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The “What’s Innovative?” Debate: Try Using First, Best, and Only

By: Sarabeth Berk, PhD

Innovation is the currency of business strategy, models, and management, yet the term has become ubiquitous to the point where it oftentimes feels meaningless or inauthentic to both employees and customers. People are dubious around its use because best practice or mere improvements have become supplanted as “innovations.” Nowadays, as companies strive to strengthen their position in the market and create value, too many things are being mistaken as innovative. How can we tell whether or not processes or creations are innovative?

To avoid the snake oil sales trap of ideas, services, or products that aren’t actually innovative, I’ve started using a simple strategy I call First, Best, and Only. This rule of thumb quickly squelches claims and shines light on true innovations versus good practices. I’ve been using it at my organization as an effective tool for flipping the “aha” switch on and bringing about universal understanding.

After all, half the battle with delivering and measuring innovation is agreeing upon what is innovative and what’s not.

Framing Innovation

How do we know when something is innovative versus a new, different, better, or best practice? Innovation is the execution of ideas (big and small) that are novel, unique, or haven’t been tried before—and it can apply to anything from products and processes to systems and experiences. In products, there are tangible features to compare, but in systems or services it can be fuzzier.

Companies have a hard time defining what innovation means for them. Innovation is often malleable and context driven. In workplaces where innovation is set as a goal or vision, I’ve seen employees crave a concrete, crystal clear definition from leadership to use as a measuring stick. “Tell us what you mean,” they implore.

When employees lack universal understanding around innovation, debates and skepticism ensues. This is where firsts, bests, and onlys come into play. The way to resolve unclarity is to show models, and the way we find models of innovation is to point to the firsts, bests, and onlys within our organization.

Moreover, in a world where news cycles, case studies, and conferences are devoted to disruptive innovation, it’s easy to forget that the majority of innovation is small and incremental.

Quick Review of the Innovation Continuum

At one end of the spectrum, innovation is undeniable. It is breakthrough and disruptive ideas that create new markets and displace the status quo. The Ubers, Airbnbs, Apples, and Amazons of the world fall into this category. However, only a small percentage of ideas are disruptive innovations.

Soren Kaplan’s Innovation Continuum

At the other end of the spectrum, innovation is almost imperceptible—more of an undercurrent. It is the incremental evolution of an idea from one form to another. Think pagers to bulky phones to flip phones. Cellphone technology occurred as a progression of successive changes built upon older generations that eventually enabled an entirely new kind of product. This type of innovation doesn’t happen overnight because it’s slow and steady. Importantly, it isn’t just additional features, it’s a series of small steps and tiny risks that haven’t been tried before or tried in that combination before.

It’s important to call attention to incremental innovations, disruptive innovations, or anything in between because firsts, bests, and onlys can be found at all levels. How do we find these in our organizations? I’ll describe the background of how I discovered this strategy and an overview of how it works.

Origin of First, Best, and Only

I discovered the First, Best, and Only strategy when I was sitting through a presentation by a consultant who was a Director of Development. (Yes, we were talking about fundraising not innovation.) I was in a room full of senior staff, and the consultant asked us to reflect upon what made our organization unique. “When you approach donors,” she asked, “what do you tell them makes this organization great?” People popcorned out standard facts and figures, things you see on our website and in our brochures, and she kindly listed them on the whiteboard.

As we watched and read the list, it was noticeable that we were struggling to come up with things. Not only were we weak in calling out our greatest strengths, but the items we listed didn’t sound too different from those of our competitors. Our list was lackluster and obviously didn’t reflect our greatness.

She prodded us to continue, “C’mon, where are you the first, best, or only at something?” and with that remark, the room lit up. People started calling out amazing discoveries, inventions, programs, and other accolades. Not the normal spiel. Suddenly, our list had teeth. It was clear what made us stand out from the crowd. In the process, I was surprised by how much I was learning about our organization, and I felt invigorated.

Weeks later, I was facilitating a meeting, and I was struggling to extract stories of innovation from my colleagues for a new marketing campaign. However, their suggestions didn’t showcase how our organization was more unique than others in our field. They were interesting stories with heartwarming messages, but they didn’t scream innovation. As a facilitator, I could tell I couldn’t push the brainstorming any further with prompts like “tell me something that’s truly innovative, different, or unique.” Out of the blue I blurted, “What about instances where we’ve been first, best, or only at something?” From that moment, the energy shifted—a new layer of stories was unblocked, and those were truly innovative.

Since then, I’ve noticed strong results from the First, Best, and Only strategy because it resonates. It’s easy to understand, and people quickly digest it as if being struck by lightning. Hence, my recommendation is to translate the abstractness of innovation into three ingredients: Firsts, bests, and onlys. These words help draw out innovation stories you may not have thought about in terms of your company’s greatest successes and areas of impact.

In fact, until I used First, Best, and Only with my coworkers, they didn’t even realize things they were already doing were innovative. In one case, our purchasing department realized they were the first department to implement Docusign in order to speed up and streamline processing. The adoption of this tool spread across the organization and became embedded in daily business. Now, the purchasing department gets to take credit for this internal innovation they brought to the organization.

How to use First, Best, and Only

What if I think a new meeting format is innovative because I’ve never seen it done that way before, but you say it’s not innovative because your last five employers ran meetings that way. Am I wrong? Are you right? Can we both be right?

In the schema of First, Best, and Only, if the meeting format is being used for the first time by that company, then it’s a “first,” and it’s innovative in that regard, and I’m right. Although, if other companies already do it that way, then it’s not a first, and it would not be considered innovative, and you’re right. Notice that the key criteria here for innovation is being first, therefore the metric in this situation is against internal or external innovation firsts. Is this a first for the company or a first for the marketplace? This is an important distinction because firsts, bests, and onlys can be perceived on many levels and throughout the innovation continuum.

If something is the first, the best (or one of the top 10 or top 20), or the only, then there’s a high probability that it’s innovative since, by definition, innovations are novelties or one-(or a few)-of-a-kind. This protocol can be applied to both internal or external innovations, as well as to incremental through disruptive innovations.

The strategy is fairly self-explanatory. Play around with the scope of comparison. For instance, are you comparing yourself to other departments, others in your industry, within a specific geographic region, or within a certain period of time? Define your filters to get clarity of scope. I recommend that you start wide (on a national or international scale), and then apply filters to find other kinds of innovation examples within your company.

To start, simply ask: “Where are we the first, best, or only?” You can do one word at a time, or ask for all three at once, and then let them trickle in randomly. These can be lists on three separate sheets of paper or in three columns on a page. The process is up to you.

Clarifying Information and Tips

Firsts: These are time-based. The most obvious are first to market, but it can also be when your first website went live or the release of your first newsletter. It’s easiest to track these down by looking at historical records, archives, institutional artifacts, or interviews with current or former employees.

Bests: These can be drawn from rankings or reports. It’s awesome to be number 1 or number 2, but what does “best” means to your organization? Maybe being in the top 10 is good enough, or even top 20 depending on how steep your competition is.

Onlys: These are where you’re one-of-a-kind. You are the only one creating, serving, or doing this thing. It could be the only one in your market or industry, or it could mean in the state, country, or world.
This is not a perfect strategy for finding innovation, but I believe it does an incredible job at helping us ascertain bright spots that may not have jumped out on the first pass. And it transforms how people think about the question “what’s innovative?” If anything, I hope that by using this strategy, it can help alleviate tensions around defining and identifying innovations. Please share your suggestions so we can learn more about this strategy together.



About Sarabeth Berk

Dr. Sarabeth Berk is the Assistant Director of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative at CU Boulder, a cross-campus effort to connect the university and surrounding community. Sarabeth considers herself an artist/researcher/teacher/designer and is known for her talent in blending, bending, and negotiating across disciplines to transfer knowledge and practice. In her previous work, Sarabeth led school innovation and design thinking in the Imaginarium at Denver Public Schools, taught art, creativity, and entrepreneurship in K-12 and higher education, and managed children’s programming at Anderson Ranch Arts Center.



