The Rise of People First Innovation in 2020

Reflections & Insights from our CEO, Andy Hagerman

Everyone is nodding in agreement that innovation is important — turns out executive satisfaction with innovation outcomes is a resounding ‘meh.’

A recent McKinsey survey found that 84% of executives agree that innovation is important to growth strategy and 80% believe that their business models are fundamentally at risk. So it’s not surprising that over the past decade we’ve watched billions of dollars get invested into innovation programs, skunkwork labs, mergers and acquisitions, training programs, and cool offices. It’s impacted the strategies of the world’s most profitable corporations, most impactful nonprofits, most influential governments, most newsworthy startups, and everything in between. But get this – that same survey found that only 6% of executives are satisfied with their innovation performance (6%? WTF you might ask?!). 

Let’s take a moment to let that sink in – if you are a leader of, a participant in, or an advocate of innovation in any way, this gap should raise some discomfort. These types of statistics are what cause radical shifts in approach, and could leave you and your team with a target on your back and your head spinning. 

(‘Geez Andy, you’re really bumming me out right now’ you might find yourself thinking. Fear not – I wouldn’t leave you hanging like that.)

Most change is uncomfortable, but not all change is bad. We think this tension is going to evolve the innovation conversation in an actionable, impactful, and systemic way. Let’s take a look at the groundswell that is occurring, and more importantly what role you (and we) will need to do to be a part of it.

The gap between what we expect  from innovation efforts and the reality of where we’re at is leading to some profound observations tracking into 2020:

Below are 4 trends we’ve identified that are worth paying close attention to, along with how it will evolve The Design Gym’s approach in 2020. We’ve also included some resources (listening, reading, stats) that lit our brains up on each topic so you can dive in with us.


As a result of organizations adopting tools like design thinking, design sprints, agile, lean, and ping pong tables (yes even these), the conversation around how we work, how we collaborate, and who has permission to be creative has evolved substantially. But rather ironically, what it did not do a good job of is designing for the human side of those work shifts. The business world has talked for decades about the importance of involving our customers in the design of new products. However, many of our ‘innovation’ approaches so far have been more focused on introducing new ‘solutions’ into our work cultures, as opposed to looking closely at the humans those cultures consist of. We need to begin mapping our innovation efforts directly to the people responsible for bringing it to life, not around the tools that might help us get there.

Tools like design thinking and design sprints are excellent mechanisms for guiding groups of people in more creative collaboration, but they simply aren’t addressing the systemic issue facing the majority of organizations today – that we need work environments designed for people to thrive both personally and professionally.

An example from the wild:
The Design Gym has been working with a large Fortune 100 technology company for about 3 years now. We recently sat down with one of their design leaders to talk about the impact of design sprints have had on their business, something that had been taking off like wildfire in their 75,000 person organization. Over the past year, this leader had aligned his entire team around a sprint based model with the intention of working quickly and collaboratively on tightly scoped challenges. It seemed like a perfect format for breaking bureaucracy and expediting decision making. Although it did accomplish these goals, it overlooked some of the broader org breakdowns related to transparency of strategy and prioritization of healthy risk taking. People had been given a fantastic 5-day format for innovation, but their bandwidth and creative empowerment had not changed. This often left them with a bunch of great ideas but no time to prioritize and implement them, and no personal incentive to do so. The team ended up reverting to their older way of working and implemented a ‘no sprints’ model, which although slower, actually worked within the constraints and culture of their organization. In this case, the methodology, tools, and structure were great solutions but failing to address the most important needs – alignment on strategy, a shared definition of what healthy risk taking looked like in the group, and transparency on where that needed time would come from.

Feed your brain on this trend with these:


In the world of holistic medicine, there is a fundamental belief of two healing approaches – you can treat the symptoms or you can stimulate the system to heal from within. Similarly in the world of innovation, you can facilitate design sprints or offer creative workshops endlessly, and generate great organizational energy. But if at the end your people are still lacking foundational human needs – safety, trust, transparency, personal growth, community, purpose – then all of those efforts are simply ‘band-aids’ to the root causes of what is actually preventing your team from sustainably innovating.

‘Bleh – but why do we have to slow down so much for individual needs just to tackle our business problems!’ 

