THOUGHT LEADERSHIP: Innovation is the Way to Survival

Can today’s companies afford to lose the innovation race? Systems Catalyst finds out at the ISS seminar “In Conversation with Tim Brown – CEO of IDEO”.

“In a world where everything is volatile and everything is complex, the one thing you can do that’s definitely not going to work is, doing the same thing tomorrow as you did yesterday and only doing that. If you can’t be adaptive, agile and if you can’t innovate, then the chances that you’re still going to be around in a decade are very slim.” – Tim Brown

Innovation is the way to survival – this was the key message highlighted by Tim Brown at an “In Conversation with Tim Brown” seminar, held by Institute of Systems Science (ISS), on 19 February 2014. ISS’ Chief of Service Innovation, Stuart Smith hosted this conversation.

Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd of 160 participants from various industries and professions, Tim Brown addressed a fundamental question on what design thinking is. In his view, design thinking is connected to a mindset, which he framed as “creative confidence” – the sum of “the natural talent that humans have to come up with new ideas and the confidence to act on them”.  In order to solve new problems, one would need creative confidence, as well as the toolset for him/her to act upon.

There were many questions during the Question & Answer (Q&A) segment of the event. In reply to two of the most commonly asked questions on design thinking and innovation – Which direction is the Singapore education heading towards? Can innovation be taught? Tim affirmed that innovation could indeed be taught, but added that it is not about the teaching, but the mastering. He alluded to the similarities between innovation and music, where it is not possible to “take a music theory class, and expect to be like Beethoven”.

“One of the important concepts when it comes to teaching design thinking and innovation is that the mode of teaching needs to be experiential. It takes the experience of design thinking to really master it. If you want to teach design thinking, you have to do projects and get your hands dirty. And of course, that makes teaching design thinking expensive, but it is necessary,” Tim said.

 Another popular question was if innovation could be measured. Tim admitted that it is challenging, “Measuring innovation is like trying to measure the quality of life – they are tricky but they matter. The biggest problem with using Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) is that they cover too short a time horizon, not that they are inherently wrong. We have to start being willing to measure over longer time horizons.”

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO (left) with Stuart Smith, Chief of Service Innovation, NUS-ISS 

When asked how Singapore could sustain itself through innovation, Tim had this advice to give, “Singapore has incredible resources to work with – you’re educated and you have plenty of capital to do interesting things. What will sustain Singapore are the skills to innovate, the hunger to innovate and the desire to go and make a dent in the world – not because you want to be number one, but because you are doing what you think matters, and you are incredibly passionate and determined to do so.”

Tim is the CEO of IDEO, ranked one of the top ten most innovative companies in the world. He frequently speaks about the value of design thinking and innovation to business people and designers around the world. He is also the author of “Change by Design”, a book on how design thinking transforms organisations.

“In Conversation with Tim Brown” is one of the ISS Service Innovation Series events, which includes other seminars, master classes and a conference on design thinking and service innovation.

To find out more about other design thinking and service innovation events and courses, please visit

This article is first published in NUS-ISS quarterly e-newsletter, Issue 6 (Apr-Jun 2014).