Design Thinking Learning vs. Doing: Stories and Lessons from the Front Lines


When I teach design thinking in a training environment, my goal is to expose people to how design thinking works conceptually and generate excitement about how the mindsets can help them work more collaboratively and effectively. But in the real world, the pressures of solving problems, the ambiguity of the process and the challenging nature of group work can make it more frustrating than practicing in a learning environment.

Each problem is unique and comes with different variables that impact how you apply design thinking. The process gives you a set of tools and a framework for thinking, but doesn’t tell you how to address your specific challenge. That comes from intuition built through experience.

I’ve put together a collection of stories and lessons I’ve gained through my own practice of design thinking over the years. Hopefully, they can provide insight into what it is like to use design thinking day to day, as well as tips for overcoming some of the harder parts of design thinking in the real world.

Research seems easy, but is actually really hard.

Research in practice can be tricky to get right. Asking deeply personal questions of strangers and suspending personal biases takes skills developed through experience. Research also takes rigorous preparation. In the classroom, we focus on jumping into conversations with others to quickly learn about conducting an interview. While this gets the lesson across, it overlooks the real work required to generate quality research outputs.

Preparing the Research Plan:

Setting up quality research starts with a brainstorm of questions related to the topic you’re exploring. Always start with the question, “what are we trying to learn from this research?” Brainstorming things you already know about the topic, as a way of highlighting gaps in knowledge and opportunities for further exploration, is also productive at this point.

A couple years back, I was leading a project related to exploring unmet needs in financial advising. We weren’t the first to explore the topic and there was already a wealth of knowledge from past project teams. So we started there. We combed through old research, created a simple framework to organize the insights that had already been generated and let that process reveal the gaps we needed to research further. Only then did we design our research plan with the questions we wanted to ask and the people we needed talk to.

The process of rigorous planning may seem in contradiction to the bias towards action we encourage in design thinking training, but it’s critical to conducting quality research. It sets the stage for the questions you ask, the people you talk to and the research methods you use. One resource I consult at the beginning of the Examine phase is Universal Methods of Design. It’s full of research methods beyond the empathy interview and can help inspire the types of question you could ask.

Unpacking the Data:

The other overlooked part of research is the unglamorous work of unpacking the data gathered, before synthesizing it into insights. When you’re deep in qualitative research, it’s critical to unpack the research as you go, while it’s fresh. This is no easy task, but you’ll thank yourself later for making the time investment. Plan to spend as much time unpacking as conducting the actual research. Having all the data clearly written on Post-its, with photos of each person you spoke to, will help your team get on the same page about what was learned and allow everyone to analyze the data together.

Insights require a leap of faith.

Synthesizing research into quality insights is a process wrought with ambiguity and frustrating moments of circular discussion. That’s because a good insight gets to something that’s not obvious, through a combination of gut instincts, nuanced observations and leaps of faith. If done well, you’ll come to a differentiated understanding of the problem. If done poorly, you could end up with a bland and broad problem statement that you could have written on day one of the process.

People get stuck in synthesis when they focus on making their insight universally true. But an insight is just a hypothesis—an educated guess about what the problem is and what is true for your customer. Because it is an educated guess, it’s better to be provocative and inspiring than socially acceptable.

The nuance involved in generating insights is hard to explain in theory, so I’ll share an example from a project I led on a homepage design. Our brief: Explore how people use the homepage of their bank. What we heard from almost every user we spoke to is that they only use their bank’s homepage to log into their account. If we synthesized solely based on what we actually heard customer say, we would have ended up with an insight like, “Users don’t care about the bank’s homepage. They see it as just the first step to getting what they want: their account information.”

So what? We already knew that at the beginning of the project—without talking to anyone—which meant we couldn’t stop there with our synthesis of what we had learned. We needed new perspective about the problem and that didn’t position us to solve for anything. The easy part is identifying what is going on, the hard part is explaining why people feel and behave a certain way. Instead, we tapped into our gut instincts and beliefs about how people behave, and asked tougher questions like:

  • Why do people feel differently logging into Facebook than to their bank?
  • What makes Instagram so engaging and how do people feel when browsing the app?
  • What beliefs exist about banking that influence people’s perception of the homepage?
  • How do people get distracted online?

These questions forced us to peel back the layers of the stories we heard to make assumptions about how people think and what drives behavior. Filling in those gaps yielded a set of insights and design principles about the browsing process, as well as inspiration—from people scrolling through their social media feed—that we could use to redesign our homepage.

When I teach the Understand Phase, we usually spend 15-30 minutes on a quick needfinding activity to move from a set of stories to a reframed problem. In reality, this process took my team over a month and was the most challenging part of our project. We were designing our point of view about what we’d learned. This work can be grueling and exhausting—it takes trial and error, patience and perseverance. But, there is tremendous satisfaction in breaking through the fog of ambiguity to arrive at an insight with such clarity.

The brainstorm is just the first step.

Ideation represents a shift in the design thinking process, moving from problem identification to solution exploration. In ideation, the common mistake is not being specific enough. It is much easier to describe a desired outcome than it is to articulate a specific way to achieve that outcome.

I recently had a team in a workshop trying to make the workplace more collaborative. They were energized by their idea: “people should know the moods of other people in their office so they know how to approach them for collaboration.” I asked them how they’d actually make that happen and the group paused. They didn’t have an actual idea, they just had a desired outcome: people knowing each other’s moods.

Discussion continued and each person had a different picture of the solution for achieving the outcome. But, because they hadn’t been specific, they actually had no idea what their solution was. Eventually, the team landed on a simple flag system that allowed people to display a mood flag at their desk, signalling to others how (or if) they should approach them.

Was it a good idea? That’s not the point. The point is they articulated a specific way to achieve the outcome they were describing. There are also hundreds of other ways to achieve the same outcome and the purpose of ideation is to uncover those.

Ideation doesn’t stop with the initial brainstorm of ideas. That’s just the first step. The real work is sifting through all the ideas (and desired outcomes) generated and refining them to be concrete, testable ideas.

The idea dashboard is a really helpful tool at this phase. Even when you think you have the idea right, there are probably other ways it could be executed. The dashboard helps explore many possible ways an idea could come to life before determining how to prototype it.

A prototype is nothing without a hypothesis.

When we teach the Experiment Phase, the emphasis is on putting unfinished ideas out in the world for the sake of learning and getting feedback. However, there is an important nuance to prototype testing that will determine how successful it is. Just like in science class, experimentation should always be designed to test a hypothesis.

I remember teaching a workshop to senior executives and one team had come up with an app that would encourage weight loss and healthy behavior through setting goals and taking bets about whether or not people would reach those goals. Their first prototype of the idea was a series of screen mockups of the user flow. Sure, that might be a fine prototype if you were trying to test how someone moved through your app experience and if they knew which buttons to click. But that wasn’t the question they needed to answer.

They needed to validate whether betting for or against someone would influence behavior and create motivation. Did their paper screens test that? No. So instead, my co-facilitator encouraged them to recreate an experience that answered the question: can we motivate someone to complete a goal by having others bet for and against them?

Before I knew it, they challenged me to do 50 push ups in under two minutes and people around the room were placing bets with real money. I had a growing and engaged audience and the pressure to perform was on. For the record, I completed the challenge and a few people lost some money.

That little experiment taught them so much more about their idea than showing someone fake screens of an app and asking what they thought. They were able to see the dynamics of peer pressure and betting, and they understood how I actually felt, not how they imagined I’d feel. They saw the experience play out for real and they validated their hypothesis.

While making something is a really important part of prototyping, if the thing you’re making doesn’t help you prove or disprove a hypothesis, it doesn’t serve much value. The goal is to derisk the unknowns of your idea through testing and feedback, so be methodical about how you design both the prototype and the test to ensure each iteration is helping you answer a critical question.

