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Creative Leadership

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.



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.



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.


Recharging Creativity: How To Plan an Inspiration Field Trip

Inspiration field trips can take many forms, but at their core, they’re an experiential way to cultivate team culture while learning and recharging your creative battery packs. Getting out of the office, learning something new, and creating a shared experience together, as colleagues, is also one of the fastest ways to establish greater trust and empathy amongst teammates.

As a company that’s focused on delivering amazing educational experiences, inspiration field trips are essential to our creative process and keeping our brains and workshops fresh. Over the years, running these for our own team, guiding our clients through them, and hearing stories from other organizations, here are some of the most common field trips and how to bring them to your team.

Project Inspiration

If your team is about to tackle a new challenge it can be helpful to hear from other companies and practitioners who have already solved something similar. You’re not looking to copy or steal, but rather to seek out trends, understand the ecosystem, and to see how other organizations approach problem solving. As a team, it’s your choice on how you integrate the inspiration into your existing culture and work style.

We recently wrapped up an 8-week design thinking sprint with a team from New York Life and we kicked-off the project with an entire day of inspiration hunting. The teams were looking to amplify their own culture of curiosity, so we brought them to a handful of companies who have their own innovative approach to learning and development. We closed out the day with a short panel discussion and tableside Q+A with three digital and education industry vets here in the TDG office.

Industry Inspiration

Looking towards companies, products, and services that are tangential to your core industry can often times be a new source of inspiration. Work in sales or retail? Try going to a restaurant that is known for great customer service. We recently did this with the team at Kiehl’s and dropped by a Danny Meyer’s restaurant for lunch to learn from the masters of hospitality. And to keep ourselves up to speed on emerging technology, we swung by the new Samsung 837 lifestyle store for a taste of virtual reality. Who knew that a virtual roller coaster ride after eating ice cream feels just like if you were on the real thing!?

Inspiration field trip to the @samsungusa 837 #inspiration #fieldtrip #instagram #digitalart

A photo posted by The Design Gym (@thedesigngym) on

Creative Inspiration

In our workshops we emphasize the importance of getting into alpha brainwave state (Open and Explore mindsets) to foster creativity, which is a different headspace than being in beta brainwave mode (Close mindset, or what I like to call “get shit done mode”). Literally getting out into a field (or on a boat) might be exactly what your team needs in order to collectively experience a more open and free mindset together.

Our recent surfing trip was scheduled right after what had been a crazy couple of weeks, so it was really important to us to plan the day around an activity that got us reconnected to our bodies in order to free our minds. We’ll often go for walks, take a bike ride, or work from home to change up our physical spaces, but the ocean is literally a sea of creative potential. Pun 100% intended.

Some days you just gotta play. #inspiration #surfsup #playday #teambonding

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How to Run Your Own Inspiration Field Trip

Leading an off-site adventure requires just as much planning and facilitation as any other gathering of people. If you’re taking on that role, here are some tips on how to guide your team without glitches or needing chaperones.

Set the Intention

Having a clear objective for your field trip is important for setting expectations with those attending, as well as your leadership team. Ideally, leaders within your organization will join. However, whether or not they’re able to join, you’ll need to get them on board—it’s really important that they not only sign off on the field trip, but make clear to all employees that they can attend it without having to worry about what the boss thinks of their afternoon away from their desk.

If possible, your intention for the field trip day should also reflect your company’s mission and core values. For us, we value experiential learning so a day at the beach taking surf lessons actual ticks that box! We also believe in the power of a shared meal together, so we hit the Rockaway Beach Club afterwards for tacos and tequila-infused drinks. This time was incredibly valuable for us to be able to catch-up on our personal lives and share fun-fact style stories in a more relaxed environment than our office or any other lunch spot in NoMad.

Set the Date

Find a time during business hours that works for everyone on your team—perhaps the biggest challenge, but totally worth it. You’ll have the most success if all teammates can join. These outings shouldn’t feel like extra work or cut into personal time, they are part of the job and should be viewed as such. You can get a lot of of value out of two dedicated hours if planned properly, so even if you can only get your team together for a short period of time, still do it!

We usually schedule these on Fridays, year round. Sometimes a full day, but we’ll also do a half day: meeting for lunch, going to 1-2 inspiration spots, and then closing out the day by grabbing a beer(s).

Commit to Guidelines

No emails allowed! Instagramming is OK 🙂 In all seriousness though, taking calls or answering emails during the activity can cause anxiety amongst your teammates. Be sure to lead by example on this one. We will put fun out of office auto-responders on our emails for the days that we’re out with our team. It’s a reinforcement of the culture we are creating for our team and for our client partners and community members. And from what we’ve seen, people look forward to what we have to share when we get back to them the following week.

