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Innovation in Action

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

By: Sarabeth Berk, PhD

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

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

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

Framing Innovation

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

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

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

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

Quick Review of the Innovation Continuum

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

Soren Kaplan’s Innovation Continuum

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

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

Origin of First, Best, and Only

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to use First, Best, and Only

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

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

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

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

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

Clarifying Information and Tips

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

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

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



About Sarabeth Berk

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



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


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

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

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

Research seems easy, but is actually really hard.

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

Preparing the Research Plan:

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

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

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

Unpacking the Data:

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

Insights require a leap of faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The brainstorm is just the first step.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prototype is nothing without a hypothesis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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



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.



Design Thinking for the Next Generation

Design thinking is frequently leveraged as a tool for work—you learn the skills and apply them to your job, your projects and, ultimately, your organization. And it’s absolutely great for that! But what if building the skills and mindsets of design thinking could be used for a greater purpose than just creatively solving problems at work?

Working with the Jeannette K. Watson Fellows from the Watson Foundation provided just that opportunity.

Getting to Know the Watson Foundation


So what is the Watson Foundation? It’s one of those organizations that helps boost your faith in humanity’s future. Created by the family of former IBM CEO Thomas Watson, the Watson Foundation has spent nearly half a century helping develop the next generation of humane and effective leaders—and they’re awfully good at it. Among the ranks of Watson Fellows are Oscar-nominated and Tony- and Emmy-winning director Julie Taymor (The Lion King on Broadway, Frida, Across the Universe, and more), US Ambassador to Uganda and Burkina Faso and Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs Jimmy J. Kolker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist Kai Bird, and… you get the idea. The Watson Foundation turns out folks that change the world for the better.

They offer two fellowship programs: The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship. For this project, we specifically worked with the latter. The Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship is a 3-year program for undergraduate students in New York City that offers internships, cultural events and seminars to help students develop their personal and professional potential and expand their vision.

Fresh Ideas For The Freshman 15

So where exactly did we fit in? Well, during their second year, the fellows are tasked with identifying a need in their community and creating and testing solutions—just the kind of project that can use a little creativity! And we got to help them work through their project by teaching them some methods, mindsets and skills of design thinking.

We did that by walking the fellows’ through a shared challenge brief: how can we create a culture of optimal health and wellness on university campuses. As many of us know, college is not necessarily the most healthy period of your life and all of those motivational posters in the dorms turn out to be pretty ineffective. In other words, this brief was no walk in the park and the Fellows were going to need all the creativity they could muster.

So, they spent three days building their design thinking skills and digging up ways to make college campuses healthier. They got out into the field to interview mental health experts and students to learn about the challenges of university life. They also got to test their prototypes and solutions on other students. Basically, they worked through the whole design thinking process to find solutions for this tough problem.

“People do steps from design thinking naturally, but I like that we have a framework now with the whole process that’s been proven to be effective.” – Sarah Franco, JK Watson Fellow, Class of 2017

Design Thinking As A Life Skill

Figuring out how to make universities healthier is a noble goal and the fellows did an amazing job. But the really impressive outcome wasn’t finding ways to fight the Freshman 15—it was the way these students approached learning about design thinking from the get-go.

Lots of people take on design thinking as a process for creatively solving problems within their organization. Students, on the other hand, fall outside the context of a particular job or set of organizational goals. That allows them to learn and leverage design thinking in a different way. Without the constraints of the work setting, they have the space to focus on the principles, attitudes and mindsets of design thinking—not just the process. Coming at it from that direction means the skills are easier to integrate into your day-to-day life—you can apply them all the time without consciously going through the design thinking process. It just becomes part of the way you think!

Of course, none of this is to say that the process isn’t important—it is, and it’s part of what the fellows learned. The exciting thing was that when they had the freedom to really focus on the specific skills of design thinking, the process came to them naturally.


It’s Never Too Early To Start Design Thinking

It was incredible to have the opportunity to work with these bright, motivated fellows and see the impact of an open approach to learning design thinking. Sara Nolfo, Program Manager of the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship, thought it was a great experience for these gifted students. “The Design Gym facilitated an engaging program that got our fellows thinking and solving problems in ways they didn’t expect. Afterwards they told us they used the process at their internships with great success, getting their supervisors and coworkers involved as well. They also applied what they learned in a great brainstorm session that helped them reflect on their future postgraduate goals and plans, one of the most difficult problems many of us face: What am I going to do in my life?”