The success of your idea depends on the story you tell.

In the classroom, storytelling is the fun end to a long day where everyone shares their idea, usually in form of a skit. But I don’t want the silly and fun nature of storytelling in the classroom to diminish the importance of strong storytelling in the real world. Will you perform a skit in real life? Maybe? I hope so, actually. But the point is to find a compelling way to convey your message to others so that it engages, inspires and motivates.

A couple months ago I had to give a presentation on how artificial intelligence could impact the workforce as it automates knowledge-based work. I started to put together a typical PowerPoint presentation outlining some research I’d done on AI trends and it hit me: what better way to tell the story of AI automating our jobs than to have AI automate this presentation? So rather than give the presentation myself, I built an automatic presentation narrated by a Siri-like voice. I hacked it together using auto-advancing slides and a script I’d written and recorded using the text-to-speech feature on my computer. The result was my audience got to experience what it could be like if AI actually takes our jobs. No one paid attention to the information on my slides because they were so fascinated with the experience of a self-presenting artificial intelligence PowerPoint.

That’s just one example of how to take the power of storytelling to move past conveying information to creating a moving experience. When the default is powerpoint slides, think about how to break the mold and draw your audience in. Because. at the end of the day, if you can’t captivate your audience, it doesn’t really matter how great your idea or message is—they won’t hear it.


People spend their entire careers building expertise in design thinking. While the tools and mindsets are often easy to try out yourself, don’t get discouraged by the fact that this work is hard and it takes time to build confidence, intuition and fluency. Like anything worth doing, you can’t become an expert overnight. But consistently applying the mindsets and methods to understand what works for you is the best way to master the art of design thinking.



This week’s blog post is from Lead Trainer Reilly Carpenter. Reilly 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.



Open Call for Lead Trainers

We’re thrilled to announce that we’re looking to expand our team of Lead Trainers!

The role of a Lead Trainer is a combination of strategist, front of room trainer and project/client relationship manager. Engagements include teaching public workshops (3-hour evening and 1-2 day sessions); leading corporate training sessions (2-3 day sessions); defining and facilitating client design sprints (typically 5-12 weeks); and providing strategic direction on consulting projects related to change management, organizational design and culture development. Trainers also collaborate with The Design Gym team to create new learning experiences, tools and resources; write blog posts; and participate in community events (i.e. panel discussions).

Who Are The Design Gym Lead Trainers

We believe that collaboration with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences leads to more interesting solutions, and we want to lead by example with the Lead Trainers that we bring to each project.

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. They work with The Design Gym on a freelance basis teaching workshops and training sessions, facilitating design sprints and developing content.

What Qualifications Are Needed To Be a Lead Trainer

In addition to your interesting passion projects, wild adventure stories and past lives, we’re looking for people who have at least 7+ years in roles that have involved:

  • Working in-house or at an agency in the field on design-thinking /human-centered design, bringing products/services to life
  • Leading professional development trainings for public or corporate environments
  • Facilitating teams in workshop settings as well as long-term projects
  • Scope definition, project planning/management and client management
  • Organizational design or change management consulting

How To Apply

If this sounds like a good fit, we’d love to learn about you and see if our working styles align. Send us your CV along with responses to the following questions by Friday, April 21st. Please send all materials to trainers@thedesigngym.com.

  • Tell us why you are interested and what makes you a good fit for the role.
  • Tell us about a recent design project that you were involved in. What was your role, approach, team structure, and outcomes?
  • What have been some of your key learning moments over the years solving design challenges and facilitating people?
  • Share a link(s) to something that you’ve written or can share with us.
  • What’s something that has inspired you recently and why?

We look forward to hearing from you!

As a bit of background, The Design Gym helps organizations and individuals adopt the practices of Design Thinking to create a more creative and collaborate culture. We do this through leading public workshops, corporate trainings, facilitating design sprints, building community, and driving culture change within companies ranging from Fortune 500s to startups and non-profits.


Building Ecosystems in Organizations: Lessons from Gap Inc.

By Anya Kandel

This week’s blog post was contributed by TDG friend and community member Anya Kendal. Anya has spent much of her career focused on innovation strategy, including 3 years helping build innovation capacity at Gap Inc. This blog post, originally published on Faster Than 20, shares valuable lessons and insights Anya has learned along the way.


For three years, I worked to build innovation capacity at Gap Inc. The work required us to explore the complexities of driving change within ingrained systems and behavioral norms across multiple communities, teams and brands. Throughout my time there, I asked myself (and my colleagues) this not so simple question:

How do we build thriving, innovative and strategically-minded organizations and communities that are sustainably driven by the individuals that comprise them?

I don’t have the answer to that question, not for a lack of trying, of course, but I do have several ideas and approaches that got me that much closer:

  1. People and context before process and model
  2. Learn through the work
  3. Democratize strategic thinking and innovation
  4. Coordinated access to strategy and culture tools + practice
  5. Do It Together

1. People and context before process and model

Working at the intersection of innovation, management consulting and strategy, there is a significant emphasis on models, frameworks and processes. They are what firms sell in order to scale and what clients reference to understand a consultant’s approach and impact. These models, frameworks and processes are important…as tools. But ultimately, what makes innovation and strategy consulting firms successful and covetable are the creative, intuitive and smart people who work there—individuals armed with an understanding of the various processes and techniques that support strategic thinking.

Design Thinking is a good example. It is a rich model and process that works well for many challenges. The philosophy behind the model — one that invites empathy, observation and collaboration in organization and product development — has informed the way we think about problem solving, particularly in the world of business. But, IDEO, grounded in David M. Kelley’s Design Thinking approach, does not sell multi-million dollar projects simply because companies want to buy this model. (It is already accessible and free.) Organizations keep coming back to them because they have a diverse set of creative, strategic and dedicated people who (with a robust toolkit and lots of experience) can approach every client request in a unique way.

The models (especially sold by innovation firms) aren’t as different as one might think. The power is in the people—those who facilitate, those who participate and those who work to bring new ideas to life. A good strategic practitioner understands the people and the context, and pools the resources they need to design a process that works best for that specific case. A good approach enables the client/participants to understand the context of various scenarios and problems, ask good questions and match process models to context. A good outcome is when an organization, team or community has the capacity to learn and grow from the experience and continue to evolve the work on their own.

2. Learn through the work

During my time at Gap Inc., I worked to build an internal innovation consulting group. We facilitated teams to solve complex challenges, we designed trainings and systems in order to grow innovation capacity, and we helped teams create new products. In our work, there was certainly no lack of innovative ideas—that was the easy part. The hard part was creating a vision and environment where those ideas could surface, as well as a culture that supported ongoing experimentation to help bring those ideas to life.

Initially, we spent much of our time fixing things that weren’t working (rethinking products, systems, and ways of working) and facilitating sessions that solved immediate problems. In parallel, we began to train employees within the company in creative group facilitation, building a force of innovation catalysts. They learned through the “work” of managing innovation projects and co-facilitating with us.

The projects that stuck and the initiatives that had the biggest impact were always those that allowed the catalysts and the collaborators to be the work, rather than receive it. This required solving real challenges and testing new ways of working in a safe environment.

One of my favorite experiences came while working on in-store experience and design with a creative leader in the company. We introduced her to a co-creation process, where customers worked collaboratively with her and her team to evolve what had already been created. It was amazing to see the shift from theoretical appreciation to active engagement, from the fear of getting something wrong to the discovery of new creative ways of working. From then on, she was able to integrate co-creation and prototyping into her work, recognizing not only the feeling of creative breakthrough, but the visceral understanding of how hard it can be to bring those ideas to life.

Still, given the size of the company and the scale of work we had, our engagements were often confined to executive leadership or isolated teams. Working solely with leaders to build a culture of innovation based on yearly priorities is not enough. Inevitably, leadership and strategy changes, initiatives are dropped and the pressure of immediate business needs can trump almost anything, no matter how important we think it is.