You can also build in a reflective component to the day. Arm your team with pocket sized notebooks to capture sparks and ideas along the way (we love our pocket-sized Scoutbooks!). A follow-up debrief meeting can be scheduled for the next week to share out what everyone learned and found most impactful. As the leading facilitator, you should capture themes from the debrief to share back with your leadership team, colleagues who weren’t able to join, or other teams who are curious about that awesome inspiration field trip that they heard about through the grapevine.

The Why Behind Inspiration Field Trips

Depending on your current team culture, asking your boss for a small budget to take the team offsite for a day of discovery might be met with several “but why?” questions. Here are a couple of final takeaways from our experience trying out many forms of inspiration field trips that you can use to make the case for why they are effective and valuable.

We’ve learned over the years that creating shared experiences to establish common reference points is important in building and maintaining a tight knit team culture. You can empathize with others all day long, but having been through the same experience alongside one another builds camaraderie and builds a well of “remember that time when” moments your team can draw upon.

These trips also allow your team to learn something new, which adds to the overall skills and reference points your team can draw upon when approaching any project challenge. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and the various strengths present within your teammates by getting outside your comfort zone.

Ready to try one out on your own? Let us know what you’ve got planned and how it goes! Better yet, invite us along if you can 🙂



Team Retrospectives: The Good, The Bad, The Feels

This isn’t the first time we’ve shared a look into our own processes and how we cultivate open and trusting relationships within our team culture. One of the ways our commitment to transparency and continuous improvement comes to life is through our monthly retrospectives as a team.

There are many business-y names for the practice of reflecting on the past—debrief, post-mortem, retrospective (retro for short)—and there’s a good chance you’ve been a participant in this type of meeting at some point. There’s an even better chance that it wasn’t your favorite meeting. We believe strongly in the benefits of routine reflection and in meetings that don’t suck. Here’s an overview of how we do it.

Plan Ahead + Prioritize

Save the dates for our end of month retros are sent out at least 30 days in advance so that we can all hold the time as other commitments are added to our calendars. If it’s planned ahead of time and understood to be a high-priority meeting, you’re less likely to cancel it or have absent team members.

Retro Gear

If you’re taking on the role of facilitator, you’ll want to be prepared. Here’s a handy checklist I use to run a seamless meeting when facilitating our retros.

  • Reserve a room with plenty of wall space or a large whiteboard
  • Make sure each person has a chair and table space or a surface to write on
  • 3×5” sticky notes in five different colors. Everyone should have a stack of each color
  • Sharpies for each person + a handful of whiteboard markers
  • Chill tunes and a speaker—you can use our massive TDG Reflection playlist
  • Food + drink to keep the humans running top notch for the duration of the session

Retro Categories

Looking back without a framework to guide the conversation can feel more like a dump of “oh shit, what just happened” moments instead of a supportive and positive share-out.


We use the following five categories to capture our thoughts into a shared format for discussion and to identify themes and insights. These categories are not only used to sort through our own projects, but also to call out awesome work that our teammates have been cranking on.

  • Good: Things that went well.
  • Bad: Things that did not go well, but are generally one-off events—things that we don’t expect to repeat.
  • Do Better: Things that we can do better next time. These can include a suggestion on how to do it better.
  • Best: Things that went really well. Celebrate! How can we do more of this?
  • Feels + Open Questions: Emotions, mindsets, areas of confusion, and opportunities to consider.

It’s helpful, from a visual perspective, to use a different color Post-it note for each category.


Here’s how our wall looked, in our most recent retro, after everyone on the team shared out their thoughts for each category. All the Best! So much Do Better!


Retro Agenda

As is the case for any meeting you’re planning, an agenda is essential. We’ve tested out a few different agenda formats and this one works best for us.

Feel free to try it out, but as always, make adjustments based on your own team culture. The time blocks for each section will be different depending on how many people you have on your team and how long you can all be together. We have a five person team and we usually block 90 minutes total.

1. Check-in: Before getting into the nitty gritty, we take 30 seconds to each write down and share one word, a short phrase, or emoji sketch that comes to mind to describe the past month. It helps us get a quick read on everyone’s state of mind about the state of our union.

2. Solo Reflection: We put 15 minutes on the timer, turn on the chill tunes, and review our calendars and notebooks silently while capturing thoughts on each of the categories on sticky notes.

