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The Future of Work

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 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 😉



Agile & Design Thinking: Competing or Completing?

By: Steve Perkins

Recently, a colleague caught up with me and, with a look of bewilderment on his face, asked a question. My colleague seemed frustrated from much searching and little resolution. “Everyone is talking about Agile and Design Thinking, but how do they relate?”

He was giving voice to the crowd of organizational leaders and business practitioners retooling in an effort to solve old problems in new ways. Many of them wondering, “Which practices should we adopt? Which is more effective, Design Thinking or Agile? Do we have to choose one, or can we do both?”

Although these concepts have been around for years, their application in large organizations is still emerging—resulting in occasional confusion and mixed signals on their application, adoption and coexistence. And to make matters more confusing, the answer on Agile vs. Design Thinking lies deeper beneath the surface, and isn’t really about either methodology…

It’s all about culture.

Culture is King

Several years ago, I was working at a high-tech startup designing and building superconducting particle accelerators for secret projects and groundbreaking research. It was the kind of stuff you only see in movies.

The work was intensely interesting and thrilling. Always learning and interacting with extraordinary people, from physicists to electron-beam welders (a uniquely refined craft with only a few in the country) to rare metal machinists. Some days I questioned if this was all some kind of Truman Show experiment, or if Ashton Kutcher was going to jump out from behind a desk.

There was, however, one major problem. The work environment was unbearable. The founder ruled with an iron fist, and employed many twisted philosophies that confused and abused the people working for him. There were challenges fiscally, ethically and physically. A chair thrown across the room during a meeting comes to mind…

Yet, despite these extreme low points, the worst part of the experience was the quiet hum of anxiety that constantly ate away at all of us. My hands quivering some mornings, wondering what kind of absurd situation was going to present itself that day.

It was 2009… in Michigan. And it was my first full-time job.

Looking back, I’m very grateful that I got out. In my experience, every trial brings with it a blessing—if, of course, you’re open and ready for it. Mine was a growing passion for a company culture that allows people to bring their whole selves to work and deliver great things as a result. I started studying and talking to people. To sum up a long (and continuing) journey, I discovered what many have discovered before—that culture is the primary driver of business success.

Put another way, new practices and methodologies will only succeed in a lasting way if the underlying culture supports them. And to be fair, ‘culture’ can be a nuanced word. For this discussion, we’re simply talking about the set of norms and principles that guide the way people interact and work.

So now we’re back to the glorious Design Thinking–Agile duo. The answer to our original question—on how Design Thinking and Agile relate—becomes very clear when you look at it through the lens of culture. Both are built on similar core principles, allowing the two to overlap, intermingle and apply in almost any context.

Design Thinking can be performed in an Agile manner and Agile can be executed using Design Thinking mindsets/tactics. However, there is a distinction in practice—Design Thinking serves to understand a need and generate a creative solution, while Agile serves as a way to build and deliver that solution to market. They complete each other. However, you want to be thoughtful about the balance of end-to-end experience design, and the need to ‘just start building.’

When to Use Design Thinking

Design Thinking is all about uncovering needs and discovering solutions to meet those needs. And it’s different than ‘design.’ It’s more exploratory, seeking to generate concepts and test ideas. Typically, organizations provide products and services that they think are good ideas—sometimes they’re ideas that came out of conversations about generating revenue, decreasing risk or acquiring more customers.

This is natural and not necessarily bad. It’s just that your customers are the reason your organization exists in the first place, so you should probably consider them too. And let’s be honest, most of us think about our offerings from our own point of view—especially when we don’t have a clear understanding of our customers or their deeply felt needs.

This is why we need Design Thinking, to help us understand our customers—getting to the ‘why’ behind what they do, and then exploring crazy ideas that might lead to a unique offering that our customers will love.

When to Use Agile

Once you’ve landed on a solution, you can use Agile to build it. Agile is all about delivering solutions. And it overlaps perfectly with the prototyping stage of Design Thinking. Many companies will separate the designers from the builders, when there’s actually much to be gained from collaboration.