Learning through the work is imperative, but is only as powerful as the people who are enabled to actually do so. It wasn’t that our initiatives weren’t big enough or unsuccessful. Rather, we needed to scale or evolve in order to influence the diverse subcultures and teams within the company. We needed to democratize innovation and build a long-lasting culture that celebrated experimentation, collaboration and strategic thinking.

3. Democratize strategic thinking and innovation

Soon after joining Gap Inc., I started to explore how to create alternate spaces for communication, which could scale, and that skirted, hierarchical limitations.

I noticed a disconnect between the leadership’s desire to understand Millennials and the overwhelming majority of Millennials who worked inside the company. Here lay a tremendous opportunity to bridge that divide and create environments for open communication between those who were making decisions and the young people who had insight into how those decisions would impact individuals like themselves.

I started a group called the M Suite, a nonhierarchical, transparent network of Millennials dedicated to building co-creation and collaboration across brand and function. Functioning like a node in a network, M Suite connects people in the organization who were looking for creative input and collaboration, with the very large community of people eager to help solve creative challenges and share their perspectives.

Building our own infrastructure became an experiment in establishing networked, collaborative communities functioning within a hierarchical infrastructure. We used ourselves to explore unique models and approaches. We experimented with different ways of meeting, communicating and solving problems. We tried different models for governance. We tried partner leadership. Eventually we arrived somewhere between a Holacracy and a leadership network, and officially took the form of an ERG.

Because our work was inherently related to change, and the way we worked was very different from our surroundings, our presence invited reservations too:

  • “What if they don’t know the bigger picture and choose the wrong problems to focus on?”
  • “Why spend time building visionary ideas and solutions to complex problems when they don’t have the power to implement upon these new ideas?”

Clearly, the notion of democratizing innovation and building networks can feel really scary to organizations that rely on a more hierarchical way of working. However, I found that unearthing these reservations often highlighted circumstances that were best addressed head on (like a lack of alignment or unclear vision). We never saw their work undermine high-level strategy, but rather elevate the conversations around it.

Democratizing innovation doesn’t necessarily imply that the work of innovation is everyone’s job, or that an organization should lose its structure. Rather, it starts with furnishing everyone the respect and equal opportunity to engage in the creative process and think strategically. By expecting this community of individuals to thoughtfully own their work and ask good questions, they often did. By giving them the tools to walk into any meeting with a strategic mindset, we created an environment where everyone was more likely to try to understand the broader vision and understand what “alignment” could really look like.

The desire to join the M Suite was impressive. People from across the company and around the globe participated, hungry to contribute to the evolution of the company. This fitful enthusiasm also reminded me of the social movements and community networks that I’ve worked with in the past, and the challenges their emerging organizers faced to initiate new systems for working and new forms of self governance.

4. Coordinated access to strategy and culture tools + practice

The transition to a new way of working is invariably messy, personal, multifarious, iterative and nonlinear.

We (M Suite co-founders and new board) were called upon to define how to govern ourselves while still leading. Our growing network of communities were looking for guidance on how to evolve, potentially in very different capacities. The organizers were hungry for tools and techniques that could help them understand how to lead and facilitate collaborative engagements. Plus, they needed to learn tactical strategies for managing the work while also doing their day job.

To answer those needs, we organized trainings in innovation project management, client engagement and collaborative problem solving. We initiated opportunities for shadowing. (At one point, I had eight people shadowing me in a client intake session.) We organized skill shares. We created opportunities to own projects in partnership with those experienced in leadership. We experimented with online tools. We tried new board structures.

We focused our attention on the development of the M Suite board first. This worked, to a certain extent. We became a community for collective learning and growth, and actively serving on the board became a venue for discovering individual potential. Our board members chose to stay at the company longer than they had planned, thanks to the opportunities we provided; or they left earlier than planned, because of the opportunities they realized. In effect, all of the board members were promoted (or promoted themselves by leaving the company) within a year of serving on the board. The need to cycle in new leadership was a happy consequence, but not always an easy one.

Our projects were successful, we grew internationally, and we gained a good reputation in some pockets of the organizations. But the group also became an oasis, striving to become a movement. And it was at this point that I left the company, along with the brilliant original co-founders of the M Suite, Rona Kremer and Jessica Talbert. If I have any regret, it would be not fully figuring out how to embed networked leadership skills and how to build the strategic muscles and tools so that members of the M Suite could more easily drive the creative process on their own and expand more quickly.

As I step away from Gap Inc., the question remains: How do we enable awesome groups, like the M Suite, to have impact and thrive? How do we find ways for people to experiment and engage with the many tools and resources we already have on hand?

I have a lot to learn in this area. But luckily, I have had the privilege of collaborating with and learning from practitioners who are specifically focused on creating accessible tools for capacity building, such as Eugene Eric Kim, founder of Faster Than 20. Eugene’s work has complemented a deficiency I found in many innovation and co-creation initiatives, including my own: accessible, foundational tools and techniques for individuals who want to practice working strategically and collaboratively. These resources are public domain, meant to be tools that everyone can use and evolve within their own context.

Also, check out Lisa Kay Solomon’s work, which provides a rich foundation in designing strategic processes. She has two fantastic books: Design a Better Business and Moments of Impact. I have no doubt that all of you have a plethora of other resources too, which I encourage you to share in the comments below.

These colleagues have helped me to better understand that matching access to practice is simple but powerful. If everyone has the tools and resources to think strategically, then slowly but surely we can build an ecosystem of individuals and organizations that can thrive together.

5. Do It Together (DIT)

We must create opportunities to build connections that allow us to look beyond best practices, models, or frameworks.

An ecosystem is only as healthy as the biomes within it and the strength of connectivity between them. Beyond the immediate development of communities and teams, my most successful initiatives have been those that invited people to step out of their realities (via guest artists, makers, new collaborations) and see themselves in new ways.

As a strategist and facilitator, I am increasingly exploring the balance between carrying a group through a transformational experience and curating a set of circumstances and resources that enable a group of people to find what they need in each other—we need both, of course. But, if by the end of our time together, I disappear and they forget to say goodbye, I consider this a success.

In fact, I just received a beautiful invitation for an event hosted by the well-branded M Suite, where they are driving conversation with internal Millennials, external creatives and all employees. It was a small moment of pride, and I hope that our (the founders) step away has translated into collective greater ownership and autonomy.

The world is made of amazing people doing the work that strategists like myself try to inspire. The more we are not needed, the better. But clearly our work isn’t going away. Many organizations and teams—especially in smaller purpose-driven organizations—seek support, but do not have the funds and access to strategic coaching that is sometimes required to shift circumstance and the behaviors that inspire innovation and change.

So then, how close can we get to putting me out of job? How might we pull back the curtain (often weighed down by the fear of losing IP) and share systems, tools, models and approaches across origination and field?

This has been a fun and challenging question to explore with colleagues like Eugene. Drawing on the DIY (Do It Yourself) mentality that utilizes the power of the network for individual development, we are developing strategies to Do It Together (DIT) and ignite the power of peer groups—bridging high-level strategic support and training with access to learning communities and support networks.

So far these efforts have resulted in a growing community of practitioners eager to share what they know and grow their personal practice (no matter the industry). Exchanging and fusing approaches has also provided us a great opportunity to challenge the bounds of our own frameworks and tools and think about what it really means to move people and ideas.

Interested in engaging in the conversation? Tweet me @4anya or follow me on Medium.


The top photo is of Anya Kandel and Jessica Talbert, Gap Inc. M Suite cofounders. The second photo is of Rona Kremer, another M Suite cofounder. The last photo is from Eugene Eric Kim and Anya Kandel’s October 2016 Do-It-Together Strategy / Culture workshop in New York.


