IDEO - Technology brokering, brainstorming and collaboration

I came across two things about IDEO recently – one is an interview on CBS, and the other was a case study.   The infinitely fertile case study by Hargadon & Sutton (1997) is particularly interesting because it details IDEO’s design process, so if you are interested in design process, technology, brainstorming, or co-design then read on, my friend, read on.

Click image below to watch video: 4min at the bottom of the post.

Hargadon & Sutton boil down IDEO’s methods as ‘technology brokering’ where the firm exploits its network position (of clients and past projects) to gain knowledge of existing technological solutions across various industries and then applies the technologies to different domains where the technology is both functional and novel (creative). The technology brokering is a result of extensive brainstorming sessions.

Many people and organizations consider group brainstorming as a particularly INeffective technique for generating large numbers of creative ideas (Rietzschel, Nijstad, & Stroebe, 2003). But the popularity of brainstorming persists despite repeated findings that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas, and fewer good ideas, than individual brainstormers whose ideas are pooled (so-called nominal groups). Nominal groups time and time again blow interactive brainstorming groups out of the water on number of ideas generated and quality of ideas generated. Furthermore, technology brokering is heavily criticized in creativity research for only producing incrementally creative outcomes.

According to this literature, the IDEO business model (with lots of emphasis on technology brokering and brainstorming) should be an epic failure. But that is not the case. IDEO has seen tremendous success, becoming the largest product development firm in the US and establishing the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford where students are clamoring to get in.

 IDEO Innovation

IDEO Innovation

With the literature being what it is, one might ask if there are other factors leading to IDEO’s success. The company also places large amount of emphasis on diverse groups, interdisciplinary collaboration and working with end users.  Is there a relationship between brainstorming, interdisciplinary collaboration, and working with end users? Could the time spent needing to brainstorm be decreased in a collaborative setting?  In the case of IDEO, where group members are typically not familiar with the [technology, demographics, market viability] clients’ problem, I am led to believe that brainstorming and collaboration lead to better solutions faster. Hargadon & Sutton, (1997) offer the anecdotal story about a fellow designer crashing an IDEO brainstorming meeting because he overheard their dilemma on flexible tubing. The brainstorm crasher then shared his project solution in another industry (evidence of technology brokering) and presented the group with old brainstorming reports that already listed potentially relevant solutions.

Based on the success of IDEO, I would argue that their form of brainstorming (or combinations including brainstorming) is achieving their end goal of generating innovative and creative ideas that solve clients and user’s needs, but their emphasis on collaboration and using the users  might be something worth investigating.

Images Courtsey of

Video Courtsey of CBS


Hargadon, A., & Sutton, R. I. (1997).  Technology brokering and innovation in a product development firm. Administrative Science Quarterly, 42, 716-749.

Rietzschel, E. F., Nijstad, B. A., & Stroebe, W. (2006). Productivity is not enough: A comparison of interactive and nominal brainstorming groups on idea generation and selection. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 244-251.