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Tips for Organizational Innovation Initiatives

Culture change has to start somewhere and if you finally got the green light to start bringing more creativity to your organization, you don’t want to miss a beat. Many times the opportunity to host a new team training, an organization-wide innovation week or fair, a design sprint on a tough business challenge, or even bringing some new tools into a meeting will dictate whether people endorse or criticize those efforts—first impressions are everything.

We had a client recently ask us what they should be thinking about before hosting their first-ever innovation week, which got us to thinking and then writing. The following list of tips will help your prepare for the before, during and after—ensuring you get the best ROI on your work, both monetarily and culturally.


Pre Innovation Initiative Tips

The planning phase is your opportunity to lay a solid foundation that will make it much easier to advance your organization’s innovation initiative forward while ensuring that you hit key milestones and goals along the way. Here are some of the best ways to lay that foundation:

Get Internal Alignment

You’ll want to make sure the members of your organization are aligned on the “why.” Be super clear—let everyone know why design thinking is the tool for the job, why now is the time to use it, and what it means for your organization. Having that internal alignment is one of the most important steps along the way, and a huge determinant of the success of the initiative.

Get (Authentic) Leader Support

You probably need the support (or at least the approval) of your bosses for any major project. But for an organization-wide innovation initiative, a lukewarm “OK” from the higher-ups isn’t enough. This is about the culture of your whole organization! You want the leadership to be excited about the process and enthusiastic in their support. The primary risk is a skeptical leader pulling back their support 2-3 months once the fire has been lit. This can cause more damage than good. Case studies showing how similar initiatives have benefitted other organizations are a great way to get the authentic support you need, and integrating a specific leadership training or conversation can be a safe way to air skepticisms and translate what it means for them.

Start Light

This is completely relative to each organization, but don’t try to do it all at once. Kick things off with reasonable expectations and goals. Cultural change isn’t easy. You’re more likely to be successful if you start slow, focusing on building awareness and buy-in first. Once people get use to these new ideas and practices, you’ll be able to start building expertise.

Make it Part of the Bigger Picture

Frame this process as part of the larger strategic direction of your organization, rather than a one-off event. You’ll want to focus attention not just on planning your kick-off, but also on what what will happen afterwards. The more you can connect it to the bigger picture, and put it in context of your organization’s overarching goals, the more successful it’s apt to be.

Focus on Business Objectives

Your innovation strategy should be driven by your overall business objectives. Design Thinking is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Design Thinking can build your business in lots of different ways, but, in order for it to be successful, you need to specify your business goals (i.e. increase revenue among existing users, acquire new users, build brand equity, enter new product categories, defend against competitors, etc).


Tips During the Innovation Initiative

With the groundwork laid and the innovation initiative in motion, you’ll need to keep revisiting your goals, throughout the course of the project, to make sure everything is still on track. This process may be very new and different for a lot of folks in your organization, which means they may actively resist the process or simply not have the proper toolkit to implement best practices effectively. Here are four recommended ways you can keep the initiative moving in the right direction:

Don’t Miss the Story

One way to help build awareness and enthusiasm is to create a narrative around the process of planning and implementing this innovation initiative. Document it with photos, videos and blog posts, and use them to tell a story about what your organization is doing and why. That documentation can serve as a kind of internal branding that you can use to promote the innovation initiative throughout your organization.

Make it the Organization’s Voice, not Yours

Creating a cultural change is easier when there’s more than one person talking about it. Engage leadership and other employees to take active roles kicking off, facilitating and sharing stories, so that your voice isn’t the only one your organization hears. It’s not just your personal project—it’s for everyone!

Don’t Force it—Customize

If you’ve helped implement this kind of cultural change at other organizations, that experience can be super valuable as you help an organization go through it for the first time. Just remember to be mindful of the differences between organizations—not every tactic transfers. Customize this initiative so it fits the needs of this particular organization and allows for authentic innovation—that’s the only kind that actually works.

Reinforce Behaviors not Just Outcomes.

We all want great ideas and solutions that grow the business, but culture change comes from the everyday actions and behaviors—so make sure you reward and celebrate them as well.

Plan for Extreme Reactions

Whenever someone calls for change, there’s someone ready to stand up and argue against it. That’s not a bad thing! Make sure you provide a space and a forum for people to challenge the process and ask tough questions. That way everyone feels like their concerns are being heard. And since you’re anticipating those reactions, you can prepare great answers to help bring the doubters around.


Post Innovation Initiative Tips

As we’ve mentioned, in order for your organization to successfully implement and get the most value from an innovation initiative, it has to be part of a larger process, not just a one-off event. And that means planning for post-event. This is the time to evaluate the process, solidify the results and set up future projects. Here are four great ways to do that:

Debrief Three Times

Debriefing gives you a chance to really look at how the initiative went—what worked, what didn’t, and what could be improved for next time. Start by debriefing with your team about the specifics of the process and about what your next steps should be. Next, debrief with the participants in the initiative to hear their reactions—they can be a source of great ideas for your future projects! And don’t forget to debrief with the leadership. You’ll want to get their input on how they felt about the process and make sure they’re still supportive.

Share the Calls to Action ASAP

You created your vision early for a reason, now is the time to pull it out. Send out follow-ups as soon as possible to let the people in your organization know what happened, what’s going to happen next, and how they can get involved in the process.

Leverage Your Catalysts

In addition to following up with your organization as a whole, plan more in-depth follow-ups with the folks that have become passionate advocates in your organization—the catalysts. They’ll be able to help you get the rest of the organization excited about and interested in continuing the design thinking process. It can be as simple as grabbing a happy hour drink or planning a lunch.