About Anya

Anya Kandel is an innovation strategy consultant based in San Francisco. She has spent the last 15 years researching and building systems that enable creativity for positive change and helps organizations work holistically to build long-term strategy and innovation capacity. Anya recently worked internally at Gap Inc to help build an internal innovation practice and shares some of what she learned here.



Growing Up in 2016

One of our peer advisors told us once that the early years of childhood can often be used as a good metaphor for a new business or startup. An age when every year brings new experiences, unlike any you’ve had before. The years when you start to understand very clearly what family looks like—who around you most contributes to your well being, happiness and safety. The years when your instincts are put to the test, becoming acutely aware of the sustenance that keeps you moving, and the shelter that keeps you safe. They say that in these first few years of life, your brain is firing more synapses and capturing more information than you’ll capture in the rest of your life. This metaphor has never felt more accurate.

Next year, we’ll be celebrating our 5-year anniversary since running our very first design thinking workshop in Brooklyn. Our first 2.5 years, we felt as if we were simply born into the world. We started to develop a personality, we made people laugh, we learned what felt good and what to avoid. We captured every piece of data we could find, soaking in the world around us with the widest eyes we could muster, because we could—because the world was so interesting we couldn’t bear not to taste it all. Then we hit 3, when we learned to walk—rolling our fun side project into an actual business. We learned how to feed ourselves, how to ask for what we wanted and how to make friends on our own. These years can feel hard in the moment, but you realize it’s just because you’re trying so many new things for the very first time. In the grand scheme, most of it feels trivial in retrospect, but it’s very clear how much stronger you are for having faced them. This period is all about building a foundation that will last you for years to come.

And that brings us to present day—nearly 5 years old. We could not feel more ready, or more excited, to be hitting what feels like a very new stage of life. A stage where we no longer marvel at having a voice, but spend our time exploring where we might use that voice to make the biggest impact. A stage of life where we no longer just have playdates with friends, but come together with those we admire to build something meaningful—the grand scale equivalents of ambitious lemonade ventures and audacious tree houses. And finally, a stage where we don’t just accept family as a support system, but we actively work to cultivate, develop and give back to that family—the people at the center of what we do and define who we are.

Yes, we are excited for 2017. Excited for bold risks. Excited for playful adventure. Excited for deepening existing relationships and building new ones. Excited for diverse collaboration. Excited for what’s to come.

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for being with us every step of the way and for helping us grow up. You’re the reason we get up each and every day, and there’s no other place we’d rather be.

Here’s to a New Year,
The Design Gym Team


Our Favorite Moments from 2016

1,116 change makers getting their hands dirty in 64 public classes.



3 amazing panels, 1 Industry Night dinner and 1 Collective Conscious event for peer listening around the election.



26 client projects across 20 amazing organization (including our first car client for you Mad Men fans, and our first 800+ person audience).



3 new team members (welcome Jason Cha, Erin, and Jane!), 15 Lead Trainers, 3 new TDG babies and a brand new 30-person home for us all to play in.



4 surfing trips, 1 skateboarding lesson, a virtual reality roller-coaster and an unknown quantity of tacos during ‘Field Trip Friday’ team days (focused on learning, bonding and overeating).



And, a candy cane in a pine tree (we couldn’t get the partridge or the pear tree).



The Design Gym’s Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Stocking stuffers for the creative

‘Tis the season for holiday parties, hot toddy’s and buzzfeed-style gift guides. And here at The Design Gym, we have a burning passion for awesome shit. So we’ve decided to join in on the holiday cheer and create a shopping list of our own—one we’re dubbing the ultimate stocking stuffers for the creative.

Pulled together from The Design Gym staff and lead trainers, here are our top suggestions to get you through gift-buying this holiday season.


Machine Era Brass Pen | $38

Andy Hagerman, Co-founder


This is one of my favorite gifts to give right now because it balances classy, creative and useful in one affordable gift. Machine Era encompasses those principles lovingly in all the products they come up with. Pens are one of those timeless items that have unfortunately become throw away pieces, so this brings back some of that spirit of having a pen you’re proud to pull out whether you’re in a client session or a bar stool brainstorm. Best accompanied with a fresh sketchbook or a pint of whiskey.


In the Company of Women | $24.06

Erin Lamberty, Community Education Lead


This book is everything you want in a great coffee table centerpiece. Wise words. Beautiful photos. And sparks of inspiration to get your brain gears turning. I’ve purchased this for myself and a few friends already! Santa said it was OK to deliver early 🙂


100 Questions: A Toolkit for Conversations | $30


Interesting prompts are sparks for creative exploration, so why not bring some fuel to your holiday conversations? This card deck is the perfect size for a stocking stuffer, keeping in your facilitator bag, or keeping out on the coffee table. Warning: convo prompts can sometimes be a little existential!

And, just for fun…

Field Notes: Expedition Notebooks | $12.95


When we ask folks in our workshops where they get their most creative ideas, they often say “in the shower!” Be prepared with a waterproof notebook so no idea is forgotten.


Notebooks | $3

Hannah Dubin, Lead Trainer


Need a cost-effective, thoughtful stocking stuffer that works for both tiny and adult humans? Amazing notebooks are always great! I write and sketch everything and love having a gift that can be shared with the kids.



Ketzali Shawl or Scarf | $65 – $125

Jane Garcia Buhks, Marketing Lead


From one creative to another—you can’t go wrong with a beautifully designed gift, with a social mission that can be used all year-round. Guatemalan-based Ketzali works with local artisans to create stunning scarves and shawls that can be worn outdoors during the frigid winter or inside to combat the office cold.


Zeichen Press Holiday & Thank You Greeting Cards | $4.50


Nothing warms the heart more than a handwritten, postmarked card. Whether I’m wishing someone a happy holidays or thanking them for the awesome gift they picked me up off this list, I tend to turn to Zeichen Press. Funny and beautifully-designed greeting cards: can’t beat it.


Brooklyn Botanical Gardens Membership | $50

Jason Cha, Director, Training and Culture Strategy


Research suggests that, over time, experiences make people happier than things. So I think the best gifts are ones that enable people to have new experiences by themselves or with friends and family: memberships to local museums, tickets to events or shows, classes, massages, a babysitter so you can have a date night—you get the idea. And on top of that, you don’t contribute to the “burden of stuff” that many of us have to deal with after the holidays.

Alternative Gag Gift:

Flying Fuck RC Helicopter | $25.58


Show everyone how much you care by actually giving a fuck 😉


Classes | Price Varies

Jason Wisdom, Co-founder


My recommended gift is classes! Not to be self-serving but there is nothing I enjoy giving or receiving more than classes. A few of my favorites have been: Murray’s Cheese (Scotch and cheese tasting), UCB (Learn improv), Brooklyn Kitchen (Greek cooking and cocktail making), Parkour at Chelsea Piers, SkateYogi.

I gave my Mom a Greek cooking class that we took together at Brooklyn Kitchen, which was so much more than I expected (it was really a philosophy class where we happened to cook). My girlfriend got me a Scotch and Cheese Tasting class at Murray’s Cheese, which has since been replicated multiple times in our apartment. And finally I’m 10 classes on learning how to skate a mini ramp through Kevin’s courses at SkateYogi. My ankle is an awful shade of blue/green today but I feel like I’m reliving childhood and loving it.



Moleskin Classic Notebook | $17.96

John Bloch, Lead Trainer

It has serious look—it’s black, hard cover, elastic band closure, heavy stock dense enough not to show through, a ribbon bookmark (like a fine old dictionary) and even a pocket on the inside back cover for napkin scribbles. Moleskins come in all sizes and the choice is personal. I like the 5 x 8.25; it’s large enough for shared brainstorming and using bold lines, yet small enough for ideating at your local coffee shop, sketching on the subway and tossing into a backpack.

And to go with that notebook…

Uniball Signo Impact | $21.49


Pens? Again personal. Try the Uniball Signo Impact 207 Rt 65870, black, 1.0mm bold point. The bold line obliges me to draw a little simpler and heavier than I might otherwise = less fussy visuals. Point is retractable and refills available.