3. Share Out: Each person gets 5-10 minutes to share out their thoughts and add their sticky notes to the board. We try to stay silent and reserve questions and “me toos” for the next phase in order to give each person our full attention while they share.


4. Themes, Insights, and Red Flags: We step back, consider everything that was shared, and call out any recurring themes, insights, and red flags that we want to avoid. We capture these on the whiteboard and document them digitally. This way we can keep them in mind throughout the following month and then refer back to them at the next retro to see how we’ve improved (or not—no judgements).

We’ve had “less but better” on our theme list almost every month since January, and instead of beating ourselves up because we still take on more than we probably should, we acknowledge it, and discuss what it means for each of us and how we can continue to make progress towards refining our work (and load).

5. Commitments: Before closing, we take a few minutes to write, “I will __________” statements for what we each personally want to focus on improving or changing, as well as any shared goals or actions. This doesn’t have to be huge or feel like yet another addition to our to-do lists, but rather it’s something that’s aspirational and has a sense of shared accountability.

For example, in January we all said we wanted to commit to working out consistently and we allowed ourselves the permission to go midday or leave a little early to make it happen. We are all happier, healthier and more productive because of it.

6. Check-out: Similar to the one word check-in activity, we take 30 seconds to write down one word that reflects our state of mind in this very moment having just spent the last 60-90 minutes in reflection mode.

Retro on Retros

(So meta!) In reflecting on our process while writing this blog post, we were able to chat about why we do retros, their importance to each of us, and how they benefit the team as a whole. There have been times when we miss a month (or two) and we double up and have a longer retro, but we fully acknowledge that not having time each month to share our thoughts and feelings adds unnecessary strain to the team. We’re a team that embraces getting a little existential every once in awhile, so our reflection time is a shared value. Retros have saved us from burnout, reduced anxiety, and helped us build empathy and create shared enthusiasm for all of our projects and programs.


If you try out this framework with your team or you use a different format let us know! We’d love to hear your stories and tips for facilitating these types of conversations.



The Future of Work: How to Optimize Your Organization for Innovation

Innovation is one of the hottest topics in how organizations are thinking about the future. Executives view it as the Holy Grail to their organization’s success. Managers are seeking effective ways to implement it. And teams are wondering how to balance it with getting shit done.

So while it’s really easy to say to your work force, “Go forth and innovate!” what does that even mean for your current culture? How is innovation defined? What does it look like? And how do you optimize an organization for it?

To help our community consider answers to these questions, we sat down with a killer lineup of organizational development leaders to discuss just that—The Future of Work: How to Optimize Your Organization for Innovation. Joining us on the panel were:

  • Lucy Blair Chung, Head of People & Organizational Development, Rag & Bone
  • Miles Begin, Co-founder, The Design Gym & Director of Product Design, Canary
  • Mike Arauz, Founder, August
  • Johnathan Basker, Founder, Basker & Co


These creative leaders have helped lead the charge towards creating organizations that foster and support innovation across a wide variety of industries. They’ve helped figure out what innovation means to their organizations, where it’s most valuable, and how they make it a part of their team’s everyday operations. Here’s a recap of their awesome insights and war stories.

Defining Innovation for Your Organization

“Innovation” can be a tricky (buzz)word to define. The first step for any organization to become more innovative is to clearly define what innovation means in the context of their business, culture, and current processes.

As Miles explained, “Language can trigger a reaction because it has cultural baggage to it. If I tell everyone in this room to imagine a tree, not everyone will imagine the same tree.” It’s the same with the word “innovation.” Even among four like-minded individuals, there was no absolute agreement on how to define the word—which appropriately highlights why it can be so hard to apply it to an organization.

Jonathan described two types of innovation. “One is proactive or offensive, and the other is reactionary or defensive.” Innovation can be responding to a problem, like downward trending sales. Or, it could be creating a new product based off listening to customer’s feedback.

Lucy, on the other hand, didn’t necessarily agree that innovation could be defensive. “Innovative assumes there’s a baseline that you are reacting to,” stated Lucy. “You’re setting up for a future state.” Reactionary implies that you are a “trend-follower,” and therefore, not an innovator.

Mike spoke to the responsive nature of innovation. “Innovation is sensing and adapting,” explained Mike. “You have to put something out in the world first so that you can learn what happens.”


It’s ok for there to be various definitions of innovation. But to Miles’ point earlier, what’s key is that you develop a common understanding of what innovation looks like for your organization—and that needs to come from within, with senior leadership on board and championing it from the top.