Remember, the people in your organization who are intrinsically motivated to innovate are the most valuable. They can be taught design thinking skills and given resources to amplify their efforts. Motivation, on the other hand, can’t be taught.

Don’t Over-Engineer the Process

Be careful to not overcomplicate the process, especially at the beginning of your culture change efforts. Too many check-ins, approvals and process requirements are a major turnoff. You want to lower the barriers to adoption, not add new ones.

Create a Concrete Success Story

Your organization just went through its first innovation initiative and now it’s time to tell that story. Use your team, documentation of the process, and your organization’s catalysts to create concrete success stories about how the initiative went, what it achieved, and why that matters. That narrative will help solidify the value of the design thinking process in your organization and keep the energy and enthusiasm high for the next round.

An innovation initiative is only as good as the principles that inform it. You don’t want to go through all the planning and prep and work only to find that you’ve lost sight of the original goal! Being mindful of the user-centric best practices of design thinking at every stage of the initiative will help make it a success for your organization—and for your customers!



Who to Engage When Kicking Off a Design Thinking Project

Any project you’re kicking off needs a strong foundation. You need to decide whether design thinking is the right tool for the job, define the scope, create a brief and engage the right people to make your project a success.

We frequently get asked, “Exactly who are the right people to engage?” Well, they’re the stakeholders in a position to make or break your project—the ones that control organizational resources, set and guide the vision, and drive implementation. The key is bringing them on and getting buy-in and support from the beginning—you don’t want to go through all the work of a project only to have it mothballed! (Sad-face Emoji).

Here are 5 groups of stakeholders you’ll need to consider:

1. Stakeholders Involved In The Project

Begin at the beginning—with the people who are a direct part of the process. These are the folks who will be signing off on the project and outcomes, like leadership and project sponsors. Make sure they’re not only aware of your plans, but have had opportunities to offer their input. You want them to be truly excited and supportive about it, not just give it a lukewarm “OK.” You’ll be asking for their involvement in kickoffs, pitches, and feedback sessions later on so you need them to be enthusiastic advocates—and that means keeping them in the loop.

2. Stakeholders That Can Stop Your Project

There are likely to be some folks in your organization that have the power to call a halt on your project. They may not see the value or they may simply prefer to have things done their way. This group may include some members of leadership, but also managers and directors who are being asked to empower their team with support and bandwidth. You might not need their input on the project brief or structure, but you do need their buy-in on the project and the benefits of the design thinking process as a whole. Work on building their awareness of the structure, also giving them a safe place to ask questions and vet concerns. That gives you the opportunity to get their support (or at least understanding) and also lets them know you’re not just trying to force changes against their wishes.

3. Change Advocates

These are the people that have the ability and presence to catalyze energy in the organization. They span all roles and levels, so don’t just look to leadership. Getting them excited about the project means they’ll get the rest of the organization excited—these are your organizational cheerleaders. You probably don’t need their direct buy-in, but you want their support because they can create serious momentum behind the project. Let them know what it is you’re kicking off and find key opportunities to get them involved, like pitch sessions and ideation sessions.

4. Stakeholders With A Link To The Larger Organizational Strategy

Looking outside your direct team, are there other people across the organization who might have the ability to do this work better, faster, or stronger? Are there people who might be able to connect this work to larger organizational priorities now or in the future? The more you can tie this work to larger initiatives, the easier it will be to gain support and share outcomes. It’s helpful to bring these folks in for milestone share-outs (insights presentations and final pitches) and debrief conversations so you can discuss what worked well and talk about how you might collaborate on these kinds of projects in the future.

5. Anyone That Will Benefit From Awareness

This might seem like a broad category, but it’s an important one to consider. There are people in and out of your organization that will be inspired and excited to know you’re approaching your work differently. They may be clients, recruiting and HR stakeholders, leaders from elsewhere in the org, or people that might want to use your services in the future. These communications are more like internal marketing than a way to get buy-in—you probably don’t need their involvement in this direct project, but don’t miss the opportunity to share a great story while it’s going on.


Being a changemaker means both exploring new methods and mindsets to creative problem solving and encouraging their adoption throughout your organization. When you get ready to embark on a new project, reach out to the right people in advance. It’ll help ensure the success of your project, spread awareness of new ways to problem-solve, and light the spark of inspiration for other people in your org. So do your homework, find those key stakeholders, and bring them on board!


The Design Gym’s Highlights from the 99U Conference

The 99U conference is an event aimed at empowering the creative community. It’s not designed to teach you to “think” big; but rather to show you how to “do” big. And as with many conferences we attend, we found it to be a tremendous source of inspiration. After all, get that many creatives in a room and good things are bound to happen!

For those of you who weren’t able to make it out this year (or for those of you who were and are just curious about what we thought), we wanted to share a list of some of our personal highlights, takeaways and inspirations from this year’s 99U conference.

1. Giving Yourself Time to Enjoy Your Creative Career

Conferences like this are always a great time to lift your head above water and remember those eternal truths that we’re always quick to agree to on paper, but are fast to slip away when the days get busy. Enjoying the process and embracing our creative permissions is one of those things. As part of a growing business and small team, we feel these strains all the time, and we see them in our huge global clients as well—it affects us all.

At MoMA’s Thursday morning workshop, Creating Compelling & Memorable Physical Spaces, Ingrid Chou, Associate Creative Director at MoMA, said something that really resonated with us. In the context of planning and curating new exhibits, she explained how essential it was to afford yourself creative time and to cherish that time.