It is not a conversation of compassion, it’s a conversation of being realistic. Our teams, for now at least, are made up of a bunch of humans, and it’s literally in our DNA to seek safety. It shows up consciously and subconsciously all the time. Leaders who acknowledge this, and design their cultures and work to accommodate it, are the ones who see sustained change and business results. Those who just throw trainings or methodologies at the problem usually observe the inverse – negative organizational impact as a result of exposing their people to fantastic new ways of working but in a culture that isn’t actually set-up to support it long term. 

When these systemic roots are at their best, innovation and design are actually quite easy. Design thinking, co-creation, and creativity are better and easier. Soft skills and culture are no longer a soft conversation – they are an organization’s best opportunity for sustained growth and innovation and are directly tied to bottom line metrics.

An example from the wild:
Systemic change can start in small places. In our work with a Fortune 500 media company, we supported their executive team in building a greater sense of community within their functional units. Coming off of a challenging year that included executive sexual harassment challenges, re-orgs, agressive product launches, and a rapidly changing industry, the team holistically needed a culture re-set. What was immediately clear when meeting the team, however, was a remaining population of employees who were deeply committed to the future, passionate about the industry, and ready to roll their sleeves up. They were awesome. Through a series of off-sites with the senior leadership, we helped to re-instill a sense of trust and community by starting with the basics—learning how to once again listen and collaborate amongst one another. We taught basic practices like deep listening and vulnerability, and simply gave them the structured space to connect at a human level. Once these foundational elements of human connection were established, the process of rebuilding the business all become much more approachable because it was no longer an organization of individuals, but an aligned army with a shared purpose.

Feed your brain on this trend with these:

  • Quote: “If you change the law, but you don’t change the hearts, then you don’t change the power.” Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans
  • Holy S%!# stat: 65% of employees are actively disengaged in their work. Of those, 19% are actively interested in sabotaging their business. (Gallup)
  • Holy S%!# stat: 69% of startups fail not because of bad products, lack of R&D, or ability to find product market fit, but because of an inability for their leaders to effectively communicate and collaborate. (Noam Wasserman, The Founder’s Dilemma)
  • Podcast: Hidden Brain episode ‘Rebel With A Cause’ with Francesca Gino – we literally just created our own target persona named the Rebel With A Cause. This podcast highlights a beautiful body of research and look at the people who rebel with purpose, intention, and positive impact as a result.


Even the best leaders are carrying around a set of insecurities, questions, and personal blockers like the rest of us—this is not shocking. What is shocking, in the best way possible, is the emerging movement of leaders investing in their own self-inquiry and self-leadership. When leaders don’t have a deepened sense of self-awareness, they simply end up imparting their personal ‘baggage’ onto the teams and strategies they guide each day. There has been much talk of emotional intelligence and psychological safety over the past few years, but there is literally no more important place for this to be showing up than in the individual leaders and executives at the top.

When leaders are able to look honestly at themselves, they invoke a level of vulnerability that unlocks their full potential. Not only are they able to acknowledge their blind spots, but to surround themselves with a team that complements them. Not only are they able to honestly identify the things they need to work on, but they are able to enroll their peers and colleagues in that journey. They are able to release the pressure of always needing to have the right answer, and instead put their energy into learning how to listen to the amazing people and ideas right in front of them. Most importantly—they are able to model the behaviors and self-inquiry that the rest of the organization might be missing.

An example from the wild:
Several years ago we helped a customer experience executive at a large healthcare company build an innovation program to be scaled across their global markets. Defining, designing, implementing, and measuring the body of work was a nearly 2 year effort, and proved to be very difficult in a complex industry and inside an organization where these working styles were often unnatural. We recently caught up with the leader to reflect on the experience and discuss what we learned, and he quite simply summed up his experience saying that the hardest part of the transformation program had been his own individual transformation as a leader. As the program unfolded, he realized how his leadership style, which had served him very well at a variety of other organizations, wasn’t always suited for creating impact in this particular culture. This type of self-awareness feels good at a personal level, but more importantly it drastically improves the odds that all the hard work is actually successful and adopted. Conversely, the waste of energy, resources, and hours tied to low-EQ leaders is more than enough to send organizations into a spiral before you even know what’s causing it.