We’re proud to have that kind of feedback and at the end of the day, we learned as much from them as they did from us. These fellows will go on to do great things and we can’t wait to see what they do with their new skills!



Leveraging Design Thinking to Launch a Business

By: Jess Do

Starting a business is like most endeavors in life—if you reflect and incorporate lessons as you go, it can be a lot easier to move forward and even find some success.


Listen to this smart man! This absolutely applies to businesses.

My entrepreneurial project is Palmpress, a personal craft coffee press for hot and cold brew coffee. And I’ve certainly learned a lot of lessons, but one in particular stands out: success comes from learning as much as you can about people as quickly as possible. Our first job is to understand. Once I realized this, the next steps became clearer, decisions became easier and progress came faster.

This is a story (a slice of, rather) of what the path to launching my business—and learning all about my customers—looked like. It’s rooted in design thinking because design thinking is rooted in understanding.

Ideation: Stretching Your Brain

Every business starts as an idea. If you’re like me, you love thinking of ideas for products and services, and you get them all the time. But most of these ideas fade. Maybe the passion isn’t there, it feels like it’s way beyond your experience and resources, or it’s already being done. So how do you get an idea that sticks?

For me, the key was starting with a theme that intrigued me—how to make our mornings better (this doesn’t have to become the premise for your business, just a prompt to get you thinking). I’m not a morning person so I started thinking about my morning routine and jotting down scattered thoughts and ideas, quick, quick, quick. Eventually, I got to the coffee part.

Brain dump.

Brain dump.

I get really excited about coffee. A few years ago I started making really good coffee for myself, and now my daily, late-morning cup is such a treat. I had tried many coffee brewers and experienced my fair share of annoyances—things like waste, toxins, clunkiness, bad aesthetics, inaccessibility… I wrote all of those thoughts down. Then I brainstormed solutions, including a compressible thingamajig that made bomb coffee without it contacting plastic, and was entirely reusable and beautifully designed. And so the concept of the Palmpress was born from a brainstorm. It wasn’t a business idea yet, but it was a starting point.

That process of going from nothing to an idea with legs takes practice. In workshops with The Design Gym we worked on just that. I learned to start with a hunch and quantity over quality of thoughts, which stops you from overthinking and gives you a much wider range of ideas to work with. I learned to then build upon and edit those thoughts until something compelling bubbled to the top, something that could make sense for me to tackle! If nothing stuck, I’d do some exploration to get inspired or revisit brainstorming another day.

Examining and Understanding: Building a Business Case

Once I had my idea, I wanted to find out whether or not it was viable and how it could fit in the marketplace. So, it was time to leverage the Examine and Understand phases of design thinking—two phases that lay the groundwork for a customer-focused offering or business.

If you’ve looked into the design thinking phases, you may notice that I talked about ideating before researching. That’s okay because design is not a linear process. It’s often initially taught in a linear way to make it digestible, but with enough practice, all the concepts slowly start to become permanently cached in your brain and can be called upon whenever needed.

During the Examine and Understand phases, I leveraged a variety of tools—the following are three that I found extremely helpful.

Tool 1: Tip-toeing in with Reviews and Forums

I’ve never invented, built a business model around, and manufactured a physical product before. When people ask me how I went about figuring things out, I tell them I googled. A lot. It’s the simplest answer I can give. We are so lucky to be able to research anything we want, whenever we want. This includes important competitor and industry research. No matter how unique your idea is, you always want to know the different options currently on the market, the trends in the industry, and where you could fit in.

Here’s what’s incredible—tons of raw user feedback has already been nicely typed up for you to digest at your leisure over a pamplemousse LaCroix. It’s in the form of Amazon reviews, forum discussions, blog post comments, and the like! You literally can read what customers are saying about your space and your competitors—what they love, what they hate, what questions they have, even what they wish were different. Do you hear this?! Users are telling you how you could provide unique value to them!