“I think the majority of you are in creative fields and if you’re not having fun then something is wrong. That little bit of energy is what we live for.” @MuseumModernArt

We also loved hearing famed graphic designer, Yuko Shimizu‘s rule for prioritizing which projects to take:

“Learn to say no. Don’t take a job if it will cost you a good night’s sleep.” @yukoart

Click to Tweet.

2. Ryan Carson’s life mapping + weekly calendar ritual

Ryan Carson, CEO & Co-Founder of Treehouse, really inspired us with the time he dedicates and the process he’s built for continual reflection and self-awareness. If you haven’t seen this video on The Atlantic about Treehouse’s 4-day work week, it’s spectacular. Ryan shared some context about how he was inspired by Wait But Why’s Life Calendar (a visual representation of the weeks in our life) to begin reprioritizing his own weekly life.

Ryan shared with us that at the beginning of every week he blocks off 20 min to go through his personal mission statement. He breaks his mission down by the roles he plays (CEO, Father, Husband, etc…) and how he would want to be described in each of those roles. If he feels he’s slacking on any of them he immediately makes sure to fill in the upcoming week with more activities suited to that role—a great way to get the week started on the right note. Each week counts!

3. Jerry Seinfeld: How to Write a Joke

Throughout the conference, 99U did a really great job of integrating humor and mixed media to keep energy high and appeal to different learning styles—something as experience designers we can totally appreciate.

A great example of that in action was when they played the New York Times video, How to Write a Joke, as explained by the hilarious Jerry Seinfeld.

4. The Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck

Cap Watkins, VP of Design at Buzzfeed, introduced us to The Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck—a team tool we plan to immediately start leveraging. The Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck, essentially, is a tool that allows you to pause on a conversation or debate and quickly assess the level of importance of that given topic to each individual team member.

For example, let’s say we’re in a passionate debate on what should be our next blog post—we use The Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck and you tell me you give 7 out of 10 fucks, while I only give 2 out of 10 fucks. It’s probably not worth the energy and tension the argument is creating—clearly, the next blog post is more important to you and I should let you roll with what you’re thinking.

It’s a pretty cool team tool when you’re getting into debate—just throw the flag and put it out there, how many fucks do you give?

5. Cap Watkins on Culture

Cap also spoke about the importance of culture and his personal deviation from the popular notion of creating “design-led” or “design-driven” organizations. In his mind, that’s no more accurate than having an ‘accounting-led’ or a ‘sales-led’ organization. Focusing on any one department to make all the decisions is too narrow, and misses the target. We agreed—Cap is thinking long term.

If you find yourself defaulting to that way of thinking, you need to work on bringing others into your process. It’s not about one team leading, it’s about having systems to solve together. This quote hit it home:

“Leadership is not a role or a title, anyone can bring that mindset. We talk a lot about building empathy with our customer but we need to start building empathy with our own organizations. That means treating our organization and cultures like real products or UX problems.” @Cap

6. SYP Cards

We’ve done a bunch of personality assessments and use them pretty actively to kick off projects, reflect on our personal growth, and check in on team dynamics. We had the chance to try out the SYPartners Superpower Cards and found them to be particularly helpful given the fun format and the quick conversations they spurred.

We immediately ordered a deck for ourselves to better understand how we can leverage our team’s super powers. Gotta love SYPartners.

7. Jason Fried, Founder & CEO of Basecamp

Jason Fried captured our hearts back in 2010 with the book ReWork—a book all about rethinking how we approach the work we do. He’s a thought leader we really respect, but also someone that inherently has customer empathy baked into how he approaches work. We were amazed with Jason’s talk and really inspired by one of his “ah ha” moments. Jason shared with the group a story about how an experience in his personal life allowed him to completely rethink the client experience.

It started with a bathroom renovation (inspiration comes from anywhere). Jason was bidding contractors, and realized he was drawn towards one in particular, even though all had been highly recommended. Upon reflection, he realized that it was a simple interaction that won him over—the contractor had taken him to the home improvement store and picked out tiles and fixtures in person. It was an expensive project, and this removed the majority of the risk and ambiguity for him.

Insert ‘ah-ha moment’ emoji here. As a small agency he had always prioritized longer, bigger projects with his clients. But in reality, his clients hated the risk and ambiguity attached with that commitment. He immediately restructured how he sold work and started doing cheap, 1-week projects in high-volume. His clients loved it, he loved it, and they saw a huge spike in revenue.

To quote Jason, when something like that happens:

“Don’t be afraid to blow it up and start over… Fall madly out of love with something you are so use to doing.” @jasonfried

Click to Tweet.


Were you at the conference this year? We’d love to hear what you thought and what were some of your highlights. Hit us up by email or tweet at us.

Welcoming Jason Cha to The Design Gym Team

Our client work doesn’t come up all that often in our communications. Sure, from time to time, we’ll talk about it on the blog, write about it in the newsletter, or casually mention it in a Bootcamp or workshop. But frequently, we hear from community members, “Oh!? I didn’t know you work with organizations.”

The truth of the matter is it’s a significant part of the work we do. And like our community education, it’s growing.

Our work with client organizations is very much rooted in the same belief system as our community education offerings: We’re not just teaching design thinking, but rather working to empower individuals and teams to create culture change within their organizations. And helping us to do that is a new addition to The Design Gym team!

design-gym-photobooth-48We are extremely excited to announce and introduce you to Jason Cha, who is coming on board as our Director of Training and Culture Strategy. Some of you may know Jason from his previous work with us as a Lead Trainer. In this role, Jason will be responsible for working with our client organizations to build internal design thinking capabilities and increase internal creativity and collaboration.