Designing an Environment that Encourages Innovation

After you have a clear definition, it’s time to optimize for it. For an organization, that means designing an environment that encourages innovation.

Create a structure: Mike stressed the importance of creating a structure for innovation to exist. “Think of innovation as everyone’s responsibility and everyone’s work,” explained Mike. You have to empower each individual team member to think about how to improve upon their day-to-day work. But, there still has to be the ability to try something out and evaluate the results. And in order to do that, a team needs time and space to step back and reflect. “One of the things we do at August is structure our work in four week cycles. Every four weeks, we take one week to reflect on what we need to do.”

Ensure effective management: Making improvements, in large organizations, often requires the work of many people in many departments. A good manager should be able to prioritize for their team and clearly state what you and your employees are responsible for. Make sure roles are clearly defined and everyone is aware of them, suggested Mike. Prioritizing clear, achievable goals empowers your staff to use their creativity to meet them. And, by writing down who’s responsible for it, you create accountability.

“Ask your manager ‘what do you want me working on?’ If they can’t give you four things, they have a prioritization problem.” advised Lucy. “What’s more important are leaders who make the time for creativity and strategy.” She continued to explain how this approach worked for Rag & Bone. “At Rag & Bone, our stores are a huge part of our brand. We decided to institutionalize the esthetic as a core competency.” Rag & Bone invested in a team that focuses solely on the design of retail stores, and that team is actually bigger than the apparel team.

Build Empathy and Create trust: In order to create lasting change, start with yourself, especially if you’re at the top. “As a leader, you should always be the one to create that trust. Your people shouldn’t feel that gap in the first place,” added Lucy. If you want to empower people to take risks, you can’t let them feel afraid to fail.

Mike recommended using InsideOut’s coaching method to solicit feedback from teams within your organization to better understand what’s important to them to guide positive and productive conversations. The three key questions to ask are:

  • What’s working?
  • Where are we getting stuck?
  • What might we do differently?


The Future of Your Organization

These organizational leaders have been in the trenches and know what it takes to create a culture of innovation. Their tips are a great place to start if you’re looking to do the same. That means defining innovation for your organization—and making sure the leadership is bought in. It also means spreading that spirit of innovation throughout the organization and making it part of your day-to-day operations. And of course, doing it all with empathy—listening to your team and your users to make sure you’re asking the right questions and solving the right problems. That kind of encouraging, open environment is the foundation needed to change how your organization works in the future, which is actually now!

Go forth and innovate 😉



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!


Fighting Fires and Lighting Fires: Balancing Productivity and Creativity

It’s easy to get excited about creative and innovative ideas, but it’s not so easy to balance that creative fire with the day-to-day demands of keeping the ship afloat. There are a million little tasks to do, a million problems to address and all those deadlines to meet. The next thing you know, your organization has become static.

This is something everyone struggles with! So we brought in some experts for a panel event to share how they’ve managed to find a balance between lighting the creative fires and fighting the operational fires.

The evening’s panel included:

  • Dan Casey, Project Manager for the City of New York in the Office of the Deputy Mayor
  • Felicia Stingone, Chief Marketing Officer at Grind
  • Laura Willing, People Business Partner at Harry’s



In startups, scaling companies, and government agencies, these guys know all about lighting fires to get their teams excited and putting out the fires that threaten their organizations. They deal with excited entrepreneur types, change-resistant team members, bureaucrats, and all sorts of other personalities to balance the operating needs of their organizations with the need to innovate and move forward.

We learned a ton at this event and we’re stoked to share some of the key takeaways of the evening.

Good Managers Put Their Teams First

Whether lighting or fighting fires, it all starts with your team. That’s where the big ideas come from and those are the people on the front lines, dealing with problems and keeping the whole show running. When you come in as an excited new hire determined to change the world, it’s easy to focus on just that. But as a manager, your priorities have to change—you have to focus on your team.

Felicia talked about the difference between coming in as a fresh hire with big ideas and then trying to transition over to management of a team—she had a huge wakeup call when she learned that people didn’t actually like working for her. No manager deliberately brings their team down, but it’s all too easy to get so focused on achieving the goal that we lose sight of our team. As a manager, your job is about nurturing your team, and not about getting things done at the expense of the people below you. As Felicia puts it, “We’re trying to light fires without burning down the house.” Make sure your team feels safe, secure, acknowledged and appreciated. Get to know them. Learn their strengths and weaknesses and work with them—not despite them—to reach the goals you’ve set.