Serenflipity | $10.35

Jonathan Jeter, Lead Trainer


A friend and former colleague developed a set of cards after going on a month-long sabbatical to Asia. She had friends give her daily challenges to be completed on her trip, and didn’t look at any of them until each morning when she drew one out of a hat to read it for the first time. Through it all she learned how to be adventurous and the benefits it can bring to your creativity and life in general.


Snapchat Spectacles | $129.99

Karen Hold, Lead Trainer


This TDG D.C. chick is dying for a pair of Snapchat Spectacles. Keeping my eyes on the map for the eventual D.C. Bot to spring up. So fun!


Cards Against Humanity | $25

Kiely Sweatt, Lead Trainer


It’s great for holiday gatherings, parties with friends and I’ve even used it with with colleagues during team building workshops. There are also so many additional packs you can add to your pre existing decks.


Carry On Cocktail Kit | $24

Reilly Carpenter, Lead Trainer


There’s nothing better than a craft cocktail after a long day. For the traveling creative, the Carry On Cocktail Kit is the perfect way to relax at 30,000 feet without settling for whatever they’ve got on the drink cart. This TSA-approved, personal mixology kit transforms that middle seat by the bathroom into a speakeasy for one. Plus, cute packaging!




When is the shiny new toy the right tool for the job?

How to Best Integrate Design Thinking Into Your Organization

Let’s face it, as with anything new, it’s easy to fall in love with design thinking and want to apply it to every challenge you come across. As a leader in an organization that’s adopting design thinking, you may find yourself in the situation where your team, filled with excitement about the new process, is requesting to use it for every project—or as one executive eloquently put it to us, ‘What can I do!? My team wants to design think the shit out of everything!’

However, as someone who’s mindful of stakeholder alignment, budgets and priorities, knowing when to leverage design thinking is essential to its success (and therefore your success).

So, how do you identify which challenges are right for design thinking?

1. It’s a High-Impact Challenge for You or Your Organization

High-impact can mean different things to different organizations. However, what makes a challenge high-impact is its ability to drive significant change for your business. That change can be tied to anything from revenue growth to customer engagement or internal business structure. Whatever it’s tied to, the key here is it’ll lead to an outcome that will shift things.

Several years ago, the founder and CEO of Capital One declared that from that day forward they were no longer a bank, but were now a technology company. The companies they had typically compared themselves to, namely other large banks such as JPMorgan Chase or Citibank, had broadened greatly to include established tech companies, like Google, and rapidly growing tech startups, like Venmo.

Understanding the implications of technology on their business was critical to their sustained success, and thus high-impact. It required them to dive deep into new user research and identify needs-based insights that would drive future strategies. Flash forward to today, and Capital One is recognized as one of the most tech-forward financial institutions with new, user-driven innovation coming out every quarter.

2. There Are Stakeholder Needs, Behaviors and Emotions That We Should Understand but Don’t

When thinking about who your stakeholders are, you have to take into consideration everyone who’ll be affected by the outcomes of your challenge—really anyone interacting with your business, from customers to suppliers to internal teams. Remember, design thinking is not only for customers, it’s for all humans involved. Properly identifying who those stakeholders are and then understanding their needs, behaviors and emotions is critical to one’s ability to empathize.

Back in 2007, in an effort to make a quick buck, a pair of San Francisco roommates decided to open up their couch for people attending an upcoming conference. They decided to call their idea AirBed&Breakfast, which eventually became Airbnb—a company today valued at $30 billion, boasting 2,000,000+ listings across 191 countries.

But before that success, way back in 2007, they were having some trouble. They’d seen some growth in listings, around a few large events (namely President Obama’s inauguration), but otherwise interest had been stagnant. They knew they had a great concept, but something wasn’t quite resonating. So they took to the streets to spend time with some of their core users, hosting MeetUps and even renting out rooms themselves.

Through this immersive research, they uncovered a few key insights about how people were using their platform—one being that the poor photography, accompanying most of their listings, was deterring potential users from actually committing to renting a space. They had never considered just how imperative good shots were, so they immediately scrapped some other initiatives and redirected resources towards capturing appealing photos. All of a sudden growth began to steadily increase.

It’s easy to speculate on why growth might not be taking place, but until you get on the front line and learn about your stakeholders’ needs, behaviors and emotions, you might be missing lots of opportunity.

3. There’s Ambiguity Around What the Best Solution Could Look Like

Frequently, when you set out to solve a problem that you’re familiar with or you’ve encountered before, you typically already have a solution in mind. However, for problems where you’re not quite sure what the best solution could be or have a feeling there are multiple solutions, leveraging design thinking allows you to go wide, imagining several different options, before narrowing in on one to prototype. Ever heard the phrase, “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got”—that’s exactly what we’re talking about.

Sydney’s King Cross neighborhood is known as the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night. With a plethora of bars, nightclubs, sex shops and strip clubs, it’s often referred to as Sydney’s Red Light district. It also happens to be the epicenter of alcohol-related crime, particularly drinking-induced violence. So in 2013, in an effort to combat that violence, the City of Sydney paired up with the research center, Designing Out Crime to look into possible solutions.

Instead of pursuing the predictable, and frequently undesired, solution of just increasing police presence to reduce crime, Designing Out Crime leveraged design thinking to look deeper into the problem.

They conducted extensive research into the stakeholders and their needs; studied similar environments that had high levels of alcohol consumption, yet low levels of alcohol-induced violence; and they looked for common themes. That led them to a solution centered around two strategies distraction and extraction.

Distraction focused on offering different forms of entertainment—like food stalls, interactive games, illuminated seating podiums for chilling out—to distract revelers from the “vacuum effect” and pedestrian congestion that were frequently credited for leading to altercations. Meanwhile, extraction centered around creating efficient and safe methods of transporting people out of King Cross, back home at the end of the night. The two together made for a creative and interesting solution that more than likely wouldn’t have come to fruition without the use of design thinking.

All Three Apply

You’ve been nodding your head the entire time, all three of the above criteria apply—you’re facing a high-impact challenge with unknown stakeholder needs, behaviors and emotions; and ambiguity around the best solution. In that case, the shiny new toy—design thinking—actually becomes not only the an applicable tool, but also an excellent one for the job.

Once you’ve determined that all 3 criteria are at play and your team is all set to design think it, your next step will be to frame your challenge. This post is the first installment in a 3-part series about starting your projects off on the right foot. Next week, we’ll be looking at framing your challenge, how to make sure you’re asking the right questions.



The Mindsets Behind the Methods: Applying Design Thinking in Your Organization


I remember as a child watching the movie Matilda and having a burning desire to move things with my mind, just like Matilda. I wanted it SO bad. I would stare really hard at the TV remote, trying to lift it with all my psychokinetic might. But after minutes of squinting and grunting, giving it my all, nothing happened and I gave up on my dream of being able to make objects fly with a glare. I was just wishing I could make magic happen.


Fast forward to today. As a design thinking facilitator, trainer and coach, I often get the question of how to change the culture of a company to be more collaborative, creative and “design thinking-y.” It can seem like an impossible task getting five, a dozen or even hundreds of people to change the way they act and work every day. And while many people wish for change, frequently they don’t actually make change happen.

So what does Matilda have to do with getting design thinking off the ground at your organization? Matilda taught us that when you put your mind to it, you can make the impossible happen.

You’re probably thinking, “Whaaaaat? Shut up. NEXT!” But bear with me.

A common thing I see after people are exposed to design thinking is a desire to directly apply the methods without being critical of what they’re trying to accomplish with design thinking in the first place. They want to check a box, follow a process, and expect magic to happen. But the real magic of design thinking is in the mindsets behind the methods.

Our actions are manifestations of our attitudes and mindsets. So the easiest way to start changing how people act is changing the way they think. You can’t expect people to completely overhaul the way they work overnight. But you can be a role model by demonstrating the change you want to see through your own behaviors and mindsets.