Originally from Chicago, Jason made the long voyage to New York at the turn of the century to be a middle school science teacher (I know, didn’t totally surprise us either!). From there things took a path-altering turn. Jason worked in advertising as a brand strategist and then spent over 10 years as an innovation and strategy consultant—developing new products and business ideas for companies like PepsiCo, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble. In the last 5 years, he’s shifted his focus from products to people, working on training and culture development at ?What If! Innovation Partners for clients such as Google, Disney, Pfizer, and Citi.

Other than the fact that Jason is just an all-around awesome human being, he brings with him a ton of knowledge and passion that we’re super excited to tap into. To introduce you to the design thinker behind the glasses, we played a round of 5 questions.

1. What got you into design thinking, innovation and training work?

I’ve always been very interested in two areas: creativity and human behavior. This has led me to work at the intersection of these two fields, and design thinking happens to live at this intersection as well. More recently, I’ve developed an appreciation for how important it is for people to be creative in other areas of business as well, not just marketing or product development. That’s why I now spend my time and energy helping organizations develop their own creative potential—so, essentially, I’m developing people instead of products.

2. What shaped your perspectives and the way you look at DT and innovation?

I’m not sure where it comes from, but I tend to be a fan of the simpler, less flashy, grittier version of things. To some degree, that’s probably affected the way I look at innovation. While I’m in awe of some the amazing inventions that don the covers of Fast Company, I also love the small, everyday acts of creativity and innovation that happen in our day-to-day lives that say a lot of about an organization’s culture. It could be something that a Customer Service rep does to fix an unexpected problem or an unconventional way of conducting research with limited resources. To me, these applications of design thinking and creative problem solving capture the spirit and mindset of innovation as much as the big, category-disrupting stuff.

3. What’s been one of the best, most fulfilling, perspective-changing things about the work you’ve done?

There’s a psychologist named Robert Waldinger who directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been tracking the lives of hundreds of people over a 75-year period. It’s a one-of-a-kind research study, and based on all of their data, they found that ONE thing mattered when it came to living a good life: good relationships.

That jibes with my experience. While I’ve worked on some exciting projects that I’m very proud of, my absolute favorite thing about this work is that it has enabled me to develop meaningful relationships with people (colleagues and clients), whom I find inspiring, thoughtful and smart as hell.

4. Why did you choose to work for The Design Gym?

HUMAN-CENTERED MISSION: I very much believe in The Design Gym’s mission of educating people and guiding teams to make a positive impact in the world by being more creative and collaborative problem-solvers. They are single-minded about this mission and that conviction appeals to me.

COMMUNITY MINDSET: The Design Gym is very active in building and advancing a broader community of creative thinkers and doers (apart from their organizational clients) who are using their creative powers to make a difference in the world. They also have meaningful relationships with diverse clients in the corporate, nonprofit, and startup worlds, which I find inspiring.

ENTREPRENEURIAL CULTURE: It’s easy to talk about the importance of having an entrepreneurial culture, but when you’re a 3 year-old organization, you have to walk the entrepreneurial walk every day. I look forward to the rewards and struggles of being a part of that environment.

5. What are some of the opportunities you are looking forward to in your role?

I thoroughly enjoy being in the “classroom” teaching people about design thinking and innovation. However, this is often only the beginning of the journey. To change group behaviors, it takes a deeper commitment to rethinking and reshaping the broader systems at play in our lives. The opportunity to drive this kind of culture change work for clients is something that I look forward to.

We’re ecstatic to welcome Jason to the team. Want to drop Jason a line? Tweet him @hmm_interesting or Jason.cha@thedesigngym.com.


Bridging The Gap From Book Smarts To New Starts

Maybe you read a really inspiring design thinking article that got you jonesing for more. Or maybe you had never heard of the concept before your boss approached you about managing its rollout and adoption among your team. However that exposure happened, you were excited about and ready for the opportunity. You brought in resources internally or sought external opportunities—such as sending your team to a workshop—to create a baseline awareness around design thinking tools and garner enthusiasm for using them.

But now, a few months down the line, you’re noticing the level of adoption is not at all where you thought it would be. People aren’t bringing the tools into their everyday jobs at the level you and leadership expected.

You’re witnessing a behavioral breakdown.

Ideas Are Great, Actions Are Better

tweet-graphic-4Ideas are great, actions are better.

We’ve seen this time and again in organizations and it’s completely normal. Rolling out Design Thinking is not a one and done event. It’s a process by which you’re attempting to create a culture change. And that’s no easy task! What’s key is the way in which you tackle it.

One of the reasons for a low level of adoption can usually be tied to trepidation or an absence of confidence. You’ve learned a tool, you like the tool, but you’re doubting your ability to use that tool in real-time.

For example, imagine you’re sitting in an ideation session and you know it’s going badly. People are off-topic, no one is on the same page, and nothing is getting done. You know exactly how to get that meeting back on track, but you don’t feel confident enough in your ability to implement the right facilitation tactic to speak up.

Now, normally when someone feels uncomfortable stepping up, their natural inclination is, “I couldn’t step up because I don’t know enough.” And then their logical response is, “I need to learn more.” However, as we take a closer look at the situation, it’s not knowledge that’s missing—you and your team know the toolsets—it’s confidence. And there’s only one way to build it: practice.

