Designing Culture: Strategies for Bringing Creativity to Your Organization

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

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

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

The night’s panel of creative leaders included:


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

Start With a Vision

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

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

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

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

Rally Behind That Vision

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

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

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


Empathize With the Nonbelievers

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

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

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

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

Show Don’t Tell

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

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

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


Identify and Empower Your Internal Rockstars

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

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

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


Recruit People Who Already Have the Mindset

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

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

Create a Space Conducive to Creativity

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

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

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


Beginning the Journey

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

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

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

The Design Gym
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