Creativity, Also Requires the Courage to Act – An interview with Tom Kelley

Tom Kelley, a Partner at Ideo and a Design Guru is one of our esteemed speakers at NILF this year. He agreed to do a call with the NASSCOM team, and share his deep insights on Design Thinking and how it can be made a business imperative. Should it be at all? Most certainly, you will see why, as you read on. 

To initiate the conversation, we asked him about his thoughts on the element of design embedded in the DNA of Indian IT, how deep etc.? He was rather candid in his reply. Though he has the highest regard for Indian IT professionals in the Silicon Valley, however, he didn’t necessarily have sufficient data points to comment on the design element specifically, when in conjunction with Indian IT.

Creative Confidence

It is central to his work and an area which he is most passionate about. He intends to talk about it at NILF as well. It is natural for humans to nurture creative ideas, but that, along with the courage to act, is what Creative Confidence is all about. Organisations can enable this line of thought and action by providing necessary tools and fostering a culture of

Design Thinking has existed for a long time but now we are seeing it being extended beyond business alone, to also include social causes which can solve human challenges with empathy. It requires a lot of research to come up with new ideas, form observations and finally, the appropriate deployment of technology. This is a process which would require a lot of experimentation. It isn’t likely to click at the very first instance.

Creative geniuses are not very different from us, Tom said. They have a much higher hit rate because they have the ability to go on and on, despite crippling failures. At an organisation level, one can’t go on failing of course, and so the leader has to be mindful of the process which should be able to minimize risk. A process which enables very quick and cost effective experiments to be conducted.

The Power of Storytelling

Often it is met with a dash of scepticism, but it can be most impactful and something we must all be willing to adopt, if we are to be persuasive enough in our communication. Tom took us briefly down the ages of Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey and impressed upon us that this idea has been prevalent for a very long time. Like the Pandavas, who had special skills, but it was the combination of all those skills which got them the desired results. The art of storytelling is a skill nonetheless, and when coupled with other skills, it can be very powerful. He spoke about Steve Jobs as well, who was a natural storyteller.  Some of the common elements of storytelling are: that it can be passed on, it is simple, there is an element of unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility and ultimately it has to be self-defining.

Instead of starting off with a ppt straightaway, storytelling can be a powerful alternative. It immediately catches the listener’s attention. Like every other skill, it requires a lot of practice but more importantly, a willingness to even try. The underlying principle is that you have to back it up with data to bring in desired value. Absence of relevant data will only rob it of its desirable impact.

Return on Innovation – a different kind of ROI    

Rather simplistically, in local markets, one has to keep customers happy and this cycle repeats every year. In a global environment too it is much the same, but with other complexities built in and one cannot remain insular to the idea of innovation. The pressure to innovate is tremendous. 3 M has a way of measuring the impact of innovation. What it does is to measure the percentage of revenue contribution from products which were created in the last 5 years. If a certain idea has been found to be successful, be sure, it will be copied. Which means, there will be a plummeting market share (most likely as others get into the fray as well). Someone somewhere is probably doing a better job in copying the idea. This particular measure will be a good indication of knowing whether the company has innovated enough for a particular product.

Growing Ideo with the Best People

He is most proud of the growth story which spans over 3 decades, and has been achieved through the organic route. To be able to employ top people who are always in great demand, one has to create an attractive physical environment and culture, which helps to retain the very best.

AI and the world of Robots

He does not really believe that Humanoids in future will take over humans or their jobs. Also, we may need to stop calling them robots altogether, or re-define what “robots” are really! He narrated an interesting anecdote about his elderly parents who are well into their nineties. Tom’s father would ask his mother every day, “what day is it” which the elderly lady found most annoying, having to answer on a daily basis. So now they have a robot / AI based program (Echo) which does the job. It tells time, date with a human-like interface. In future, the number of robots will simply go up exponentially and perhaps humankind will be tasked with answering the question – do we really need a humanoid butler? It will be human needs that will drive technology and for that, technology need not look human at all.    

Design & Bottom of the Pyramid?

Thirty years back when he started Ideo, the element of design was restricted to physical products. How that has changed over the decades! At Ideo, they have had many discussions on being able to bring in very good design into solutions which are cost effective. He spoke very highly of Arvind Eye Care, which has been able to it successfully. He brought out the concept of a Circular Economy – being able to shepherd global resources and ensuring that depletion is minimized.

Data and Design  

The idea is hybrid as they complement each other. Often, the human element is instilled in data to give it life form. They are never really in conflict, said Tom as he signed off with a promise to catch up at NILF next week. 

Attend the session by Tom Kelley at

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