I began to understand the pros and cons of other coffeemakers without ever having to buy one. I saw that people commonly asked about the materials of coffeemakers. I saw how people reacted to different types of coffee filters. I collected so much information to work off of on day one of examining!

So browse those reviews, scour (and even participate in) those forums, and take note of those comments. Copy and paste any interesting data into a Google doc—or for design thinking points (and fun points), jot info onto post-it notes so that it’s easy to sort and visualize later. Then use sorting techniques—like cluster and label, quadrant/axis and venn diagram—to connect some dots and gain insights.

One of my very first prototypes using a squeezable kiddie cup, basket coffee filter, rubber band, and mason jar ring. The coffee was excellent; the look and feel, not so much :)

One of my very first prototypes using a squeezable kiddie cup, basket coffee filter, rubber band, and mason jar ring. The coffee was excellent; the look and feel, not so much 🙂

Tool 2: Talk to People! Conduct Surveys

Online surveys are something so simple and so valuable, yet totally underutilized! But I’m telling you, seeing feedback magically appear into a nice spreadsheet is as fun as getting likes and comments on your Insta post. I put together a simple Google form with non-leading questions and accompanying images—including an early rendering of the Palmpress with a scrappy how-to diagram (remember, prototypes come in all shapes and sizes). I sent out the survey to my friends and then asked them to share it with people who didn’t know me.

When the results came in, I started digging for trends and insights. This was great practice in receiving feedback neutrally. There were people who weren’t feeling the early rendering of the Palmpress, and some even hated it. But that was okay, because a significant amount of people were enthusiastic about Palmpress, saying things like “I so want this.” I filtered for enthusiastic feedback and found that those people tended to share certain qualities, such as age range, their perceptions of existing coffee brewers, and what they appreciated and disliked. I was learning what drew them to Palmpress, how much they might pay, and what information they needed to actually get on board. My early adopter was materializing. And I had a good sense of my “anti-customer”—the people who simply weren’t going to be interested in this kind of product.


I was analyzing the feedback and learning things left and right. This early, scrappy research led me to begin identifying a positioning for Palmpress. Positioning is how you’re perceived, your angle, what you lead with, whether it be low-cost, high quality, excellent service, super portable, extremely convenient, eco-friendy, luxurious, masculine, healthy, philanthropic, for this type of person, for that type of person, for harmonica-playing dog walkers—whatever it is, you cannot and should not be everything to everybody or even close. Start with one thing to hang your hat on, and it will push you to think differently, intentionally, and thoughtfully rather than scattered and diluted. And you can always broaden or edit as needed.

My first survey pointed me in a general direction. My next survey allowed me to target a much more relevant audience, and present more details about Palmpress, in order to get more accurate answers. This second survey showed an evolved prototype—a demo video and styled image.

Everything I learned about my users through surveys was used to make Palmpress better for them.

Tool 3: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: Immersive Research, Observations and Interviews

I received a lot of suggestions on how to market the Palmpress. The suggestions weren’t right or wrong in and of themselves, but I reminded myself that the people giving suggestions didn’t have a deep understanding of my customer or the market. Their feedback is valuable, you just can’t take it at face value.


Here’s what I mean: figure out why people are saying what they’re saying and how it actually plays out in real life. I did so by using Palmpress in as many real-life scenarios as possible, being a fly on the wall, and interviewing.

For example, some people suggested that work/office and on-the-go use would be a leading application for Palmpress, one reason being it’s obviously very compact. So, I visited six different offices to learn about their coffee game. One thing I observed was that while some offices were equipped to the nines, some didn’t even have a sink or water source that gets hot enough for coffee. I also realized similar things with hotel rooms when I traveled, although I must say that Palmpress is super easy to travel with. On another trip I brought Palmpress to my friends’ apartment and we palmpressed coffee using fresh grounds from their local coffee shop—they LOVED the coffee, saw how much better it tasted than usual, and even made an extra cup to save in the fridge before I left.

I also brought Palmpress to the Caribbean with me on vacation. I made coffee with beans that I had packed, but realized something tasted off. I was baffled for a while before realizing the water there tasted really, really different, and it was the main ingredient in my coffee! I learned so many things that I could’ve easily missed had I not immersed Palmpress into a bunch of day-to-day scenarios.

Carrying around Palmpress to test when the opportunity striked. Who doesn’t have time to spare for a cup of coffee?