That isn’t always intuitive, so Laura recommends offering lots of training and coaching for new hires in management positions. She also notes that it’s all about practice—reading books and blogs about management is great, but it’s not enough. You can read all the books you want about hockey, but you’re not automatically going to be an NHL star when you step onto the ice!

Teamwork Takes Transparency

It’s not easy to keep an organization running, and it’s even harder to do it while innovating at the same time. In order to keep your team on track, on mission and effective, you need transparency. Your team needs to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. And in order to be effective, your whole team needs to be honest with each other about ideas and critiques.

That kind of transparency takes vulnerability—we have to be open to people telling us they disagree with our ideas and we have to be honest when we don’t have the answers. Laura talked about how the founders of Harry’s are “really good at continuously expressing what they don’t know” and what they’re not good at. They focus on building the vision for the organization, empowering their staff to own and tackle those tasks that are better left out of the founders’ hands. They’re also genuinely curious about how other people think—not only do they actively solicit ideas from their team, but they also really engage with those ideas and work hard to understand them. That’s terrific for the team on several levels—it lets people know their ideas are truly valued and honestly considered, it encourages people to share their ideas so that the organization gets the benefit of that awesome thinking, and it creates coaching moments where everyone can learn from the idea. As Laura says, “It’s just something great leaders do.”

Of course, it’s easy to share your great ideas with your best friend, but it can be a lot harder to share them with a group of people you work with. As the leader of a team, you can make it easier by setting up expectations that make people feel safe expressing themselves. Dan recommends setting a clear vision and making the constraints, boundaries and roles of the project clear and explicit up front. Make sure everyone understands that they’ll be heard and they know who ultimately is responsible for making the final decision. That way everyone knows they’ll have their time to speak but will be able to move on to the next step once a decision is made. As Felicia says, the key is creating a clear separation between personal and project-related issues. Make sure the focus is on the project and keep things really objective while you’re in that space.


Communication Is Key

To achieve the transparency you need for a high-powered, fire-lighting, and fire-fighting team, effective communication is essential. In a world where we have instant access to text, email, and every other kind of communication, you’d think that would be a no-brainer. But Felicia mentioned nowadays a company will leverage multiple communication modes and softwares simultaneously—Trello, Slack, Google Messenger, iMessenger, Basecamp, text, email, and on and on (you get the idea). And more often than not, that creates silos and breakdowns in communication. She notes that we’re still in that transitional phase between the old-school corporate secrecy and millennial transparency, but we have to set up communications the right way to make them effective.

That may mean standardizing your intra-organizational messaging systems or it may involve bringing everyone together regularly for some facetime to make sure you’re all on the same page. The right formula will be different for every organization—you just have to experiment and find what works for you.

And communication isn’t just for your team—it’s also an issue of communicating from your organization to the public. It may come up when your organization has done something really awesome that you want to share and can also come up when you have a fire to put out. When Dan’s team had to address the spread of Legionnaire’s disease, for example, or when Felicia’s team had to deal with bad press surrounding the ingredients in some of their products, those organizations had to take control of the narrative and openly address the issues with the public. In the age of social media, it’s increasingly difficult to just brush something under the rug and hope it goes away—people can catch on to any snippet of information and spread it like wildfire. So, you have to find the right channels and the right message to share your story with your customers and the public. As Felicia reminds us, “If you don’t tell the story, someone else will tell it for you.”

Empower Your Team To Fail

Here’s the other thing about transparency—it makes it really hard to hide failure. However, studying early failures is a great way to learn meaningful lessons and move forward—avoiding some serious fires later on.

Felicia mentioned that her favorite kind of people are entrepreneurs who recognize their own failures—maybe they’re brilliant at creating a vision but have struggled to create the operations to sustain it. The trick is being self-aware about your own failures and open enough to share that with your team.

Laura remembered a rough patch at Harry’s a few years ago where progress was slow and people were frustrated—so the founders pulled everyone together for lunch and explained what decisions were made (and why) and opened up the floor to talk about how to get things back on track. They recognized that something had gone wrong and candidly acknowledged it to their team—and that opened the door for the team to share ways to move forward.

Being open about weaknesses and failures makes your team stronger. That candid environment gives your team permission to try new things. They know that experimentation is encouraged, even if there’s a risk of failure—and that’s how we get innovation. Plus, as Dan mentioned, telling war stories about our challenges, mistakes, and failures can help bring us together as a team—we can all relate to the experience of failure and we can all learn from each other on that front.

