01 Dec 2004
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A Life by Design

When it comes to product innovation, Ivy Ross thinks most companies don’t know what they’re doing. Perhaps they should follow her lead.
by Roger Thompson

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As a girl growing up in Riverdale, New York, Ivy Ross (PMD 68, 1994) was surrounded by modern design — and disliked it. The home she lived in and the furniture she sat on reflected the avant-garde sensibilities of her father, an industrial designer who worked for the famed Raymond Loewy studio and created the distinctive Studebaker Hawk automobile.

“Years later, I realized what an amazing place I had grown up in,” says Ross, who acknowledges her father’s influence on her own choice of careers — fashion product design. Over the past 25 years, she has successfully led efforts to enhance and revitalize product lines produced by some of America’s most recognizable retailers. More recently, Ross, a self-styled corporate maverick, has branched out from products to explore process in pursuit of corporate America’s elusive holy grail: successful product innovation. She’s certain most firms don’t have a clue.

“What kills me is that there are all these companies using buzzwords like ‘innovation’ in their annual reports. And I believe that 98 percent of them don’t know what innovation really means,” says Ross. “It’s not as simple as hiring a consultant to put together a chart that says here’s your process for innovation.”

Ross thinks she has the answer — simple in its expression but profound in its implications: “It’s all about reinventing the way we work together.”

Back to the Drawing Board

Since January, Ross has been spreading her ideas about creativity at Gap Inc. as executive vice president for product design and development with the company’s Old Navy chain of casual-clothing stores. Her influence is evident even in the corridors of Gap’s unassuming Chelsea office building in Lower Manhattan. There for everyone to see and comment on are large display boards filled with colors, patterns, swatches of fabric, and garment samples assembled to plan Old Navy’s fall 2005 clothing lines.

Ross, casually dressed in a style reflective of Old Navy’s “democratic” approach to fashion, notes that such public displays flout convention. “The typical design house,” she explains, “would not be showing that stuff in the hallways. Collaboration is much too threatening for most people.” But if she has her way, collaboration will be a hallmark not just of Old Navy but of the entire Gap enterprise. Paul S. Pressler, Gap’s president and CEO, wants her to help guide a team effort to shape a strategic plan that will make Gap “the place of choice to work,” she says. In creating that plan, Ross will draw heavily on her experience shaping a groundbreaking team-based approach to product development that she piloted to success at Mattel Inc., the world’s No. 1 toy maker.

As head of design and development for the Girls Division of Mattel, Ross set out in 2001 to create a new hit toy for preteen girls. The project took on heightened importance as the company watched its lucrative Barbie franchise plateau in revenue. Frustrated by conventional product-development approaches, Ross drew inspiration from Margaret J. Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science, a challenging scientific examination of change, leadership, and the structure of groups. Ross’ penchant for eclectic reading fortuitously led her to a new way of thinking about creativity.

“We keep asking people in corporations to be more creative, to work faster and produce more,” she explains. “It reminds me of watching a cow give milk. People forget that it takes time for the cow to graze before you ever get any milk. The challenge, then, is to create a process of working together that doesn’t require any output until the team first has a chance to take in a variety of new ideas.”

With that thought in mind, Ross created a stealth, twelve-person team with members drawn from several Mattel departments and a variety of disciplines. Working nights, weekends, and during lunch breaks, the team coalesced around the goal of creating a different kind of toy for five- to ten-year-old girls.

To stimulate the group’s thinking, Ross brought in an improv-comedy artist to demonstrate free association of ideas, an architect to talk about forms and connections, a Jungian analyst to talk about creativity, a psychologist to talk about children’s play, an expert in collaborative living systems, and a researcher in music and brain-wave activity. Two weeks of “mental grazing” prepared the group to begin spinning out ideas.

One of the hardest adjustments for the team was the lack of structure. At Ross’ insistence, team members agreed to shed their titles and hierarchical way of working to eliminate what she regards as impediments to group cohesion and creativity. Participants were left to organize themselves and set their own schedules. And at the end of the first effort, the team emerged with the Ello Creation System, a building set for preteen girls. Ello immediately won praise from toy industry insiders and has since become a hit for Mattel.

Based upon the success of the Ello project, Mattel’s chairman and CEO, Robert Eckert, enthusiastically endorsed Ross’ proposal for official support of her team-based approach to design, which became known as Project Platypus. The real platypus, a curious combination of species, seemed a fitting emblem for the unique, cross-disciplinary product-development teams created by Ross.

Unlike the Ello group, the Project Platypus teams stepped away from their regular jobs for twelve weeks and worked together in a studio across the street from Mattel’s El Segundo, California, headquarters. By the end of 2003, four groups had completed Project Platypus exercises, producing three more products that Mattel opted to develop — a stronger showing than the company expected. “They would have been happy if the work of only two of the four groups resulted in new products,” says Ross.

Inventing the Future

Looking back, Ross, 49, says that Project Platypus represented “an assimilation of all that I have done, of all that I have learned” over a quarter- century in retail design — a career as varied as the teams she assembled.

Fresh out of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Ross started her own highly successful jewelry business on the strength of a $60,000 purchase order written on the spot by a Bergdorf Goodman jewelry buyer who spotted Ross wearing her own creations. Her unique metalwork designs are now in the permanent collections of a dozen museums, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The jewelry business grew to the point that Ross felt compelled to open her own factory to keep up with orders — a move she feared would distance her from the creative pursuits she thrived on. At that moment, serendipity struck. An Avon executive called with a job offer too good to pass up. In her mid-20s, Ross left entrepreneurship and embraced mass-market design. “Avon was like going back to graduate school,” she recalls. She soon advanced to the head of the class as chief of design. Over the next two decades, the phone rang frequently, each time bringing yet another irresistible job offer. Ross moved through executive-level design positions at Swatch, Liz Claiborne, Bausch & Lomb, Coach, and Calvin Klein. At each stop, she gained new knowledge and experience while advancing her own reputation as a change agent capable of leading a company to growth through new product design.

Ross’ entrepreneurial skills at a small fashion-eyewear design company in Santa Monica, California — a Liz Claiborne licensee — attracted the attention of Bausch & Lomb, which bought the company. To prepare her for a management position, Bausch & Lomb sent Ross to HBS’s Program for Management Development. She remembers quickly feeling at home in the classroom when she learned — much to her relief — that case-method discussions don’t lead to right answers. Rather, the discussions aim to evoke the right questions. “I felt it was reassuring that there were no right answers,” recalls Ross.

She carried that spirit of questioning back to the corporate world, where her thinking about creativity continued to evolve, culminating in Project Platypus. After years of experience pursuing product design the prescribed way, Project Platypus validated Ross’ hunch that there’s a better way based on a multidisciplinary, team-based collaboration. And if it worked for toys, why not for other products as well? “Is this truly a model for the future?” she asks.

Hanging on her office wall is a poster that reads: “The Best Way to Predict the Future Is to Invent It.” That’s exactly what Ivy Ross intends to do.

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