Carrying around Palmpress to test when the opportunity arose. Who doesn’t have time to spare for a cup of coffee?

Another suggestion was that Palmpress could target coffee snobs. However, after conducting interviews and visiting homes to learn about coffee habits, I found that most of my audience was pretty unfamiliar with making craft coffee. When they had time, they’d make themselves coffee with a coffee machine or perhaps a French press. When in a rush, they’d stop to pick it up or drink free office coffee. They weren’t coffee snobs, just coffee lovers. And that led to another key insight—Palmpress may be attractive to coffee snobs, but marketing to coffee snobs might actually alienate my early adoptor!

Putting all of that together, I concluded that outside of home my audience would not likely go out of their way to brew their own coffee. It’s just not practical with unknown factors and alternative options, and therefore Palmpress should not lead with things like “on the go.” And to learn all this I had to go straight to the source—the people who would actually be using Palmpress. At this point, I was forming a good idea of what my audience cared about and the simple value they could derive from Palmpress—superb coffee, made by you. And where you decide to make it is not so important as long as it suits you.

Behind the scenes of a Palmpress photoshoot, produced with our audience in mind.

Behind the scenes of a Palmpress photoshoot, produced with our audience in mind.

Showing Up and Doing

Here’s the beautiful thing. Because you’ve done so much discovery, you’ve formed a meaningful story that you can tell to others—be it investors, media outlets, or colleagues. This is a framework I like that I’ve adopted from The Design Gym and Ariel Raz of Stanford d.School:

We had a hunch that ______. So we researched by _______. We were surprised to learn that _________. So it’d be a game-changer to _________.

You now have the workings of a business case, a position to take, some fluency in the market, tools for research and brainstorming, and data to fuel your prototypes. Now, it’s about showing up and doing—yes, that’s the grand finale! Be a practitioner. Learn as much as you can about people, and then do something about it.


About Jess Do:

We’re stoked that long-time TDG community member, Jess Do was able to contribute a blog post this week on how she’s leveraged design thinking thus far in her entrepreneurial journey. Jess is a product entrepreneur with a background in finance and project management. From trading platforms to local communities, she’s been building things her whole life, most recently the Palmpress coffee press.



Design Thinking for Impact: Acumen Global Fellows

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

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


What Is the Acumen Global Fellows Program?

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

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

Enter Design Thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Takeaways

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

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

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


Transforming Public Schools with Design Thinking

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

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

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

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

1. Focus on the Problem, Not the Solution

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

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

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

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

2. See Constraints as Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

3. Meet People Where They Are

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

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

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

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

4. Design With, Not For

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

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

5. Build a Community Around Learning

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

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

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

Infiltrating For Success

I look around the room. It’s large and airy with floor to ceiling windows plastered with post its. Alongside, small groups of students are earnestly discussing the features of their big new idea. It’s the first ever ProductHack at Penn, a collaboration between Wharton and Penn’s student groups focused on innovation, design, technology, and computer science, and I’m co-teaching and facilitating the mix of MBAs and undergraduates through the design thinking process.

But I’m not a designer. Prior to Wharton, I spent the last five years working in a variety of roles across research, human services, and social enterprises in roles focused on project management and process efficiencies. And prior to discovering design thinking, my only real creative endeavors lay in my abandoned ballerina aspirations and being a personal stylist for my friends. In some ways, that’s why my first design thinking workshop back in 2012 was a revelation—for the first time, I had discovered a way to combine my love of process with my secret creative aspirations. After taking a number of workshops, I was asked to help facilitate and, eventually this summer in Chile, co-teach workshops for The Design Gym.  I loved helping others make that connection and rediscover how they could apply their own creativity impulses to their everyday work.