Feed your brain with these:

  • Quote: “Anyone can become angry – that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” Aristotle (this topic has been trending that long! #OkayAncientScholars)
  • Book: Reboot, by Jerry Colonna – This book has been a game changer for our team, and more importantly represents the direction we hope leadership will go. Can’t recommend highly enough. You can also check out the podcast he did with Krista Tippet and OnBeing for an abbreviated listen.
  • Article: The Moral Peril of Meritocracy, by David Brooks – An article backed by years of research on why individualistic culture fails us, and why people forced to do deep reflection end up rallying in the most impactful ways. Also check out David’s book The Second Mountain: Quest for a Moral Life.
  • Podcast: Farnam Street episode with Naval Ravikant of AngelList – 2 hours of absolute wisdom, highlighting the tactics and benefits of a well examined life informing a well examined leadership practice.
  • Podcast: On Being episode with Mirabai Bush – a woman filled with wisdom who has committed her life to bringing practices of mindfulness and contemplation into the workplace, and has decades of experience most notably at Google.
  • Talk: Brene Brown: The Call To Courage (Netflix) – if you don’t know now you know. With all the humor, insight, and poise that only she can bring, this is a 75-minute crash course on living and leading with vulnerability.
  • Podcast: Meditative Story with Keith Yamashita, founder of SY Partners – a truly remarkable, mindbending 30 minutes of Keith sharing his story of surviving a stroke last year and how it’s altered his perspective on the intersection of life and work. Phew – so good.


We are living in a world of polarizing topics – race, climate, equality, politics, capitalism, globalism, mental wellness. For many years, we have lived in a world of separating church and state – choosing to keep these conversations out of the workplace, or at least behind closed doors. Those days are behind us. In today’s world, the things that leaders do not say communicate just as much, if not more, than the things they do say. These topics are impacting and influencing the workplace whether leaders want them to or not. In today’s world, it is not just the leader’s choice, but it is actually their responsibility to navigate and surface these topics in a manner that is intentional, authentic, and inclusive. Leaders cannot be silent bystanders on these topics any longer. Whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, these topics are filling the heads and informing the work of your employees.

As a leader, you have the privilege and power to start bringing the hard questions of today’s society into your team. Not with the intention of preaching, overstepping, or even solving, but with the mindset of listening, seeing people, and creating safe spaces to empathize with the lived experiences of others. In many organizations, the majority of people are ultimately desiring a similar future state, but the passion, points of view, and lack of listening too often polarize these conversations, making them seem unapproachable or off limits. As a leader, it’s your job to model what these conversations look like, and unite your team in understanding what it means at an individual, team, and organization wide level.

An example from the wild:
While guiding a well known tech company through product planning for the year to come, conversations kept arising around the intersection of technology usage and mental wellness, particularly within teens. It was clear the topic was top of mind, and rightfully so. We worked with the leadership team to first off name this topic as a priority, and then integrate it throughout the team’s co-creation sessions. One of the most powerful activations came during our research and inspiration phase of the project, in which we recruited a small army of highschool guidance counselors, child psychologists, and teen experts to do guest interviews with the team. The team heard stories about how technology was having both positive and negative influence in the lives of teens, along with deep academic research to support it. These insights directly influenced the strategic opportunities the team decided to pursue, but more importantly it served as an important checkpoint and conversation for the team to forecast the implications of their work on mental wellness holistically. All it took was a set of leaders willing to name it and prioritize it.

Feed your brain on this trend with these:

  • Quote: “We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Quote: “The problem is no longer getting people to express themselves, but providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say…what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing…the thing that might be worth saying.” Gilles Deleuze (via Tim Feriss) 
  • Podcast: The Daily: What American CEO’s Are Worried About – A quick look at the question ‘what is the responsibility of a corporation?’. Provides great background on the Business Roundtable’s new look at shareholders vs. stakeholders and what the future might hold for business strategy.
  • Blog Post: A Leader’s Duty: Making The Uncomfortable Comfortable – This is a very personal piece from The Design Gym CEO Andy Hagerman (me!) about his journey being a leader with depression, and the need to create a workplace that celebrates these conversations instead of avoiding them.
  • Talk: Building an Equitable Company at Scale with Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity and Belonging at Atlassian – We had the pleasure of seeing this talk live at Culture Summit Conference 2019, and it blew our minds. It highlights that acknowledging the conversation is only the beginning. Integrating it into the way the company works is where the impact starts to occur. What if all of us brought this intention around D&I to our teams and orgs – how would the world look different in 5 years?

Here are the evolutions you can expect from The Design Gym in 2020 as we integrate with these trends.  

