Posted by: Liz Massey | March 20, 2010

Recommended Reading: “The 10 Faces of Innovation,” by Tom Kelley

I had the pleasure recently of reading a library copy of “The 10 Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Beating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization.” I’m a little surprised I hadn’t run across this book earlier in my development of Creative Liberty – I’ve been working on the site since 2007, and the book was published in 2005. But in any case, the book was well worth the wait.

At first, I was a little skeptical of the book’s premise of dividing the creative act into 10 “faces” or personas. I’ve been reluctant to read books on the theme of “Innovate Like (insert famous person’s name here)” because I feel they encourage would-be innovators to borrow their creative mojo from someone else, rather than generating it from within. But “The 10 Faces of Innovation” is different. The personas are roles that anyone can adapt and make their own when they decide to create with that perspective in mind. Kelley creates descriptive, not proscriptive, portraits of the roles and how they are employed at the IDEO design firm, where he works as general manager.

As noted in the book’s subtitle, most folks are only familiar with one persona in relation to the creative process: that of the Devil’s Advocate, who questions the value of every new idea.

Kelley is clear that this role, while pervasive and well recognized in corporate America, is positively toxic to the innovation process:

“Why is this persona so damning? Because the Devil’s Advocate encourages idea-wreckers to assume the most negative possible perspective, one that sees only the downside, the problems, the disasters-in-waiting. Once those floodgates open, they can drown a new initiative …”

In place of the Devil’s Advocate, Kelley proposes a team of 10 personas that can nurture an idea from initial inspiration to final execution. I resonated strongly with a number of his personas, as I recognized these were roles which I love to play and/or I play very well when I’m creating something. (The descriptions that follow are summarized from the book’s website.)

The Experimenter, who celebrates the process, not the tool, testing and retesting potential scenarios to make ideas tangible. A calculated risk-taker, this person models everything from products to services to proposals in order to efficiently reach a solution.

The Cross-Pollinator, who draws associations and connections between seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts to break new ground. Armed with a wide set of interests, the Cross-Pollinator brings in big ideas from the outside world to enliven their organization.

The Experience Architect, a person who relentlessly focuses on creating remarkable individual experiences. Whether an architect or a sushi chef, the Experience Architect maps out how to turn something ordinary into something distinctive—even delightful—every chance they get.

The Storyteller, who captures the imagination of his or her audience with compelling narratives of initiative, hard work, and innovation. This person goes beyond oral tradition to work in whatever medium best fits their skills and message: video, narrative, animation, even comic strips.

I also learned about several roles that are less intuitive to me, but I can agree are critical to the innovation process and about which I’d like to learn more.

The Hurdler, a tireless problem-solver who gets a charge out of tackling something that’s never been done before. When confronted with a challenge, the Hurdler gracefully sidesteps the obstacle while maintaining a quiet, positive determination. (My personal note: I don’t think any organization or individual creator can have too much Hurdler in them!)

The Set Designer, who views every day as another chance to liven up their workspace. They promote energetic, inspired cultures by creating work environments that celebrate the individual and stimulate creativity.

The Director, who has an acute understanding of the bigger picture and a firm grasp on the pulse of their organization. The Director is talented at setting the stage, targeting opportunities, bringing out the best in their players, and getting things done.

Several chapters have sidebars that highlight an IDEO case study relevant to the persona in question or challenge the reader to put the insights contained in that “face” into action. I would have liked to have seen a sidebar like that in every chapter, but it might have clashed with the book’s tone, which is really similar to an informal presentation by Kelley, rather than a workshop or a lesson in how to apply the personas.

One thing I really liked is that Kelley doesn’t emphasize a one-size-fits-all approach. When discussing the Experience Architect persona, he notes that IDEO initially tried to redesign a kid’s store using the “customer journey” story frame, and it just didn’t work—research with potential child customers made it clear they didn’t approach shopping that way. He compares the faith to go with real-life data instead of preconceived notions to that of a ship’s navigator whose compass is broken.

“When the stars in the night sky suggest the compass is broken, the experienced navigator forges a path with the best tools he can find. That, to me, is the strongest methodology: the independence of mind to draw your map and tell your story from the conditions you encounter, not the preconceptions we often bring to a project.”

I also enjoyed reading about the Set Designer persona, as it reinforced that the physical setting for one’s creativity matters. This tracks pretty well research I encountered while writing a story about office design – companies are discovering that building collaborative space that allows for natural casual interactions (stopping and sitting down for coffee, say, or outdoor paths that pass by tables that can allow writing or drawing to take place on them) helps build team coherency and facilitates work on important revenue-generating projects.

Overall, “The 10 Faces of Innovation” is a must for every creative person’s bookshelf. It will help you determine which roles vital to the creative process could benefit from extra support, and which roles are natural strengths for you. It also helps remind the reader that one is “creative” or “innovative” at many stages in the process of bringing ideas to life, not just when they have pen to paper, brush to canvas, or are crafting a prototype in the workshop.

Learn more

The 10 Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Beating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization by Tom Kelley. Currency Books, 2005.

The book also has a companion website.


  1. […] Recommended Reading: “The 10 Faces of Innovation,” by Tom Kelley […]

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