In many circumstances, incremental design decisions can be fully prototyped and tested in market by the builders, allowing true feedback to be collected in a real-world environment. And for the builders, they’re empowered to make great decisions and even enhance the design, due to the context that’s been set. This also avoids rework—and everyone knows the massive cost savings of avoiding rework.

Agile is about focusing on small slices of work at a time, delivering value to the market quickly, and adapting based on feedback and learning.

How to Implement Design Thinking & Agile

Well, you need to implement the principles and the practices. So which comes first? The classic chicken-and-egg dilemma.

The good news, if you’re asking this question, then you’re on the path to success. There are some great proven frameworks and tactical activities that we don’t have time to delve into now, however here’s the bottom line: do them both in parallel. Experience has taught me that continuous repetition and celebration of principles lays the foundation for lasting success.

Practices without principles are a short-lived Band-Aid. And principles without practices are a fruitless exercise in philosophy. So focus on the principles because great people will be motivated to find ways to bring them to life, and iterate through new practices to see and feel quick wins. And while you’re at it, try to convert buzzwords and multi-syllable words to simple common language. How would you describe it over dinner with your friends? This, combined with specific examples of what it looks like in action, will resonate and stick with people.

What are the “Principles” and What do They Look Like in Practice?

Adopting Design Thinking and Agile methodologies definitely requires some culture shifting and can absolutely feel overwhelming. However, the beauty with both is you can always bring it back to a few golden principles, which you’ll also be practicing throughout the process of adoption! This continuous “bringing it home” also mitigates the rumor mill of, “oh boy, here’s the next flavor of the month…”

By emphasizing the principles, you’re creating a consistency that reinforces the new culture and helps people connect the dots. Here are a few examples:

Human-First / People Over Process

Looking at it from an internal perspective, think of it this way: if you tasked a team of 7 year olds with building a fort, how would they organize and complete the job? Sure, a bit of chaos… but they would focus and get the job done. Would they have meetings to discuss the fort? Would they create prioritization forums to allocate resources? It’s far more efficient to assemble people with a common mission and have real-time conversation. Yet, we’ve seen it time and again, organizations, as they grow tend to create silos that impede the mission.

And from an external perspective, technology and global connection have created an economy where customers have access to an ever-growing number of options. If you want to succeed with customers (and lower your marketing costs), you have to create things they’ll value—whatever the cost.

Creativity / Innovation

Creativity is in our DNA. But for many of us, it was stripped out somewhere along the way. In today’s world, innovation wins. And there are several ways to encourage innovation.

Allow individuals the freedom to be themselves, bringing their talents and passions to the table. Encourage smart risk-taking. Build in time for exploration and inspiration. Gather for lunch and watch a TED Talk. Send a team on a road trip to see your products/services in action, and then brainstorm new ways to solve the challenges being observed.

We do, after all, spend the majority of our lives at work. So have a little fun—you might be surprised how much money you make doing it.

Iteration / Prototyping / Adaptation

Gone are the days of yearlong, waterfall-style projects with no clear outcomes and futile chances of launching on time. And as Eddie Obeng has highlighted, we have entered an age where the rate of change has surpassed our rate of learning.

Thus, the only solution—and the better approach—is to embrace low-fidelity or incomplete versions of products and services, put them out into the organization or market and learn from the results. It’s faster. It gets you closer to the right solution. And it saves you tons of time that would’ve been spent projecting and creating Power Point decks.

Multi-discipline autonomous teams

Look around. Self-managing systems work better. Cities, traffic flow, democracy… ok, maybe not all the time. But you get the point.

Things these days are too complex to try and control and predict. Self-managing teams are more nimble. Hierarchical decision trees are too slow for the new market of startups and freelance economics. And a team consisting of only one role type will only think about the problem from one perspective.

Shouldn’t our teams reflect our customers? Many of Design Thinking and Agile’s biggest success stories stem from teams that consist of all the skills necessary to get the job done, a cross-pollination of backgrounds and perspectives, and the freedom to make local decisions and define the ‘how.’ Not to mention, these teams begin to adapt and customize their practices to fit the local culture & context, which elevates engagement through ownership.