Reflecting back on my design thinking journey that led me to ProductHack, I have three takeaways to share:

1. Infiltration over Implementation.

In the ideal world, I would attend a workshop on design thinking, learn the five (or six or seven) phases, and then turn around and implement the entire process. And actually, I tried. I tried very hard. I had the Design Gym come in and train staff at my organization, and over a two month period, facilitated a team through the process. But what I found is that for our company, and for many others, it isn’t realistic to try and implement the entire five phases in its pure form. There are too many cultural, logistical, and political factors that will impact your ability to implement the entire process. What’s far more realistic is to infiltrate using parts of the design thinking process. To take bits and pieces of each phase (e.g. conducting a small number of user interviews to inform a new concept, facilitating a brainstorming session using post-its) and to use those techniques to infiltrate your organization with the principles of design thinking. To this end, the Design Gym has offered classes such as “How to Create a Project Plan” or “Facilitating for Success” to help you tease apart these different components. I know that once I reframed and took an infiltration approach, my success at helping my company rethink and reframe problems in a more effective and creative way drastically increased.

tweet-graphic-4forgiveness over permission: Start with parts, not the whole design thinking process at once.


2. Different minds think alike

Fundamentally, design thinking is about the people – about creating processes and situations that maximize creativity and chaos in a controlled environment. The wonderful thing about the Design Gym which makes it truly unique among both the innovation consulting and education industries is how it attracts talented, highly motivated professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds who are all seeking ways to not just improve their own skills, but also improve the “skills” and processes of their own company, finding ways to better structure teamwork and collaboration in pursuit of greater organizational innovation. When I first started taking Design Gym classes, I was struck by the wide variety of backgrounds and interests that spanned the room – designers, financial analysts, teachers, and entrepreneurs. It was a much more diverse sample than I had seen in other business education classes, yet we all also shared similar interests and goals to find ways to help create a better, more collaborative workplace. I now count some of my fellow Design Gym classmates as some of my best friends and collaborators.

tweet-graphic-4Fundamentally, design thinking is about people


3. Perfectionism is the enemy of…creativity?

True Confession: it took me two months to write this blogpost. The surface reason was that the first semester of business school is intensely overwhelming, but the real reason is simply that I’m a recovering perfectionist. For me, writing has always been a torturous process, complete with half hour agony sessions obsessing over finding the perfect word to express that exact emotion or just simply rewriting one sentence twenty times over. But the way that I’ve finally been able to get this written is by setting myself a time limit, reminding myself that the first time is never perfect, and that there are always opportunities to iterate and revise. And while that sounds like common sense, its design thinking that taught me to put that structure and limit in place. Because I’ve seen firsthand as a facilitator that the ideas that result when I push groups to complete a phase within the time limit and let go of their perfectionism are far better than if I just let them spend endless time debating and trying to make their idea exactly perfect. The Design Gym workshops are the perfect place to practice this skill; the constraints of the day are always there to box you in, and Daniel, Andy or Jason are always there to give you that not-so-gentle reminder it’s time to “close.” I found that when I began to apply the same principles in my life, both my individual and group work dramatically improved. Because ultimately, nothing is perfect, and you always have time constraints. You won’t always have a facilitator to push you through it, but you can serve as your own facilitator and push yourself.

tweet-graphic-4Perfect is the enemy of creativity: there are always constraints: design thinking means working with those constraints.


Design thinking means many things to different people. Over my time taking classes, facilitating, and teaching with the Design Gym, I found that ultimately to me design thinking came to represent a mindset and set of principles which I could use in both my work and personal life to be more empathetic, more collaborative, and fundamentally, more creative. I’ll never be a designer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a design thinker. And the same goes for you.

Justine Lai is a 1st year MBA Candidate at The Wharton School, and a co-VP for Education for Wharton’s Innovation & Design Club. Throughout her career, Justine has focused on the training and development of social intrapreneurs to push forward organizational innovation and creative problem solving. Justine spent the summer with The Design Gym in Chile, helping launch its Santiago Chapter.

The Studio Project

The Studio Project is a place to practice, a safe environment, a real case study, one-on-one coaching, and accelerated insights.

More about The Studio Project

Research, Synthesis, Insights, Strategy and Great Ideas. It’s something we’re all asked to do nearly every day at our jobs. At The Design Gym, we’ve been teaching the design thinking process to companies and individuals for more than 2 years…and we’ve found that 2-hour workshops and one-day bootcamps are fun, inspirational and transformative…but that people still can struggle with taking this way of working back to their daily job. We’ve been experimenting for the last year and a half with various formats and ways of engaging people with this empathic and dynamic way of innovating. The Studio project is our best way of getting people to work through the design thinking process in real time with a real challenge. Over the course of 5-8 sessions, we take a cohort of professionals from research to insights and from insights to solutions.