Give Yourself Space To See The Big Picture

Putting your team first, creating a transparent environment, and empowering your team to fail all take a lot of energy—it’s all too easy to let yourself get totally sucked into your job. The people who love innovation tend to love that feeling of pressure and excitement and working themselves to the bone—until they hit a wall. You’re dealing with emergency after emergency until you lose sight of why you started in the first place

Being an effective manager means taking time away from that craziness, giving your brain a rest from the million little things running through it, and reminding yourself of the vision you and your org’s leaders set. Some of us, Felicia noted, are lucky enough to work for organizations that constantly remind us of the bigger picture and give us the space to step back, evaluate, and make sure our team and our work is in line with that mission. Her organization, Grind is actually looking at creating a “Whole Wellness Program” to provide spaces to meditate, cry, fight, or just have a quiet moment. It’s the idea of “engaging to disengage—pulling back out of the day-to-day mayhem to remind yourself of the bigger picture.” It gives you and your team room to ask, “Is it really a fire or are we making it a fire?”

And taking some personal time isn’t just about refocusing on the big picture. It’s also about making sure you’re ok as a person—remember that to keep everything running and be there for your team, you need to be at your best! Dan pointed out, “If you have to both fight and light fires, it can really drain you!” Working all the time and never sleeping is going to leave you too worn out to be an effective leader.

Laura recommended making time to do the things you love—exercising, doing creative activities, reading books, listening to music and spending time with people outside of work, for example. If you don’t take that space for yourself, you run the risk of losing your outside identity and getting totally subsumed by the identity of the organization. But your identity is what makes you valuable to the organization in the first place. If you lose it, you can’t be effective. As Laura says, “We have to work to figure out how not to work.”


Build Systems To Make It All Easier

So all of this seems like a lot to deal with—taking care of your team, encouraging, transparency, giving people room and permission to fail, and keeping some personal space. How do we do all that and still keep the lights on? #Systems. They’re not super exciting, but they are super important.

Once you go through a project or process, take the time to reflect on it. Dan points out that it’s really easy to get caught up in the fervor of solving a problem, but we have to remember to step back afterward and ask ourselves how we could handle things better the next time or what steps we could put in place to avoid the problem altogether in the future.

You’ll have that opportunity to build up the systems that keep your organization on track as it scales. As Laura mentioned, it may simply take debriefing after every project to figure out what went right, what went wrong, and how to make the process better. That feedback is the seed for your systems. You may face some naysayers—folks who might argue that systems and rules will inhibit them. But Felicia pointed out that you just can’t scale that way—at some point, you need clear systems to deal with some of the organization’s day-to-day functions.

Systems aren’t as exciting as the down-and-dirty work of problem-solving, but automating some of your processes gives your organization the room to really focus on that thrilling problem-solving work. It also helps you encode what you’ve learned from past mistakes—helping stop troublesome fires from breaking out in the first place!


Light And Fight Right

Organizations are tough beasts to wrangle—finding the right balance between creativity and tactical execution is not easy. But your team can handle it with the right tools. That means putting the needs of your team first, creating a culture of transparency so everyone has the information they need, empowering your team to experiment and to fail, and keeping the big picture in mind. It also means learning from your successes and mistakes and building in smart systems to make the whole process easier.

Still haven’t come out to one of our panel events? Come on out on June 23rd and join us for the last panel in this series—The Future of Work: How to optimize your org structure for innovation. Oh, and did we mention dinner and drinks are included (as if the promise of sweet, sweet knowledge isn’t enticing enough!).

Designing Culture: Strategies for Bringing Creativity to Your Organization

When you want your organization to be more innovative or creative, how do you go about it? Some organizations enlist the help of external consultants or agencies that can come in, design think your problem, and provide you with solutions. But what if you’re trying to create sustainable, lasting culture change? Well, that creative revolution needs to come from within.

That’s one of the reasons we founded The Design Gym—our raison d’être has always been to empower individuals to lead design thinking within organizations. And one way we do that is through workshops and events. A couple weeks back we hosted a panel event on how to lead a creative revolution in your organization.

It’s one thing to get excited about the idea of design thinking, but it’s another thing to actually implement it within a team or across an organization. So, we brought in some experts who have done just that to share their stories about trying to bring a greater sense of creativity, collaboration, human-centered innovation into their organizations.