No matter which methodology you choose to pursue, Design Thinking, Agile or both, it’s important to remember that you have to create and maintain an organizational culture that is able to support their guiding principles.

Not there yet? It’s ok. Remember, culture change is not easy and takes time. It requires a shift in both mindsets and behaviors. However, by starting to implement Design Thinking and Agile principles in parallel, you’ll begin to see this new culture come alive. I believe this duo is not just for select occasions, but actually the most effective business strategy to employ for the organization, the employees and the customers. And I believe it’s one of the most worthwhile pursuits in the workplace and in your career.


About Steve Perkins:

This week’s blog post has been one we’ve been looking forward to ever since Steve Perkins, Employee Experience & Culture Strategist for Capital One, said he’d write it for us. We’ve collaborated with Steve on multiple projects and been super impressed with the way in which he leverages various methodologies to advance products, teams and organizations.

Steve Perkins is an Employee Experience & Culture Strategist for Capital One. With a background in mechanical engineering, software development, consumer product R&D, and research/manufacturing of carbon nanotubes and research/manufacturing of carbon nanotubes and superconducting particle accelerators, Steve has always had a love for innovation and curiosity.

However, his true career passions have always lied at the intersection of entrepreneurship and helping people find meaning and vibrancy in life. Steve believes that corporate environments can be a place where people come alive and feel whole. And in his current role as a corporate intrapreneur and a catalyst for cultural change he’s helping Capital One build just that.

One day, in the environment that Steve is striving to build, when people ask if anything fun happened during the week, people will talk about work—companies will be in service to their employees, and employees in service to their customers—all resulting in great business results.



Toward Sustainable Design Thinking

By: Thomas Wendt


This week we’ve got a guest blog post for you from one of our Lead Trainers, Thomas Wendt. Outside of helping design and run workshops for our community and clients, Thomas teaches, writes, and speaks on a variety of topics including philosophy and design. His first book, Design for Dasein, deals with the relationship between experience design and phenomenology. Thomas is currently working on his second book, Persistent Fools: Deception and Design Ethics, and this post is a tiny glimpse into what he’ll be addressing.

And what is a Lead Trainer you might ask? You’ll be hearing more about this group in the coming weeks, but in short it’s a group of experts we’re building to amplify the impact and perspective of our community. They’re professionals who are actively practicing and teaching design thinking in a variety of manners, whether it be on the internal teams of Fortune 100 brands, inside of top innovation agencies, or as freelancers on the frontlines. Now they’re bringing all of that expertise into our bootcamps and classes so you can keep learning from the best. They’ve got great points of view, which is why we’ll also be celebrating them through our blog and media channels more and more.


What Design Thinking Forgets

Victor Papanek famously opens his book Design for the Real World with the often quoted line, “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them.” The rest of the book launches an enlightening critique on product development as the source of environmental unsustainability. In short, we keep designing products we don’t need, which end up in landfills, which contributes to pollution, climate change, and a host of socio-cultural problems.

During the time Design for the Real World was published, in the early 1970’s, theories of design that would eventually inform what we now call design thinking were just starting to develop in academia, eventually evolving into the Examine-Understand-Ideate-Experiment-Distill (or variations thereof) process we know today.

Speaking critically about design thinking often falls into the trap of looking for an elusive object—that is, the wide array of definitions and perspectives on design thinking can often get in the way of critique. What starts as critical reflection devolves into a definition exercise. Instead, as the title of this post suggests, I want to focus my remarks on human-centered design as a philosophical stance on design rather than design thinking as a process, mindset, or approach.

Papanek calls out industrial design because it was the dominant field of the time, but I’d argue that ethical implications still exist in service design and experience design, even if they’re not necessarily contributing to landfills. The irony here is that I teach human-centered design for a living (or at least part of my living). However, for a field to truly grow and mature, even its most ardent advocates must remain critical and voice their critique to novices and experts alike.

