December 3, 2019

What working with companies like Apple and Ikea has taught IDEO about innovation

Interview with Axel Unger, partner at IDEO.

Kimberly Eynon

7 min read

From designing the first mouse for Apple to helping Ikea create the kitchen of the future, IDEO, the global innovation and design firm has created products and concepts for a huge number of big companies.

Axel Unger, IDEO's German-based partner, tells Sifted what he has learned about innovation over the many years he has been working with companies. Some of his advice includes: Accept you will never know all the answers, don't get caught up in the jargon and never forget that innovation is a people-centric process rather than a one-time tech change.

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What do you think will be the biggest threat for IDEO in the next 5-10 years? 

I encourage myself, and any other business leaders, to try to shift their perspective of uncertainty and fear about the future into something proactive, optimistic and creative. While the pace of change seems to accelerate each year, so do the opportunities.


I think the biggest opportunity for IDEO is to have real impact at a systems level. Many of the biggest challenges in the world —when it comes to health, sustainability, education, the future of work, and many more — will only be solved by bridging industries, and collaborating across coalitions of companies and organisations.

What are you most excited about in the next 5-10 years?

I’m particularly interested in how new technologies can help us empower people to help themselves, with even the trickiest of challenges. For example, using data and AI to help people successfully self-manage diabetes, or navigate a career and financial future in the face of unprecedented societal change.

I also think it’s important to see uncertainty and fear of the future as an opportunity. Leaders need to make themselves more future fit by becoming more customer-centred, digitally fluent and creative, in order to better explore and exploit new opportunities, serve their customer needs and ultimately succeed.

Today, many companies feel they are purely reacting to the pace of change, and perceive the future to be mostly full of threats and challenges, but there is tremendous opportunity out there.

How do you challenge yourself and your team to ‘think outside the box’?

We start by asking ourselves what success looks like, and how to have the biggest impact and best outcomes for our clients. This tends to automatically imply that we will need to go beyond the obvious solutions.

At IDEO, we encourage a culture of curiosity and aim to constantly question and challenge one another as designers. By bringing together team members from a variety of disciplines and perspectives, and taking a very hands-on, horizontal approach to problem-solving, we can stimulate creativity and come up with the best solutions.

Innovation is about fast-paced experimentation; it’s a process of trial and error, and remembering this is a crucial part of finding solutions. It is important to embrace failure as well as success.

What is currently not working in corporate innovation?

We’re seeing a substantial movement toward corporate innovation at the moment, but too often companies see this as one-time change management, rather than a sustained long-term investment.

Often the focus ends up being on mechanics, business processes, technology or quick-fix digital transformations, leaving behind the heart of the business and its most important strategic asset - its people. For lasting success, corporate innovation programs need to invest holistically in people and culture across all levels of business.

An increasing number of companies are creating ‘innovation labs’, ‘future teams’ and ‘venturing teams’, but these can run the risk of being divorced from the broader corporate strategy. Whilst these teams can certainly be a great asset, innovation strategy needs to be integrated within all levels of a business to truly make an impact. If it’s kept as a totally separate arm of the business, the bulk of the team may end up shrugging off innovation challenges as ‘someone else’s job’, which places huge limitations on the potential for impact. In short, innovation needs to be involved in tackling an organisation’s core, business-critical challenges, not just tacked on as a “nice to have”.


For successful corporate innovation, companies must prioritise creating the culture and context for sustained innovation across all levels of business, rather than focusing on flashy solutions or quick fixes. I think the ultimate goal of any successful innovation effort is to establish and grow a culture of innovation that allows the organisation to “own their future” in the sense of not being dependent on others, in order to constantly reinvent themselves and their offer to the market over and over.

What advice would you give to a new head of innovation — what do they need to get right from day one?  

Becoming a leader can be daunting, especially in today’s complex, uncertain and fast-moving world. You have to realise that being a leader in the traditional sense won’t be possible as you will never have all the answers.

Being a leader requires you to be many things all at once. You need to listen and have empathy, a clear vision, inspiration and curiosity, and this all needs to translate across to your team. As the head of innovation, you should remember that people, and unlocking their combined potential, are your priority. Your team needs to see you as a key player and someone that will roll up their sleeves and get involved, but will also lay the groundwork for other people’s success.

I have seen four key ways to successfully lead creatively in today’s world:

  1. You need to lead by inspiring and mobilising your team with a clear purpose, vision and aspiration. Why are we here? What are we trying to achieve together? What does success look like?
  2. You need to unlock the creative potential of the whole team. You won’t have the best ideas, and you certainly won’t be able to make them real, so it’s your job as a leader to empower individuals and teams by creating the right balance between freedom and accountability.
  3. You need to work on the basic conditions of culture and success. This means aligning strategy, incentives, talent, tools, infrastructure etc. with the ultimate goal and outcome you are looking for, especially if this outcome is different than what you are doing today.
  4. Try not to sweat the small stuff, focus on the important things, and actively distribute responsibilities and ownership of projects and outcomes. This will help inspire your team to own their own success and to leverage their creativity to create real and meaningful change within the business and for clients.

If there was just one piece of advice I would give a new innovation leader, it would be to lead as ‘we’, not as ‘me’. Don’t always expect to know or give the answer to everything, lead with curiosity and lean into the unknown - ask the big, bold, scary questions and inspire your team to share their perspective.

What book has been most helpful to you in thinking about corporate innovation? 

I think Roger Martin’s Playing to Win is a must-read for any creative business leader today. We live in uncertain and fast-moving times, when being intentional, focused and clear about the strategic choices you are making as a leader and business is more important than ever to survive and thrive. Roger offers a very practical, refreshing and hands-on perspective on strategy which combines creativity and analytics in the best possible way. He also manages to make a potentially daunting topic like strategy feel less scary and complex and instead makes it accessible and empowering. The book also offers many specific examples and extremely practical tips. My main take-away is that designing a strategy is ultimately a creative (and in the best cases, extremely fun) endeavour.

Another book that I think is great is David Rowan’s Non-Bullshit Innovation, looking at how innovation is being used by businesses around the world to find new, transformative ways of doing things. David explains that too often, companies think they can innovate with jargon - all talk with no substance - which is ultimately pointless. The core message is that corporate innovation is a process of trial and error. No one has ever gotten it right the first time, but the key is to constantly step back to look at the bigger picture, evolving your approach as you go.