Practice is the bridge between knowledge and implementation. You can read all the cookbooks in the world, but you’ll never become a chef until you get into the kitchen and start cooking. You can study musical theory for a lifetime, but you’ll never be able to play a concert unless you put in the hours with your guitar. You might know everything there is to know about baseball, but you’ll never score if you don’t pick up a bat and give it a go.

tweet-graphic-4Practice is the bridge between knowledge and implementation.

Practice Makes Perfect Helps Encourage Adoption

Cultural change is tough and the path along that journey is long. The trick is to know where you are along that arc—from learning to practice to adoption—and how to empower your team at each and every step.

So how do you provide opportunities for your team to practice and develop confidence in the skills they’ve learned? You give them a safe space where they can stretch their theoretical wings. You could:

1. Practice on basic challenges
Pick a basic challenge (like where to go to lunch) and then apply the principles of ideation to a 20 minute brainstorm. Let the team know it’s about practicing some of the tools they recently learned.

2. Take inspiring field trips
Pick a topic important to your work and take your team out for a half day of field research. Visit competitive brands, inspiring new retail locations and cutting edge restaurants. Wrap up with a debrief over a meal or drinks.

3. Support behaviors through artifacts
Create artifacts to put in your workspace to remind your team about the tools of design thinking. Highlight basic frameworks like open/explore/close (divergent vs. convergent thinking), the 5 phases, or the Rules of Brainstorming can often be enough to trigger best practices in a group.

4. Practice Labs
If you happen to be in or near New York, we’ve recently created a way for you to practice your design thinking and facilitation skills in a safe environment—The Design Gym Practice Labs! Each lab focuses on a specific skill and is designed to provide you with multiple opportunities across several scenarios to practice that skill. Read more about our Practice Labs and check out our events calendar for upcoming dates.

A Journey Of A Thousand Miles

You started with design thinking education—that’s a great start. You’re headed for implementation and organizational adoption—that’s a great goal. The path that ties those endpoints together is practice. Put those learned skills to use until they’re an integral part of the way you and your team operate. A great chef doesn’t check the cookbook. A great guitarist doesn’t rely on sheet music. A great baseball player doesn’t need instructions on how to swing. Practice takes the skills you learn and makes them a part of you. So when design thinking becomes a part of your team, it will automatically become a part of your organization. Boom. Change. That’s all it takes.


Creating Valuable Learning Experiences

Meet The Design Gym’s Lead Trainer Community

The times, they are a changin’. For over three years now we’ve operated under the premise that we can create great content and deliver it in a way that feels authentic to The Design Gym and our brand principles. Throughout the process, we’ve learned a great deal about ourselves, our content, and the dreams and frustrations of our community. And one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is that diversity in perspectives, as well as background and story are critical to keeping things fresh and evolving.

So as we look to the future and the evolution of The Design Gym, we’re keeping that learning top of mind—and that means creating more varied learning experiences for you, our community. One of the ways we’re doing that is by having Jason and Andy step away from being in the front of the room and having our sessions led by an amazing group of talented individuals: The Design Gym’s Lead Trainer Community.

Who Are The Design Gym Lead Trainers

The Design Gym Lead Trainers are professionals actively practicing and teaching design thinking in their fields—on internal teams of Fortune 500 companies, inside of top innovation agencies, or as consultants on the front lines.

By having actual practitioners leading our sessions, you’re able to learn from experts in your field (or with similar backgrounds) who have the on-the-ground experience in leading and managing design thinking projects. They’re the ones who can guide you on how translate your learnings from The Design Gym courses back into your organization. And honestly, who better to teach you that than than the people who are doing it daily?

Real-World Examples From Everyday Practitioners

Design thinking isn’t just about learning a method, it’s about applying that method to real-world issues in a constructive way. That’s where our Lead Trainers come in. They use design thinking every day on real projects. They’re coming straight from the trenches with the war stories to share.

Hannah Dubin described her participation in The Design Gym’s Lead Trainer Community as a win. “I love sharing what I know! I’ve seen skilled facilitators make significant impacts in their organizations—and I want to help people do the same where they work. As a professional facilitator, I get a lot of energy from groups—and I consider myself lucky to teach people to be better at helping groups make progress.”

Mixing up the perspectives of our trainers makes for some serious alchemy in the classroom—they get to combine their experiences and backgrounds so you get a comprehensive picture of how design thinking, facilitation and visual communication work in the real world.

Expert Perspectives From Diverse Backgrounds

A key component to creating strong learning experiences is providing expert perspectives from individuals with diverse backgrounds. What this means for you is that soon community members will be able to choose from classes or sessions run by The Design Gym with a specific lead trainer in mind.

Perhaps you work for a social enterprise or nonprofit? You can choose a Bootcamp led by a trainer with a background in social enterprises. Or perhaps you work at a large corporation and you’re looking for a different perspective on how to secure buy-in—you can sign up for a Bootcamp led by a trainer from the agency world.

“Being able to exchange tips and techniques with a close group of people with diverse backgrounds is really inspiring,” says Lead Trainer Reilly Carpenter. “I spend a lot of time doing internal trainings with a set curriculum and a toolkit of methods, but working with the TDG trainers exposes me to many new toolkits of methods.” As our Lead Trainers learn from each other, they’re evolving and creating a better experience for our community.

Now that we’ve told you all about our trainers, it’s probably time to introduce you to them.

