‘Process vs Outcome’ or ‘The Real World’

Once I had been given my brief on my first day at IDEO, my mentor gave me a short overview of the ‘ideo process’: nothing to unusual – observe, have insights, identify areas of opportunity, and from those insights and within these areas, develop solutions or proposals.

But in practice, the focus of the journey was so different to what i was used to, it positively disoriented me.

In an academic environment – like any of the ones in which ive spent the last 16 or so of my 20 years – it is quite simple. you are given instructions, a question, a topic, or a brief, and at some point, ideally before the deadline, you hand in a piece of work. This, at some later point, is returned to the student with some feedback, a mark, or a grade. Generally, it is only the outcome – the essay, the artwork, the answers – that are marked. Sometimes – increasingly – there is some effort to give some attention to the process or thinking behinf the end result (33% of one of one and 25% of another recent project at University were on a document describing the background work). But even here, the process is seen as a means to an end, as proof that work has gone into the final result, but has only limited value of its own.

So it came as a bit of a shock to the system when I was encouraged – expected? – to spend almost my entire time (75%?) at IDEO either out in the big wide world, researching; at my desk, thinking and staring into space; and occasionally writing some thought or insight onto post-its.

For most of the first week, I did a lot of staring into space. my project was on commuting: an activity confined to the beginning and the end of the working day. So in between, i thought. And stared. I felt lost. Yet, everytime i mentioned this to a passing IDEOer, I was assured that this was good, part of the process, and nothing to worry about. How it should be. All was well. So i continued staring into space. I pushed to proceed the the next stage: outcomes, solutions to the problems I had observed. Yet every time i strayed towards this final leg of the process, I was pulled back – more thinking and prcessing was apparently required. It almost felt like i wasnt making the most of the opportunity I had, but i suppose I wasnt being paid large fees to do all my thinking, as IDEO would be, and thinking can feel remarkably like doing-not-very-much.

My content of my final presentation, at the end of the two weeks, wasnt defined. I kind of assumed i would simply present what I had come out with by the end; show the outcome, if you like. Instead, it was suggested that, like the two weeks that had passed, I spend most of the presentation going over the process. I was given a stack of CDs with several client presentations that IDEO had recently completed – stunning presentations, great flow to them and aesthetically as well as functionally great to watch – and, indeed, the majority went through what the team had done over the course of their work. They showed interviews, summed up observations and findings, and then (and this only sometimes, presumably where the project brief included this stage), and only then, made suggestions/proposals. The focus was squarely on the process, and what had been learnt along the way, rather than what it had all been boiled down to. I was expected to do the same. a good way of looking at the outcomes, it was explained to me, was to consider them as good illustrations of what I had learnt from the process. – the clearest explanation I could have hoped for. The outcome was not ‘The Thing’.

It was a bit of a change to what I was used to, and a very different way of approaching a project. But it works – IDEO’s success as a company is one proof of this, but by the end of my project, i felt i had come a lot further – in what I head learnt, and the usefulness of my outcomes – than I had done in previous projects. It is not, of course, the only way that works, nor is it necessarily the best way. But, from this little experience I’ve had of it, it certainly works better than the purely outcome based process I am used to; even judged on the same criteria, the end result.


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