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.

Justine Lai
[email protected]
  • Melissa Brown Blaeuer
    Posted at 13:30h, 14 January Reply

    Words to live by! Great post, thanks for getting it out there. After a certain point, perfection becomes a matter of personal opinion anyway. Iteration and reprioritization enable the dimension of time to be managed effectively and profitably.

    • Daniel
      Posted at 02:38h, 27 January Reply

      Melissa, you’re totally right! It’s also an 80/20 rule, working against you – you struggle for that last 20% of perfection and spend way to much energy to try to get to some theoretical 100%…which, as you say, is just a matter of opinion!

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