We are all likely familiar with the Human-Business-Technology (HBT) model of design thinking, in which business viability, technical feasibility, and human desirability come together as a harmonious team. The IDEO/d.school flavor of human-centered design argues that human desirability is the most complex but also the most important constraint—or in other words, if we can’t figure out why people want a proposed design solution, we shouldn’t design it. Conversely, if we can gather evidence that hits on a human need, we can make money from it, and it’s technically possible to build, then we have found the holy grail of design innovation.

But there is a glaring omission from the HBT model: sustainability.


A Ridiculously Short History

Human-centered design, if interpreted as the theoretical backbone of design thinking, arguably stretches back to the 1950’s and 60’s with the publication of texts such as Herbert Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial and L. Bruce Archer’s Systematic Method for Designers. The 70’s and 80’s were mostly concerned with an emerging idea of wicked problems—or areas of such intractable complexity that they resist articulation and subsequently understanding, communication, and solution—along with the cognitive and behavioral aspects of designers in texts such as How Designers Think and The Reflective Practitioner. The 1990’s and 2000’s saw a massive growth in design thinking adoption, fueled largely by IDEO.

Today, we see everyone from startups to government to education to Fortune 500 companies using adapted forms of human-centered design, sometimes successfully and other times not so much. And while this has lead to many of the products and services we enjoy today, I fear that the enjoyment and convenience they afford have veiled the ugly side of human-centered design—its tendency toward unsustainability and ethical neutrality.


Sustainability and Unsustainability

At its best, human-centered design takes great care to differentiate between wants and needs, with the former being surface-level objects of convenience and the latter being underlying desires one cannot easily articulate but get to the root of what is actually needed. Good design thinking processes aim to uncover unmet needs as opposed to simply catering to the “easy wins.” However, the work required to uncover previously unconscious needs is rigorous and takes a certain level of expertise. As human-centered design expands in popularity, and those previously immersed in what we might call product-centered and business-centered design move toward a more humanistic approach, the importance and skill of articulating unmet needs is often sacrificed.

The resulting reliance on surface level wants has two main outcomes:

  1. Simple solutions to complex problems. If designers avoid inherent complexity, their designs can only be overly simplistic.
  2. Unsustainable designs. Without a strong voice for sustainability in the Human-Business-Technology set of constraints, we are bound to proliferate unsustainable futures.

Ironically, under the umbrella of human-centered design, sustainability (not human desirability) should be the most important constraint.

Sustainability is perhaps best understood in terms of its opposite: unsustainability. Design theorist Tony Fry introduced the term “defuturing” to indicate practices of modern, industrialized humans that work to foreclose on The Future. Defuturing actions such as the release of carbon emissions and planned obsolescence are unsustainable because they implicitly deny the finite nature of existence and explicitly intervene on the world in a way that decreases resilience. So sustainability is not necessarily about recycling and environmental conservation (although those are aspects), it is about sustaining our existence.

If we attempt to shed the profit-seeking tendencies of the past couple hundred years of capitalist production, it is not difficult to see how human wants can be at odds with sustainable design. We 3-D print landfills, we actively ignore the absurdity of a charging cord from the last model mobile device no longer working with the new one, we sell information about some of our most intimate activities for the promise of a little more convenience and maybe a little dopamine secretion. We support trendy restaurants who throw away enough food every day to feed multiple families, but we make no effort to facilitate access. In some cities, we put laws in place to criminalize those trying to feed themselves with food that would otherwise spoil. All the while, waste piles up to the sound of humming data centers and shouts from the latest protest against platform oligarchs. But hey, it gives us what we want. We designed it to.

The unsustainable tendencies of human-centered design revolve around the idea that humans have shown themselves to be unsustainable animals. A large driver of this unsustainability is consumerism, and as long as we prolong the belief that any design solution is worth creating as long as it satisfies human, business, and technological needs, we will never break from defuturing forces. The HBT model is missing an ethical component. Instead of designers simply asking themselves, “Does it solve a human need? Can I make money from it? Is it feasible to build?” they should also be asking, “Does this contribute to a future that promotes a positive existence for humans and their environment?” If not, it should not be designed. Or for those more quantitatively minded, there are ways to measure the sustainability solutions. This is a difficult stance to take, especially when falling in love with one’s idea is so easy, bosses who sign your paycheck might not be in agreement, and your reputation as a designer hinges the profit potential of your employer/client.