The night’s panel of creative leaders included:


Whether it’s in a Fortune 500 company, startup, agency or nonprofit, these powerhouses have pioneered or been a part of design thinking rollouts and creative revolutions in their organizations. They’ve gotten their organizations to focus on the needs of the user and creating valuable solutions to meaningful problems, which is what innovation is all about. And we wanted to share, with those of you who weren’t able to join us for an awesome night of food, drinks and conversation, some of the amazing lessons that came out of the evening:

Start With a Vision

If you want to make your organization more innovative, creative and design-focused, the first step is setting a vision—something your organization and everyone in it can stand behind. It may start with a direction or a common goal. For example, Patty explained that at Memorial Sloan Kettering, everyone is pulling in the same direction: curing cancer. Everyone, from the researchers to the janitors, are on board and passionate about that goal. But the direction alone, she pointed out, isn’t enough. You have to define your vision so that design thinking can help you move toward it. The design and innovation team needs to help set a vision so that “design becomes a part of the right conversations.” Design isn’t just about making better signage and pamphlets, it’s about creating a patient-centered paradigm for cancer care for the entire organization. Setting your vision gives you a clear endpoint to aim for, which in turn helps you define clear steps to take to get there.

Some organizations already have a direction or common goal (like cancer care) built in, which puts them a step ahead. But Jonathan, of BioLite, reminded us, it’s essential for you to understand that there are two components to vision: what your company is working towards and the way they plan on doing it. Patty gave us a really good example: Memorial Sloan Kettering wants to cure cancer and they’re working towards it by envisioning the future of cancer care and setting benchmarks against that.

Jonathan then also pointed out that your team may have a gut feeling about your vision, but you need to put it into words that your whole organization can understand and follow. That means getting all of your stakeholders together in one place and hashing out a common vocabulary to describe the what and the how. Then, revisit it regularly to keep it fresh in your minds and to make changes as necessary.

Design thinking needs direction—you can’t move forward if you don’t know where you’re going. As Geoffrey, of Frog Design, put it, “It’s tough to be innovative and think about users when you don’t know at the highest level how you should position what you’re designing for.”

Rally Behind That Vision

Once you’ve articulated the vision, it’s time to get everyone else in the organization to rally behind it. Many times, people feel the best strategy is to get the high-level execs bought in, thinking the rest of the company will follow suit—but that’s not always the most effective strategy to pursue. Jennifer, of Capital One, pointed out that it’s important for your high-level employees to be on board, but you really need to inspire the people responsible for carrying out the everyday work—the actual implementers—in order to create true, lasting change.

And remember, vision alone isn’t enough, even if everyone knows about it. As Patty and Jonathan highlighted, you need to know what your company does and how you’re going to go about it. Then, people at every level need to believe in that vision and work to implement it. And change is hard, which means people are going to be less willing to get on board. It’s scary and unsettling. So we also need a system to coach, support, and encourage people as they learn to make change part of their everyday behavior. Jennifer Lopez focuses on training people throughout the organization in design thinking methods and tools and then providing coaching to help them put those tools to use. That support is crucial to getting the buy-in needed.

How do you know that your vision is taking root? That’s a tough question—you’re talking about measuring behavior that may or may not be visible. Jennifer Lopez recommends encouraging people to be mindful of change in themselves and others, and to share out those changes. Whether it’s through a tool, like a survey, or a regular touchpoint, like a meeting, you have to listen to your team members just like you listen to your customers to learn where they are and what they need to succeed.


Empathize With the Nonbelievers

Whether it’s the integration of design thinking or any other fundamental organizational change, you’re going to have people who push back. Some people just don’t like change, however some employees will have real concerns with the methods or ideologies behind design thinking. You may even share some of those concerns! And that’s ok.

Create an open environment and encourage those individuals to share those hesitations. Jennifer recommended using your design thinking skills to understand where that opposition is coming from. Ask them what about the process is troubling them. “Most of the time,” she explained, “it’s because of some root assumption they’re making about the process. To be an effective changemaker in your organization, you need to know what those assumptions are.” Once you understand where they’re struggling, you can become a more effective advocate for design thinking in your organization.

Anyone can be intimidated by a new methodology and strange terminology, but you can break it down to a fairly simple concept. Geoffrey boiled it down to simply “understanding your customers. That’s it.” No new vocabulary necessary. However, to do that, you have to go out and actually get to know those customers.

When you put the focus on empathy, it’s easier for your team members to understand why design thinking is useful. It’s not just about buzzwords and going through a specific problem-solving process. It’s about getting inside your customer’s head. Jennifer and Geoffrey described it as embracing a mindset, rather than a method. “Anyone can learn a new method and start applying it, whether or not you have the appropriate mindset when you’re doing it makes all the difference.”