To get you started, here are a few, simple design thinking mindsets you can start modeling within your organization.

Make It Human

People assume doing empathy interviews is doing design thinking, and in many cases, talking to customers is a big part of the process. But an empathy interview is just one tool to help us think from the human perspective. The mindset is about shifting your frame on any problem from your own point of view, or your business’ point of view, to that of your customer to challenge your assumptions and biases.

Ask Yourself: How might I get my team and I thinking from a perspective that’s not our own?

Apply It: Next time you and your team are facing a problem, challenge everyone to think of three ways they can learn about the customer’s point of view. For example, they could actually go talk to real customers, strike up a conversation with their next Uber driver, or just browse online reviews or social media to get a sense for what customers are thinking and feeling. Then, have everyone complete at least one of those activities and come back with a story to represent the customer. This will start to train others in your organization about the many ways to understand a problem and how to continually bring the customer into the problem-solving process.

Make It Real

Ideas are only meaningful if they are put into action, which is why the mindset of making it real is so critical to design thinking. Often, it gets associated with prototyping with popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners. But making it real is actually about making our ideas tangible so we can understand them, critique them and share them with others. You don’t always have to build a physical prototype (though you can!). It can be as simple as visualizing your ideas in a sketch or a storyboard that someone else can see, understand and react to.

Ask Yourself: What can I create right now to bring this idea/concept/discussion to life?

Apply It: In your next brainstorm or problem-solving session, if the discussion begins to circle around the merit of a particular idea or concept, ask everyone to take a moment to draw what’s in their mind, making it as concrete and detailed as possible. Then have everyone share their drawing and ask the rest of the team to provide feedback, starting their thought with either “I liked” or “did you think about…” This will help make the discussion more tangible, grounding it in real artifacts as opposed to hypotheticals and opinions.

Make It Inspiring

When presented with a problem, we often jump immediately to the first solution that comes to mind and the problem-solving stops there. That’s because most organizations reward solutions over curiosity and creativity. But finding innovative solutions requires being able to explore lots of possible solutions before choosing a particular one to move forward with. This is called flaring before focusing. If you’ve ever been to a Design Gym workshop, you’ll remember this Open and Exploring before you Close.

Ask Yourself: How might we get inspired about this particular problem or challenge?

Apply It: The next time you catch yourself or someone on your team jumping right to the solution, ask each person on your team to say something that inspires them. Then, set a 10-minute timer and have everyone brainstorm other possible solutions to the problem as well as unanswered questions about the problem. Then, spend another 10 minutes sharing and discussing the unanswered questions and other possible solution areas. At the end of twenty minutes, you should have a few different avenues for further exploring and solving the original problem.

With three new mindsets at your disposal to start reshaping how your organization thinks and acts, here are a few tips for affecting the magic of change:

1. Start With Baby Steps

Sometimes the best way to make a wave is with a ripple. Don’t expect you can change the entire culture of your organization overnight. But you can change your next meeting, working session or conversation in a matter of minutes. Aim to exhibit just one of the above mindsets a day in your work and with your team, and soon enough, you’ll start to notice the culture shifting the way you want.

2. Make Some New Friends

If you’re sitting around saying, “we should be working differently” you’re probably not alone. Find the others secretly wanting change too. Practice your small mindset changes with them and then begin to recruit more allies. Before you know it, you’ll have a small army of changemakers helping reshape how your organization works. Remember, it can all start with finding your partner in crime.

3. Coach the Change You Wish to See

Everybody has problems they don’t know how to solve. Find these people and become a coach for them using the mindsets above. Use inspiration and exploration to help them see the world of possibilities, or help them gain new perspective on their challenge by thinking human-first. But remember, the key to coaching is helping them arrive at their own ah-ha moment—not telling them the answer. But once they do, you can be sure they’ll be hungry for more and you can rally them to become a change agent with you. You’ll also build a reputation as someone who has a toolkit that can make things happen.


Changing an organization is no easy job. Be patient, but start today. Apply a design thinking mindset—big or small—any chance you get. Look for small wins that start to nudge people towards bigger change. Focus on practicing and exhibiting new ways of thinking and, like magic, new habits and behaviors will follow. I can’t promise that you’ll ever be able to move a fork with your mind like Matilda (let’s be real, that will never happen), but adopt the right mindsets—and teach others to do the same—and you’ll start to see your world changing around you.



This week’s blog post is from Lead Trainer Reilly Carpenter. Reilly 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.


What Color is Your Pen?

Black, Yellow, Red Pen People: Which one are you?


In his book, The Back of the Napkin: How to Solve Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, Dan Roam uses different colored pens to symbolize or represent an individual’s comfort level with sketching. “Black Pen People” are take-charge types who can take a marker and jump right in sketching on a whiteboard or flipchart. “Yellow Pen or Highlighter People” are adept at looking at other people’s sketches and finding insights and connections that make ideas come to life. If you often say “I can’t draw BUT…” you’re probably a Yellow Pen person. Lastly, “Red Pen People” are deathly afraid of having to step up and scribble ideas in public.


So which pen are you?

We use the “Which Pen Are You?” question at the start of sketching workshops to help gauge comfort levels in the room and set expectations for the night.

While getting people to admit to a certain comfort (or discomfort) level is one way to breakdown the barriers to sketching. Here are a few other things to keep in mind to help yourself, your teammates and your entire organization embrace sketching as a practice:

1. Close enough is good enough in sketching.

Sketching is about creating new ideas, capturing other people’s thoughts, solving problems and communicating ideas more effectively with others. It’s not about art. You don’t need an art degree to be proficient at working at a flipchart or whiteboard. Most of the time you’ll be drawing boxes, circles, lines and arrows anyway to get your point across. So it’s not important that your sketch of a building or giraffe look EXACTLY like a building or a giraffe. Close enough is definitely good enough.


2. Fast and loose wins the day.

Two basic skills in sketching you need to hone are active listening and quick sketching. #HearSomethingDrawSomething. Once you develop an understanding of the basic sketching vocabulary (i.e. circles, squares, triangles, arrows and simple icons), you can work quickly and with greater confidence and ease. Getting an idea down is what you’re after. And, as with most things, with plenty of practice you’ll become better and better at this.


3. Generate a variety of ideas quickly.

When you’re not trying to be perfect, you’re free to generate lots of ideas rapidly. Rather than spending too much time finessing an early idea, sketching enables your team to explore different territories, push past surface ideas and allows you to get deeper concepts out of your head faster. There’s no better way than sketching to get the ideas in the back of your brain to the front of the room.


4. Weed out the weak ideas or non-ideas.

Sketching is a great early detection system for ideas. It’s easier to tell how “doable” a potential idea is once you’ve sketched out its basic framework and uncovered its components. Sketching out an idea makes it more tangible and real for people, and therefore makes it easy to qualify the idea or identify if it’s worth pursuing. Doing this early in the process helps your team avoid wasting valuable time working on a “non-idea.”  Many times in our brand design sprints, we eliminate ideas that people love initially but realize there “isn’t a there there” once we had a chance to see it on paper.


5. Sketches invite discussion.

When a “fully baked” idea is shared, it is often with the intention of selling in order to get buy-in to move it forward. But when an idea is shared early and in sketch form, feedback is not only more useful at that phase in the project, but the rest of the team feels that they contributed to the idea and are more likely to be champions in bringing it to life. We often say that design thinking is a team sport, and sketching is a great way to get everyone on the same page (literally) and collaborating together.


6. Sketching is the oil in the design thinking engine.

When everyone is encouraged to come up with ideas and be a part of the design process, people tend to be more collaborative and productive when sketching is a central activity. When you make paper and markers a part of the discussion, people are more engaged, big ideas materialize more rapidly and participants spend less time “selling their ideas” which can sap a group’s energy and patience.