Ethical Design Practice

So how does one practice ethical design? Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as developing methods that attempt to inject an ethical attitude into an already ethically neutral practice. It is easy to see how one might take popular design thinking methods such as How Might We statements and revise them into Why Should We statements, and while this approach would likely result in some interesting conversations, it is ultimately temporary. We might embrace large scale mapping, scenario planning, design fictions, and other methods that promote critical systems thinking, and while these methods will result in greater systemic awareness, we should not conflate awareness with action.

Instead, ethical design practice calls for a radical shift in how we as humans relate to our artificial world, how commercial design mediates relationships between designers and clients/bosses, and a redefinition of design to include its various paradoxes, ambiguities, and effects on experience. This means an acknowledgement of the complexity of certain problem spaces and committing to them in full. It means an acknowledgement that some design solutions should not exist, despite their potential for profit, and the satisfaction of a human need is not the most important criteria for deciding what to design, unless the definition of “need” includes sustainability. Human-centricity should include sustainability, but history unfortunately shows us otherwise.

I am taking up many of these questions in my second book, Persistent Fools: Deception and Design Ethics, which attempts to reframe our conception of design through the lens of trickery and deception, ultimately exploring how to articulate design ethics by first looking at manipulation, trickery, and deceptive design to better understand the power of design to create both desirable and undesirable futures. I hope that this work contributes to deeper understanding and more meaningful action in design ethics.


In the meantime, I challenge designers to think critically about how they approach their work, about the types of clients they take, and how their designs function out in the world. Design is an amazingly powerful force that can literally shape the world in which we exist. Let’s treat it as such.


The Meetings that Saved our Culture (Yes…Meetings)

With organizations, most people draw a direct correlation between larger with slower, more hierarchical, and less authentic communication. We reference the ‘cog in the machine’ stereotype as we dream of those teams that are faster, more entrepreneurial, and less complex. Ah, if only we were a startup.

Sound familiar? It’s because this dichotomy between big business and small business is pushed on us in the media on a daily basis. But any small business employee can be the first to tell you—while it is true things can move faster, it surely doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to keep a team happy and communicating. We’ve seen startups, public schools, global non-profits and Fortune 100 companies struggling from the same team issues, and size has no influence on their ability to remedy them. But rather their ability to have honest and open communication over and over. It’s a game of good relationships at the end of the day.


In our early days as a small team, we found the daily stresses and ambiguity of a new business overwhelming. From the outside, people saw fun events like Design Taco and innovative new class formats like the Studio Project, but internally communication was breaking, trust was dwindling, and general excitement for the business we were building was strained.

Luckily as a company that advocates for leaning into tough challenges, we did what any good design thinking process would advocate—we asked the hard questions, figured out some patterns, and crafted some solutions to begin prototyping. These were hard conversations over several meetings. But the further we got, the more we started to see clear patterns around what we needed:

It became painfully obvious that although these were the items most critical to our shared success, not a single meeting we held was focused around any of them. At the time, all of our meetings were a jumbled mess of team, culture, strategy, accountability, and general new business freak out sessions.

We all pulled out our technology and in about 10 minutes of calendaring our first round of prototypes were set. Little did we know but we were on our way to drastically remedying some major breakdowns in the team. Here are some of the meetings we still hold weekly that you might be interested in stealing or adapting for your team:

Positive Intention Touchpoints:

Uncomfortable Conversations (every Monday morning) – A safe place to air the grudges, gnawing annoyances, or even personal insecurities living in the back of our heads. These keep disruptive emotions contained, rather than bubbling up in passive or aggressive manners. Best done over Indian food outside of the office.

Weekly Celebrations (every Friday, end of day) – A chance to reflect on what went well, both personally and as a team.

Shared Passion Touchpoints:

Mindset Check-ins (every Monday Morning) – a chance to get the pulse on each person. Where is each individual’s head at? What are they sketching? What are they excited about? What are they scared about?

Strategy Sessions (quarterly) – Blending accountability conversations with strategic planning is exhausting and ineffective. Now we reflect and steer the ship in a direction each quarter and try not to question it too much while executing.