Show Don’t Tell

Encouraging your organization to embrace design thinking may be important to you, but how do you actually accomplish it? If you’re not in a position of authority, you can strategically show the value of design thinking by presenting problems and solutions at the same time. That gets people bought into the problem and gives you a chance to impress them with a solution.

Geoffrey recalled a story about how one client organization’s employee asked if he could join and video record customer interviews. He then showed that video to the boss and presented the problem. She could clearly see the problem firsthand and agreed with him that it was an issue that needed to be addressed. Then, he presented his recommended solution. And she was completely on board—something that probably wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t clearly seen and understood the problem beforehand. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Bring your process, the problem, and the solution to your boss in one package and it will be tough to argue against it. In fact, they’ll probably want more of it—and now you’ve planted the seeds of design thinking. Jennifer puts it this way: “Be yourself and deliver amazing work that only you can deliver because of your skill set. And then make friends with the people who like your stuff. When people see something amazing, they can’t help but stop and look. And don’t be afraid to advocate on your own behalf.”


Identify and Empower Your Internal Rockstars

On the other hand, If you’re the one in charge, you have the opportunity to implement a comprehensive strategy to encourage design thinking. Jennifer and Patty both spoke to the importance of focusing on people. Jennifer recommended finding the employees within an organization who are smart, innovative and motivated to create change. And then, let them loose. “You don’t have to control the structure of the organization. Find the smartest people in the org and give them opportunities.”

Patty suggested for more rigid hierarchies to build design thinking right into the structure. At Memorial Sloan Kettering, they’re taking designers and embedding them in the different silos of the organization so that they work part time in each department and part time with the rest of the design team. They’re integrated with the departments they’re working to change, which makes that change easier. They also have an ear to the ground for new opportunities and projects within those departments.

Whatever your position, remember that implementation is key. It’s easy to find people who like to come up with new and interesting ideas, but much harder to find people who like to get into the nitty-gritty of implementation. To that end, Patty has created an entirely new role on her team called “design implementation manager” to they become known for action, not just big ideas. Even without a designated implementation manager, remember to keep a focus on action. Design thinking is no good without design doing.


Recruit People Who Already Have the Mindset

How do you put together your own crack team of design thinking ninjas? As with any design thinking project, you have to start with a vision. Once you know what you’re trying to accomplish, you can work to put a team together that fits that need. Jonathan explained that at BioLite they flipped traditional approaches. “Product managers for us are not people who live in marketing, but they are people who live in design. We ask our designers to think like marketers and, in doing so, user-needs and user-problems are their first lens, and then checking that against viability in the market is their second lens.” He also recommends keeping departments in constant working contact with each other so they’re aware of where they each fit in and how each one’s work affects the others.

One hiring tactic Geoffrey recommended is to look for people who can think like other people. It’s not a riddle—it’s about empathy. Ask them to describe an archetype that’s different from themselves and walk you through an experience in that archetype’s shoes. That will show you how well they’re going to be able to design for the customer. “You can immediately tell who has empathy and who doesn’t.”

Create a Space Conducive to Creativity

You have your method and your team. Now you need the right space. It’s an important ingredient, but it’s often overlooked in the face of budget and time constraints. The physical space we’re in has a huge impact on how we think, and creating the right space can make all the difference in your ability to work effectively. Jennifer put it best: “When you walk into a church, you behave one way. When you walk into the playpen at McDonald’s, you behave another way. Space matters!” Changing the environment actually changes people’s behavior.

So, change your space! Move things around. Pick up some foam board and make yourself a new space to work in. If you can’t completely rearrange a space, you can change the way your team interacts with it—push the chairs away and work standing up for a while.

Giving your team the right physical space can help get everyone in the right head space. Patty reminded us, “We want our space to not only support our work, but reflect our work.” It’s a way to bring design thinking into your organization in a visceral way.


Beginning the Journey

Holy moly—talk about a ton of great learnings! When stepping back and connecting the dots between everything that came out of the session, we learned that it isn’t necessarily about preaching the story of design thinking to everyone in your org. The real value is in starting to take action in a way that feels right—moving some furniture, prototyping an idea, interviewing a customer and sharing the video, or hosting a workshop. These are the steps that lead you to real impact. Whether you’re entry level or a CEO, there are ways to inspire and implement change and make your organization better. Start with a vision, recruit allies, and convince the doubters. It’s like a game of Risk that actually makes the world a better place.

Interested in joining us for a future panel event? Check out our events calendar to see what’s on the books.

Our next panel, on May 5th, will be all about how to balance creativity and strategic thinking with productivity and tactical execution. (Did we mention dinner and drinks are included! #Panelicious)