We practice what we preach. These trends aren’t just things we want to support our clients and community in navigating, they are also dictating how we continue to pursue our vision and organize our work.

  • We are increasingly focused on and inspired by deeper culture change initiatives, with an intention of sustained and systemic change. Stronger cultures lead to more sustainable innovation efforts, and more sustainable innovation efforts lead to business success and growth. This theory dictates our offering structures and success metrics so it’s never confusing how the bottom line is impacted.
  • We are focused on supporting leaders who are invested in doing the deep work as opposed to looking for silver bullets. One off workshops or sprints are fun and play a role, but the real impact comes from identifying systemic breakdowns before introducing new tactics and tools . We’ll be looking for and prioritizing the brave leaders willing to dive into that exploration.
  • Over the past year, we conducted research with 30+ of our closest clients and community members to understand what makes human centered organizations work. These data backed insights have laid a framework to guide us in guiding our clients. Bringing these frameworks to organizations now provides the starting point for identifying where culture may be blocking innovation and growth. This work then sets us up for the creative activity of adapting it to the unique needs of any individual organization.
  • We are now integrating individual level work into our projects and programs, working with leaders to uncover their individual human needs before attempting to scale them to their teams and organizations. Transformative culture work comes from leaders willing to transform themselves.
  • We are slowly building a list of strategic partnerships with experts in topics like organizational psychology, relationships, coaching, diversity and inclusion, and conflict resolution so that no matter what an organization is in need of we have the right experts to support it.

Other Updates @ The Design Gym:

  • We’ve just opened a brand new NYC office at 32nd street / 5th Avenue! We’ll now be able to host clients, trainings, and events in our space. Come by to check it out!
  • Our team has continued to grow and we are expecting to have 20+ people coming into 2020, including teams in NYC, São Paulo, and Colorado. 
  • We have completed a vast amount of research to define our target persona – the Rebel With A Cause. We’re excited to continue finding these Rebels and supporting them in driving more impactful work and conversations within their respective organizations.
  • We will be increasing our Industry Night ‘secret society’ events in 2020 to more deeply engage and connect with and across our Creative Rebels community (stay tuned!).
  • Our consulting work will continue to focus on deeper culture change within organizations, finding and supporting leaders interested in achieving better business results by putting their people at the center of the innovation equation.
  • We will be rolling out a whole new set of public workshops starting in January, with a slew of new offerings that continue to provide experiential, accessible, and individual access to the topics we’ve outlined here.
  • Finally, we are committed to practicing what we preach. Any company that externally preaches intention around people and culture, but internally is still rewarding ‘all nighter’ cultures and toxic leadership practices is one to be questioned. Organizations who are quick to speak but aren’t willing to do the hard work themselves are doing a discredit to the entire movement, and we don’t identify with that. We are investing in our team and structure with the same intentionality we would approach any of our customers or clients. It is slower, it is more expensive, it is harder, and it works. We test everything we recommend to our clients on ourselves as a very personal and honest commitment to the vision of creating a world filled with more human centered organizations.

This work isn’t just a business for us. Imagining a world of work that allows all people to show up as their best in order to do their best is a vision that supersedes any one company objective or project. We can’t go it alone and we hope you’ll join our tribe of Rebels With A Cause – the endlessly curious makers and leaders who are willing to stick their neck out in pursuit of new ways of creating value, both inside and outside their organizations.

We’ve been validating it on the frontlines for the past 8 years. We’ve seen this shift to people first innovation demonstrate concrete business results for the leaders brave enough to practice it. We also see innovation initiatives continue to flounder in the organizations too focused on the silver bullet workshop, technology, or methodology. The data is demonstrating that strong culture equates to strong business performance. It is a competitive advantage and the only sustainable approach to innovation. 

If you have an interest in this work, or are a leader who wants to advocate for these practices in your organization, we would love to personally connect or reconnect with you. Our role is to help make these aspirations actionable, and to arm leaders with the tools to bring it into their organizations. But the real success is in the brave leaders who step up to do it, and we’d love to talk to you more about what that looks like in 2020 and beyond.

As always – Stay Awesome,
Andy Hagerman, Co-Founder + CEO
The Design Gym

Andy Hagerman
[email protected]

Andy Hagerman is one of the co-founders and partners at The Design Gym, a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot him a note at [email protected].

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