Fishing/Skiing Trips (full day every 1-2 months) – Why fishing and skiing? No reason other than that we all love them and they can all be done easily in 1 day. They both allow for lots of downtime on lifts and waiting for whales to bite, which gives us lots of time for reflection on the exciting thing we’re working on together.

Clear Roles Touchpoints:

Top 3 Goals (every Monday Morning) – A chance to share out the top 3 things we are each hoping to accomplish this week to move our sides of the business forward. We also discuss roadblocks and ask for help from each other if needed.

Brain Trusts (monthly) – A chance to share out what we’re working on to get builds and input from the team. We also use this as a chance to hold each other accountable to what we’ve set out for during the quarter, and course correct if needed. We choose a month to have enough time to balance unexpected fires with continuing to make progress.


Remember: Heads down working will drive the business, but heads up relationships will drive the team. Find those levers and build the rituals into every week. (TWEET THIS)



Play: An Essential Piece of Every Good Culture


For all of our friends on the northern hemisphere, summer has arrived. The weather is great, the cities are buzzing, and the energy is in the air. But unfortunately, many work cultures don’t take advantage of this opportunity to get outside and fill our heads with the blossoming inspiration.

Play can show up in a lot of ways—monthly happy hours to connect with colleagues, kicking off the company’s morning with a few improv games, a weekly lunch for the whole company to connect, dressing up in hot dog costumes and sledding down a mountain—all real examples we’ve been inspired by from our own clients. What we’ve learned is, it doesn’t matter how you do it – figure out what play means for your team, your organization, or your friends and find a way to create a regular ritual around it.

If you’re stuck, here are a few things to remember:

  • Don’t force it – find something that feels organic, and that your colleagues will be excited about.
  • It’s a habit, not an event – don’t overemphasize one instance, but rather find ways to make it a part of everyday life. (CLICK TO TWEET)
  • Find the bigger picture – it doesn’t always have to tie back, but when you can draw a parallel to the work you’re doing, selling it internally will be a whole lot easier.

The picture above is from our fishing trip, a play day we’ve run in the summer with loyal members of our public and organizational client community. We do it to connect and be inspired from our most passionate peers, but we also do it to refill our own mental tanks and take a break. It’s an essential part of creative thinking, and summer is a great time to build it in.

Hope to see you and your team on a future fishing trip. Until then, find a way to inspire your team in the next week, and share it with us @thedesigngym on Twitter.



Design Taco


Design Taco is an idea accelerator and innovation lab that’s disguised as an incredibly delicious taco shop in New York’s Lower East Side on May 12th -18th, 2014.

For one week, an unassuming LES storefront will be transformed into a taco shop meets creative hotspot, hosting panels of radically diverse people and companies, private classes on design and innovation, and coaching for walk-in patrons looking to launch the next big thing. The event is the brainchild of The Design Gym, an NYC community of creative thinkers and problem solvers from across industries and roles who are redefining how we work.

Imagine a place where you can go with your friends and finally bring that side project to life. Or a place where right alongside the napkins and hot sauce rests prototyping supplies or sketch pads. Or where the wait staff is trained and willing to help you learn more about your target customers or refine your start-up’s story. These are all elements you’ll find at Design Taco.

Design Taco is located at 37 East 1st Street in New York’s Lower East Side. It will run from Monday, May 12th through Sunday May 18th from 10:00am – 10:00pm daily. Please check the schedule below for open hours…some sessions are pre-ticketed!


Walk-in hours are available at select times during the week, and all day Saturday and Sunday. See the calendar below for the most updated schedule. This is a great time to come see the space, meet some others, get some ad-hoc coaching on a side project, or just grab some delicious tacos. Snag your tickets below.








Slide2Come solo. Bring your colleagues. Invite your whole team. We accept all for these dynamic workshops. We’ll be offering two separate classes – User Experience Essentials and and Intro to sketching class . You can sign up for each individually, or take advantage of discounted pricing if you sign-up for both. Each ticket includes 2 tacos from Los Perros Locos and a beer from Brooklyn Brewery or glass of wine.