Meet the Trainers

John Bloch is a true creative. As a visual facilitator, graphic recorder and art director with over 20 years experience, John has used his skills to support conflict resolution, training workshops, hackathons, strategic visioning and product development for a wide variety of organizations including AT&T, NYC Mayor’s Office of Tech and Innovation and the Tribeca Film Institute. His curiosity lies at the intersection of  design thinking and visual communication. John is passionate about teaching non-artists how to express complex ideas and data through simple, powerful visuals. He can also draw anything! We dare you to put him on the spot at the next Sketching Bootcamp.

Reilly Carpenter has a background in marketing and branding and is now a Design Strategist for Capital One. In his current role, his focus has been championing internal education and adoption of design thinking into his organization’s culture as well as leading large scale design thinking projects. Reilly is your go-to guy for questions on securing buy-in and implementing design thinking projects. You can ask him all about it at an upcoming Design Thinking Bootcamp.

Hannah Dubin is the swiss army knife of facilitation—no matter what the situation, she’s got the perfect activity ready to help move a group forward. With over 15 years of experience working as a facilitator with nonprofits and social enterprises, Hannah’s people-centered approach to problem-solving has helped teams meet their goals to better serve their communities. She’s got a true skill for making learning experiences fun and engaging—see her in action at an upcoming Facilitation Bootcamp.

Gary Kopervas is a nationally syndicated cartoonist and award-winning brand strategist and storyteller for iconic brands as well as start-ups. He is currently VP Brand Strategy & Innovation at 20nine, a creative branding agency and author of the upcoming Winning the What If Wars: A visual guide to applying creative thinking in business. Gary guides brands on how to stand out in a cut-and-paste world through the application of design thinking, and teaches participants in his Sketching Bootcamp to think visually and communicate with greater originality and personality.

Kiely Sweatt began her career in creative writing and performing arts and takes a learn-by-doing approach to education—making her a perfect fit for The Design Gym! Kiely thrives on bringing creative people together to collaborate, design new products, and build communities—and is actively doing so in her current role as Program Manager and facilitator with Hyper Island. She has facilitated and mentored teams ranging from Fortune 500s to non-profits to startups and brings those experiences to the Bootcamps that she leads with us.

Thomas Wendt is an independent design strategist, educator and published author. With an academic background and continued interest in philosophy, he brings a unique perspective to design thinking. Thomas writes and speaks on design theory, ethical and sustainable design and design research. If you haven’t checked it out yet, he wrote a killer post for The Design Gym’s blog about Sustainable Design Thinking. Like to get philosophical? Be sure to engage Thomas during a Design Thinking Bootcamp lunch break.

Design Thinking for Impact: Acumen Global Fellows

Let’s state the obvious: driving social impact is hard. When you set out to change the world, you’re tackling BIG problems. You’re driven by ambitious goals and it can often feel impossible to achieve them. So, how do you create meaningful, sustainable solutions to the world’s biggest problems?

The key is to equip and empower individuals with the resources and tools necessary to make it happen. Recently, we had the chance to team up with Acumen to do just that. We worked with a team of overwhelmingly talented individuals who are tackling one of the world’s biggest problems—poverty.


What Is the Acumen Global Fellows Program?

The Acumen Global Fellows Program is a yearlong fellowship dedicated to training emerging leaders who are committed to solving problems of poverty. They’re a group of awe-inspiring individuals that have done what most of us dream of—taking an alternate path.

Hailing from esteemed careers in entrepreneurship, management consulting, advertising, and non-profit management, these international professionals made the decision to commit themselves to building their skills and using them to change the way the world tackles poverty.

Enter Design Thinking.

The world has tried plenty of obvious methods for wiping out (or at least decreasing) poverty, but still it persists. Multifaceted problems of this nature, in complex environments (like rural villages half way across the globe), are tough. And to tackle them you need a set of tools that helps you develop innovative, human-centered solutions.

Enter design thinking–one of many tools worth having in your toolbox when coming face to face with complex problems with no clear answer.

We partnered with Acumen to provide the fellows with a design thinking bootcamp. The goal: equip the fellows with a problem-solving toolkit that would help them address the complex problems they’ll each be facing on the ground, all over the world, over the next 10 months.

In 2 days, we walked the fellows through the 5 phases of design thinking—examine, understand, ideate, experiment, and distill—and had them apply it to a real-world case: food equity in New York.

On the first day, the fellows learned how to frame this complex issue in a constructive way and gather the data needed to start identifying solutions. That meant speaking to a panel of community food experts, including Tatiana Orlov, Manager of Community Impact for City Harvest; Simone Herbin, Community Food Advocate; and Dennis Derryck, Founder and President of Corbin Hill Food Project.

It also meant getting out in the real world and conducting field research. The fellows travelled to neighborhoods in New York City to conduct in-person interviews with real people that struggle with affordable and reliable access to healthy foods.

Then, on the second day, the fellows took all of the data they collected and set to turning it into actionable insights. Those insights became the seeds of solutions for addressing food inequity.

The Takeaways

It’s very easy to get stuck on the ‘story’ of design thinking—the language we use to describe the process, whether there are 3 steps or 5 steps, discussing how human-centered design has evolved and where it’s going next. This stuff is important, but it shouldn’t be the end goal.

Using this tool out in the real world, on real problems, with real constraints—getting our hands dirty—that’s where the value is. The rigor in process and tools must be balanced with flexibility and adaptability to the problem we’re trying to solve. As each fellow enters their next chapter in different countries across the world, their application of the design thinking tools will look slightly different—and that’s a good thing.

We’re excited to see the creative solutions they come up with to the problems they face and we’re proud to have had the opportunity to work with them.


