea. They often describe bolts out of the blue, these fleeting sources of inspiration that just struck them one day when they weren't expecting it. I think that might in a large way explain why so few people feel like they're creative, because they don’t feel like they have any real control over that process.

What's incredible is that when you actually take the cover off the ball of IDEO, these are people that are creating new ideas all the time, you realize that it's not bolts out of the blue, that there's a systematic process at play that they use to create new products and new services that are going to be meaningful for customers. And taking the cover off, actually learning about that process, is something that I found students to be absolutely fascinated by, but also unleashed by, because they no longer feel shackled to their own kind of haphazard theory of the way to create new ideas. It certainly changed the way that I think about generating ideas, new research ideas, new topics, new ways of teaching. This is a case that in a very tangible sense has changed the way I think about thinking.

Kenny: Do you think it's possible for an organization to learn how to do this themselves, or is there something magical about bringing in people that are objective, that approach it differently?

Buell: I think organizations can absolutely learn these principles themselves. IDEO was very open with us and they've been very open outside of HBS as well about what their process is, and it's a process that any organization can adopt, and this case is just one way to learn about that process.

Kenny: Which they call sort of a human-centered approach to design.

Buell: yes, human-centered design or design thinking.

Kenny: Thanks so much, Ryan, for joining us.

Buell: It's been my pleasure. Thanks, Brian.

Kenny: You can find the IDEO case along with thousands of others in the HBS case collection at HBR.org. I'm Brian Kenny, and you've been listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

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