– Daily Private Classes for organizations to bring up to 10 people for a private, 2-hour workshop on topics ranging from group facilitation to introduction to sketching to storytelling for businesses.

– Open Classes for All that offer 2-hour classes on specific topics such as UX, intro to sketching, ideation, and team facilitation.

– Nightly Panels and Events that curate topics and people like you’ve never seen them before, thinking across industries, roles, and sizes to start hitting topics from different contexts.

– Walk In Hours that allow the general public to stop in over lunch, after work, or during the weekend to crank on a side project, get coaching on developing an idea, meet some inspiring people, or just enjoy some tacos and drinks.



We’re offering an incredible opportunity to get your team out of the office for a fun learning session. For just $750, you pick the topic and bring a team of people, and we’ll  provide the 2 hours of teaching and tacos and a drinks for the whole team!











The programming is designed to feature radical mash-ups of companies and people from across roles and industries. These are people you wouldn’t normally find on stage together, but who offer immense perspective on a topic from very different contexts. Speakers include everyone from the President of OXO to the Director of Marketing at the Brooklyn Brewery to the head of customer experience at Bonobos.

Tickets for classes and events are priced at a steal of $35 to encourage a diverse crowd of creative professionals, and each ticket also includes 2 tacos from Los Perros Locos and a beer from Brooklyn Brewery or glass of wine.








This event wouldn’t be possible without our very talented group of professionals and community members who have put a lot of time and sweat into bringing it to life. They mapped customer experience journeys, moderated panels, master PR campaigns, and helped craft the vision.

Kenny Arnold, Founder, Happy Dinosaur

Christina Bullard, Design Thinking Workshop Facilitator

Nidhi Chaudhary, Social Enterprise Strategy & Communications Consultant

Morgan Evans, Software Engineering, NBC Universal

Alex Fiorillo, Principal, Grid Impact

Justine Lai, Project Manager at ICL / Wharton MBA Candidate

Erin Lamberty, Product Manager, General Assembly

Megan Nesbeth, Associate Admissions Producter, General Assembly

Cemi Ozel, Account Executive, SelectNY

Melissa Walden, Packaging Engineer, The Dannon Company

Robert Yu, Asst. Product Manager, DydaComp












Innovation At Risk (By Lara Lee)

In this BusinessWeek article Lara Lee, who has spent time with Harley Davidson and Jump Associates, talks about what happens at the intersection of innovation, design thinking, and a down economy. She discusses how design and business practices cannot oppose eachother within corporate environments, and how design thinking can not be used as the world saving solution. Often times the power of design thinking is overpromised and consequently under delivered, leaving many corporate structures with a bad taste in their mouth. In the article she covers examples from GE, Motorola, Harley Davidson, Whirlpool, Dell, and more.

“Giving design a seat at the leadership table can and should deliver real business benefits. Applying the tools and techniques of design practice to large, complex business challenges can yield interesting insights and novel solutions. But promising more than design thinking can deliver risks a real backlash that could not only discredit design, but also accelerate the rejection of innovative growth as a goal.”

Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment – So What’s Next? (by Bruce Nussbaum)

As design thinking exploded in popularity and universities began quickly adopting design programs into their business schools, it was inevitable that some critics and skeptics would evolve. This article, from well-known writer Bruce Nussbaum, is a perfect example. It’s important to take these criticisms into consideration as you are developing your understanding of design thinking. More importantly though, is to understand that most of this comes from people misusing and misunderstanding the process. Design thinking is not an end all be all solution, but rather a tool. We tend to argue that it isn’t dead, and probably wont be anytime soon.

Design Thinking Won’t Save you (by Helen Walters)


This is essential reading from Helen Walters, a design researcher at Doblin and well-known writer on the topic. In it she discusses some of the misconceptions of design thinking and why some people discourage it. She explains what design thinking is, but even more importantly explains what it is not. When organizations misuse design thinking or set false expectations, it can be a recipe for disaster. Use it instead as a strategic tool in specific situations. This is a great article to read before trying to explain the topic to people in your organization or team.