Transforming Public Schools with Design Thinking

Some people don’t think of the public school system as a hotbed for innovation, but there are many creative and groundbreaking initiatives behind the scenes all over the country.

In New York City, it’s the iZone, a program started by the NYC Department of Education (DOE). The iZone uses design thinking to center learning around the needs of each student. How? One way is to help teachers develop new teaching models. The DOE and iZone also partner with companies in the edtech market to explore emerging technologies.

We spoke to two people who are on the front lines of innovation at the DOE: Kara Chesal, Director of Innovate NYC Schools (an iZone initiative), and Alana Laudone, Director of Special Projects for iZone. They’ve both worked with The Design Gym as community members and clients.

Chesal and Laudone share five tips for moving new ideas and thinking forward in an environment with a large, diverse group of stakeholders.

1. Focus on the Problem, Not the Solution

When you stop being so focused on how you’re going to solve a problem, you can get a better understanding of the product itself—what the user needs, the problem the product will solve, and why you need to solve it.

“If we don’t agree on what the problem is, we’re never actually going to come up with a great solution,” says Chesal.

Chesal worked on a program to incentivize app developers to respond to their request for a proposal (RFP). The idea was to rethink the way the DOE requested responses or bids.

“The typical way the NY State DOE works is a small group of people will set up these requirements and we’ll get responses or bids based on the requirements we put up,” she explains. “We realized that the process was only giving us traditional firms to work with, and folks who had a legal team and the resources to apply to that type of proposal. It also wasn’t giving us the most innovative stuff because we were over-specifying what we wanted. We were giving people a solution. With design thinking, instead of giving people a solution, you can get better at defining what your problem is and allowing people to come in and help you solve the problem.”

2. See Constraints as Opportunities

Where many people see the limitations of working for a government agency as something that stifles creativity and innovation, Chesal sees it as a challenge.

“I think constraints can be opportunities for design, or for design processes,” says Chesal. “Not every barrier is necessarily a flaw of the system. Some can help you define what the problems are more specifically.”

A few years ago, she worked on the high school directory, which is the process by which students and families select a high school. And it’s a complicated process.

“We know we’re not going to be able to change the complexity of that system, and we’re not going to be able to change the admissions methods,” she explains. Instead, they worked on making the experience easier to navigate by narrowing the options down from 800 to a set that matched each individual student.

In this case, Chesal saw a complicated system and saw the opportunity it presented, rather than feeling constrained by it.

3. Meet People Where They Are

People come to design thinking from different backgrounds. Some may already be familiar with the methods, while to others, the information might be brand new. Knowing how to reach your community at every education level goes a long way toward getting them to buy into the concepts.

“The design thinking process—the first time you do it can feel a little silly,” says Chesal. “What we’ve worked to do is make sure that even for their first time, people are doing something that’s related to their work. It’s not building a wallet or something that’s so obscure that they can’t see the relevancy for their own work. It’s not always a natural fit for people because it’s so different, but if you’re able to build empathy and meet them where they are, I think incorporating design thinking into your organization can be very successful.”

Laudone agrees. “Using this new vocabulary can be really helpful and freeing in some ways, but it can also be confusing. These might be something that teachers already do, but they call it something different or they do it in a slightly different way.”

According to Laudone, they’ve had success with layering design thinking concepts within existing frameworks, rather than introducing them as new ideas. For example, a teacher may already be informally asking students for feedback on new teaching materials, but be unaware that it falls under the technique of intercepts in design thinking. If he or she already understands the value of user comments, it may make more sense to work within that framework, with familiar terminology.

4. Design With, Not For

When you’re designing with the end users’ needs at the forefront, it’s easier to get them—and your other stakeholders—to trust the process. Since users are going to be the ones employing the solutions that are designed by the process, it’s best to get them involved from the beginning.

“When you can say that this idea is coming out of schools, and these ideas are owned by schools, proposed by schools, or moved forward by schools, that helps,” Laudone says. “That gives you not only credibility, but legitimacy. Coming from that place shows stakeholders that their ideas are valid. That’s where it starts.”

5. Build a Community Around Learning

Part of design thinking is giving your users the capacity to learn and grow on their own, within their teams, and to teach others as well. That’s how ideas, mindsets and processes travel through organizations and cause big culture shifts.

“The idea of hearing directly from someone in your same position—so that the school-based folks are hearing from other school-based folks that did this design thinking thing—that’s so much more powerful than us standing up there and saying this is how you do this,” says Laudone. ”That’s part of what user-centered design means—always knowing that the user is the expert, and they’re going to have the best perspective.”

No matter what your industry, these tips can help you move new ideas forward and foster innovation. See what The Design Gym can do for your organization, or learn more about our upcoming community events.

Creative Problem Solving at Work

Tackling tough problems at work is something everyone can relate to. They can be as simple as having friction with a coworker, or as complex as trying to come up with the Big Idea that’s going to take your company to the next level. No matter how big or small the challenge is, creative problem solving can help you find the solution and enjoy the process along the way.

Creative problem solving is about more than just brainstorming, and there are a ton of different theories about how it should work. Here at The Design Gym, (and in the world of design thinking) we think of it as a five-step process:

1. Examine: Dig into the problem.
2. Understand: Go deeper and find patterns.
3. Ideate: Come up with lots of ideas.
4. Experiment: Try some things out.
5. Distill: Strip your solution down to the essentials.