Sketching also helps democratize the ideation process. It’s a great equalizer. When you have multiple roles and experience levels collaborating together, getting everyone to draw an idea and put it on the wall gives everyone a voice in the conversation.


7. There’s data behind those doodles.

There’s compelling data going around that supports the growing popularity of visual thinking and sketching. According to IBM, 90% of all data in the world was created in the last two years. 90% of all data on the internet is visual, this according to Cisco. Lastly, Entertainment Weekly claims that seven out of the top 20 best-selling books on Amazon recently were coloring books for adults—its fastest growing segment.

So there it is. A few things to consider about using visuals and why building a sketching mentality within an organization is a good idea. From a culture standpoint, sketching is a great way to engage people, bridge language or expertise barriers, and enable teams to turn meetings into visual conversations. Getting better at sketching is also a great way to make sure that you’re a part of those conversations.

Interested in learning more? Join us for an upcoming sketching workshop.

Gary Kopervas is VP Brand Strategy and Innovation at 20nine, a creative branding agency, and a TDG Lead Trainer. You can contact Gary at Gary@20nine.com or tweet him at @GaryKope.

Facilitation Skills: They’re Not Just for the Boardroom

By: Molly Sonsteng

I spend a lot of time in groups of all different sizes—from as small as three or as big as 1,000. When you’re running the show for any sized group, you need to have the right tools to keep the show going. I know a few, but was on the hunt for more.

Enter The Design Gym’s Facilitation Bootcamp.

After taking a few workshops with The Design Gym in the past, I knew I’d walk away armed with the kind of skills I’d been looking for. I was especially curious to learn how to employ facilitation techniques outside of a traditional work environment.

I’m an event producer who designs highly unique experiences. I host and produce events that encourage grown-ups to seek their own individual way of play and creativity. An average week consists of producing a variety show, hosting inconspicuous games played in high traffic landmarks like the Met or Grand Central, producing early morning sober dance parties, or designing one-on-one immersive dates for couples. In each of these organized events, I work with clients or party-goers in ways that require me to maintain group alignment and happiness so that we’re able to reach the project’s objective. I signed up for The Design Gym’s Facilitation Bootcamp not only to gain a better understanding of the basics, but to also fish out the key pieces that would be most beneficial to my own work. As expected, much of what I learned can be applied to many areas of life…not just the boardroom.

The Facilitation Journey

facilitationbootcamp001As with any TDG workshop, the day was wonderfully executed. Two talented trainers (Hannah & Kiely) led us on a journey filled with conversation, practice activities and self-reflection. We covered many basics and best practices for great facilitation, including facilitator roles, different modes of thinking, planning and preparation, and how to intervene when a group is off track.

What set this workshop apart, though, was how the trainers presented the information in various ways to accommodate diverse learning styles. While I benefit from visual presentations, another might prefer to learn through metaphor. Each new topic was taught in unique and engaging ways allowing every member of the group to fully digest the information.

The most productive moments of the day had us putting the work into action. For example, after we learned about the ORID Discussion Method—a tool that helps facilitators lead focused and structured conversations—we then practiced using it. Towards the end of the bootcamp, we were able to leverage all the tools we had learned—including ORID—to successfully lead simulation conversations in a variety of group settings.

Those Moments that Make You Go Ah-ha

While the majority of the material was valuable to me in my role as a producer, there were, of course, a few significant ah-ha moments.

Beware of your tendencies

According to TDG, facilitators tend to fall into one of three main tendencies, each of which leaves out one of the 3 necessary elements of successful group facilitation:

  • The Mercenary focuses on outcome & facilitator, leaving out the group
  • The Fun Guy focuses on group & facilitator, leaving out the outcome
  • The Pleaser focuses on group & outcome, leaving out the facilitator

I immediately resonated with The Fun Guy. As a trained entertainer, I tend to operate with lighthearted humor and charm when working with new groups: get them laughing, set the group at ease, make friends with the participants. I often forget to consider, however, the outcome. I’ve long been aware of my tendency to entertain, but I hadn’t fully put it into context that I was missing a crucial component of facilitation. Without planning for the outcome, what really then is the point of playing the role of facilitator?

“Think, Pair, Share.”

One of most meaningful moments from the bootcamp was the simple concept called Think, Pair, Share. As a facilitator, it’s crucial to observe the contribution styles of the group: introverts, extroverts, solo thinkers, over-sharers, etc.

Think, Pair, Share allows all participants in the group to contribute in a purposeful way. It’s a simple concept, really. When presenting the group with a challenge or discussion topic, first offer the participants the opportunity to think on the topic alone. Next, ask participants to discuss their notes in pairs. After a few points have been established among the pair, the larger group reunites and each pair can then share their discoveries. This activity caters to a variety of people by offering three ways to contribute. It gives a voice to those who might be more internally driven and allows for those who like the spotlight to share on behalf of their smaller group. It’s a tool that any facilitator can quickly and easily have in their back pocket and pull out when needed.


This is a huge one for me. I’ve long suffered from the notion that I need to do it all. Many of my projects have lost momentum due to my needing to “figure it all out.” I’m finally able to accept the fact that I absolutely should not be an expert at all things. I am not a designer. Delegate. I am not a developer. Delegate. I am not a chef. Delegate.

Since taking on this attitude, my projects are finally thriving and I can focus on doing what I do best. The same is true in facilitation. A facilitator doesn’t have to do it all! Do you struggle writing legibly for large groups to see? Empower a participant to write for you. Find yourself running out of time at the end of the meeting? Ask someone to be the official time keeper. There are countless ways in which to delegate while facilitating. Not only does it make your job easier, it also engages a deeper sense of participation from the group.

Respect time boundaries…within reason

I’m a stickler for time boundaries, occasionally to a fault. Start on time, end on time. I learned, though, that time boundaries can be flexible, if you consult the group. While start and end times are pretty crucial, the timing of individual sessions can be more fluid. If the group is still wonderfully engaged in a particular activity right before a break, for example, consult the group. Give the option of breaking in 10 minutes rather than ending the session abruptly. By simply offering 10 more minutes, you could be allowing for a meaningful breakthrough to occur. So yes, while time boundaries are incredibly important, it’s equally important to consider the flow of the session and practice flexibility.

Applying the Tools

facilitationbootcamp002The most significant takeaway was realizing how truly valuable facilitation skills are for everyday life. As a producer and artist, I rarely find myself in the conference room needing to facilitate formal meetings. That said, I now have a clear vision of how I can apply these skills to the unique work I do, whether that be in one-on-one client meetings, designing productions with new collaborators or engaging an audience.

One fairly straightforward action item combines two of my ah-ha moments: delegation and time boundaries. I host a variety show that must run on time in order to comply with the venue. Performers, however, often abuse the allotted time meaning the show runs over. This is no one’s fault but my own! A simple trick I learned from the bootcamp was to simply hold up a card displaying when one or two minutes remain. Yes, this is obvious, but I hadn’t been doing it. For all upcoming shows, I plan to enlist a trusted audience member to be the official time keeper so I can focus on supporting the acts and stop nervously watching the time tick away.

I snapped this image as the bootcamp wrapped up. I didn’t write the note, “willing to evolve,” but it stuck with me. I loved its simplicity. It’s a wonderful intention when entering into any kind of training or learning environment. I also could not get enough of the trinkets on every table! 😁


About Molly:

TDG community member, Molly Sonsteng recently took our Facilitation Bootcamp and, lucky for us, she agreed to share her experiences from the full-day workshop on our blog! Molly has a passion for advancing play in everyday life. She is the founder of Madcap Factory, a production house that designs experiences and products, encouraging adults to embrace the absurd. A few of her projects include a variety show for first time performers, inconspicuous field games played in popular landmarks, and alter ego coaching for couples. Additionally, she is an NYC Producer of Daybreaker, the early morning dance movement. You can find her winking or doing cartwheels down the street.