A Studio Project is a chance to work over a longer period of time with a team, under creative direction. Each week will build on the next and the work will be highly collaborative. It’s the closest we can get to simulating working in an innovation lab and will help you bring these techniques into your own work.

Over the course of Five Sessions , you’ll dig into a real challenge alongside a client team, getting a real time, real life opportunity to learn design thinking in practice. You’ll build a research and insights plan collaboratively, and get feedback and insights as you go. At the end of the class, you’ll have your own case study on bringing a concept from research through insights and strategy.

Between classes, you and your team will work together to execute on your research plan, and do real-world customer and stakeholder research. Each week we’ll move through the phases of design – at the end, developing a series of insights, concepts and pitches to your client.


Each session will be held on Wednesday nights from 6:00pm – 9:15pm. These will be a mixture of group learning sessions, private coaching ‘office hour’ sessions, and client check-in sessions (see outline below).


The real work, experience, and fun will be achieved outside of the classroom. You should plan on meeting with your team a few times in between each class. Set aside a weekend afternoon, maybe! These might range in doing a 45 minute interview to spending a half-day doing store visits to spending a full day frameworking and developing insights. It’s up to you and your team to find a schedule that works for you. We find that teams spend an additional 10-12 hours a week meeting and working together.


In this class, participants will get a deeper understanding of how each phase of design works and how to navigate them, in practice.


Meet other participants
Review the project plan
Get background on the client and brief


Different types of design research
Knowing what types of research to use when
Research planning: who to talk to, when to talk, where to talk, how many to talk to, what to talk about.


Coaching on research methods and execution
Outputs, Definition and outcomes


How to turn research into useful strategies and insights
How to collaboratively build alignment on project scope and direction
How to move from insights to Ideas
Ideation tools and techniques
Rapid prototyping


Final Presentation to the Client
Discuss the best ways to apply this experience and learning back to your individual work or job

We are committed to enrolling unique and fascinating companies for these projects. We’ve had the pleasure of working with some pretty diverse challenges – from rethinking lunch with Applegate to rethinking social networks with Mozilla! The results, both from the company perspective and the student perspective, have been really exciting!


Student Perspectives: Real world practice and experience


jessica“I’m excited about applying the [design thinking] process to a real project. It’s tough to get that sort of practice when you’re not doing it in your daily job”

Jessica Martin, Innovation associate






“I was always really craving to do it, as opposed to just learn about it… a 2-hour class where we just have some fun with sticky notes!

I love that we’re really working with a client and we get to try to really solve a real-world problem”

Sally Hall, Development Officer



Client Perspectives: Real Time Open Innovation

From the perspective of our clients, The Studio Project looks and feels like real-time, open innovation.


Applegate is constantly looking for ways to connect with consumers, to both learn and to educate. The opportunity to access a diverse, unbiased group of motivated thinkers was irresistible.  The result of our partnership with The Design Gym was clear and unexpected insights from real people that were thoughtfully distilled into concise ideas and actions.

As our consumers continue to inspire us, innovation will remain a primary goal at Applegate and we look forward to collaborating with The Design Gym again.

Tiffany Gale, Digital and Social Media Manager

Applegate, Studio Project Client, Winter 2014

Download the Applegate Studio Project Case Study Here

The Design Gym process allowed us to better understand our problem and users, while leading us to many awesome ideas and solutions. Besides being a fun and extremely valuable workshop, I met a wonderful group of enthusiastic and smart people. I definitely recommend a collaboration with The Design Gym and their team of “solvers” on your next project!

Holly Habstritt, UX Lead

Mozilla, Studio Project Client, Winter 2012

Download the Mozilla Studio Project Case Study Here


If you spend more time with your staff than you do with your customers, if you enjoy feeling naked (Watch at minute 2!) in front of people…you’ll enjoy being the company challenge at the center of The Studio Project.

Register Now

Refund Policy

If you come to the first workshop and feel that this class isn’t right for you, we’ll refund your entire fee. Likewise, if after the first workshop session we don’t think you’re a good match for the sessions, we’ll refund your fee and recommend next steps for you on your learning journey

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