The biggest advantage of creative problem solving is that we spend more time defining the problem, which ultimately makes it easier to solve. Imagine that the problem is that your company is in danger of falling short on your sales goals for the quarter. There are two ways of attempting to solve it:

Old way: Get all of the stakeholders in a room together and brainstorm ways to increase sales, like coupons, promotions, and targeted media.

Creative way: Think about why your sales are lower than anticipated. Are your products meeting your customers’ needs? Can they get something better or cheaper elsewhere? Is the sales process too cumbersome? Is your marketing lacking? Ask your customers for feedback to help you answer those questions. Identify short-term solutions for meeting your immediate problem—revenue for this quarter—and actionable long-term solutions that put your customers’ wants and needs front and center, which will ultimately sustain and grow your business.

As we’ve talked about before, when we were starting out as a new company, we had our share of communication challenges. We needed to get creative about working better together as a team. After some work sessions where we followed the design thinking process, we realized we needed structured, regular meetings where we could address those challenges. And it worked!

We Want to Hear Your Stories!

We love being inspired by others who have overcome obstacles at work. When we share our stories of difficulties and triumph, we get to learn from one another. We would love to hear from you and learn from your experiences.

What’s your process for tackling tough problems at work? Let us know about a recent challenge you faced, and how you used creative problem solving to work it out. We’ll compile the top stories and themes and send them out to the community.

Facilitating Team Debriefs: How to End The Year On The Right Note



As joyous as year end can be, I’m sure we’re all feeling the strain of finishing up projects, closing out budgets, and trying to build a strong foundation to kick-off 2016 with.

But in the midst of ‘wrapping’ everything up (pun 100% intended) and transitioning into some well deserved time off, it can be really easy to neglect ‘tying the bow’ on your team and culture. While throwing a magnificent holiday bash is valuable and fun, it’s not enough to make sure everyone is ending the year in a good headspace.

We’re talking about reflective debriefs, and if you want to finish the year with your team feeling heard, feeling confident in what’s to come, and clear on what they learned in the midst of all their hard work, then don’t miss the opportunity to run one. There’s no right way to do it, but we’ve sketched up a few different formats to help set you up to lead your team in an effective one. You don’t need to be the team lead, you don’t need to be an expert facilitator, and you don’t need to have a ton of time.

How To Run A Good Debrief

– Block the time early – debriefs are easy meetings to scratch at the last second. Block the time early, and ask your team to respect it.

– Set the tone up front – debriefs can get negative and invoke complaining if you’re not careful, so as a facilitator let people know the meeting is about translating reflection into new and actionable behaviors for next year. Cut off negative ramblers, and capture concrete lessons to learn from.

– Focus on the Good too – Spend an equal amount on positive and negative feedback. It’s just as important to hear what excited people, what went well, and where the team excelled. Be deliberate in this balance.

– Blameless is Rule #1 – Avoid finger pointing or attaching names too directly to outcomes. Frame it as a team debrief, not individual feedback (that’s a different type of session).

5 Fail Safe Debrief Structures

1. Pluses / Deltas – This is a fundamental framework for debriefing. Have a facilitator lead a discussion making a list of ‘pluses’, things that went well, and ‘deltas’, or things to improve or change next time around. It’s simple but ensures a balance of positive and negative feedback, and can be used in conjunction with most any other feedback framework.

2. The Hotseat – Have the team sit in a circle. Set a timer for 15-30 minutes and ask everyone to capture 3 pluses and 3 deltas for every other person in the circle. Ask people to also capture feedback for themselves as well. Encourage people to be as specific as possible, and establish a tone of positive intention for one another up front.

3. Product / Market / Team fit – This is a very concrete format for debriefing that includes a review of the business as a whole, and not just team members. Made popular by Marc Andreessen, this framework can be used to reflect on how your product or offering did this year, how the market and customer demand has shifted, and how things have gone with your team. Ideally, where these three meet in the middle is where your business opportunity lies. We use it as a way to ask ourselves what happened this past year that we can learn from for next year.


4. Customer / Content / Culture – This is similar to Product/Market/Team, but might feel more relevant depending on your type of organization. What feedback, stories and moments did you hear from your customers this year? What feedback and self-analysis do you have on the content and thinking you did this year? What feedback and key moments happened within the culture of the team? Make sure to highlight key takeaways to help set goals for next year.


5. Impact vs. Enthusiasm – We use this simple framework as a way for prioritizing ideas, but it’s also great for reflection. Have everyone brainstorm a list of initiatives, projects, or other output that happened throughout the year. Then, as a group, plot them based on Impact (what value did it create for the organization or in the world) and enthusiasm (how exciting was it as a team member to work on it). After they’re all posted, ask everyone to step back and reflect on what’s up there. As a facilitator, drive conversations around what you’re seeing. What were people most excited about? What created most impact for the organization? And most importantly, how might we replicate more high impact / high enthusiasm initiatives for next year?

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Final Thoughts

Debriefs are valuable because turn emotional thinking into useful reflection. As a facilitator, using debriefs as an end cap for an experience is an invaluable tool for making sure you end on a good note. As such, trying working them into the end of each week or month as a way to drive consistent reflection and open communication. For us, we’ve begun having our ‘Weekly Celebrations’ at 5:30pm each Friday. It’s just 30 minutes to have a beer and talk about what worked great, and what we can do better next week. No matter what happened that week, it turns the conversation into something positive, and there’s no better way to finish a week than on that note.

If you’re interested in learning more about facilitating effective debriefs and creative sessions, check out our 2016 Facilitation, Sketching, and Design Thinking Bootcamp dates below – each tackles these types of sessions from different angles.

Happy Holidays + Stay awesome,

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