It Works!: 6 Design Tips For Your Culture



You don’t live in the same place. You don’t speak the same language. You aren’t of the same race. You don’t share the same history. You deal with an enormous disparity in income and assets. Yet, your team shares an enormous problem and spectacular opportunity. You can save lives.

The situation described above happened. I learned about it through a Segal Design Institute sponsored presentation by Will Harris from Design that Matters (DtM). Will discussed how a cross-cultural team, based in Boston and Vietnam, worked together to save babies in the developing world from death or brain damage from jaundice. Learn more about DtM and their result, Firefly, here.  They tell the story better than I can. It’s a story that should be retold.

The intent of Will’s presentation was to describe how design principles work across cultures.  It did.  But, like all thought-provoking discussions, it left me with different questions. Are obvious cultural differences an asset to design thinking?  When we know that we don’t share much in common, does it make us more open to learning about each other?  Conversely, does a shared culture get in the way of good design thinking?

Six of the design principles shared in the Firefly story are described below. These worked across cultures, but can they work within one?

Find a Local Partner

In the Firefly example, DtM needed a local organization to be its partner for practical and cultural reasons. Within cultures, I wonder how often the “they are just like us” assumption encourages the “go it alone” instinct. We think since we speak the same language, live in the same community, or work for the same people we must see the problems and solutions the same way. Good ideas aren’t encouraged early without fresh thinking. Resources and efforts are diluted when they could be combined. Could we increase impact if  “find a partner” was the first rule of design everywhere?

Identify the Problem

DtM and their partner, East Meets West, were clear about the problem. Over 9 million babies in the developing world, particularly in Asia, need treatment for jaundice ever year. Left untreated or under treated, these infants will die or suffer severe brain damage. The treatment for jaundice is known; the problem was both in the availability and access to the necessary equipment for therapy.

When was the last time your intracultural team framed the problem it was trying to solve? Did it matter enough to put effort against it? Were there many problems? Did everyone work on his or her favorite problem? A lack of alignment around what the problem is and why it matters always shows up. Invest the time to define the problem on the front end to avoid tears on the back-end.

Embrace the Culture

Understand the culture the way it is. Appreciate people, practices, identities and values the way they are, not how we wish them to be. Ironically, it can be easier to accept and appreciate cultures other than our own. Our culture is like our family; we think it’s the only odd one. We approach it with a list of improvement opportunities. Don’t. Good design starts with empathy. As a colleague of mine advises: “Love ‘em first.”

Watch and Learn

When was the last time you were a visitor in your own culture? Do you notice how people interact? What patterns do you notice? Who speaks? Who listens? Who decides? Ask about how things work. Look for contradictions between how things are supposed to happen and how they really happen. Dig deeper with questions like: How could someone new learn this? What have you seen others do?


Does your intracultural team have a shared point of view that expresses its collective learning? This could be as simple as four points: 1) This is the problem 2) These are the most important things we’ve learned 3) This is what we will do 4) This is what we won’t do. Agree before  you design, before you invest, before you plan.  Have everyone on the team give input into a single point of view that can explain the problem, the most important things to know about it, and your solution boundaries.

Fail Fast

After you coalesce on a common view, fire up your imaginations. Fail your way to success! Create user worksheets or pictures to describe as many solutions you can think of based upon your synthesis. Don’t hold back. Have users rate the designs. Toss the crazy ones they don’t accept. You can’t pick out the crazy ideas from the rest. Your users can.

DtM produced several solution options that met their criteria. Each of the designs could have worked. By giving the users multiple choices and a vote in the selection, they jumped started adoption. This point made me think of how much time teams I’ve been a part of spent on coming up with “the answer’ when the reality was there were several potential answers. We cheated our users by choosing for them. Their top choice might have stayed in our trash.

 Across the Globe and Close to Home 

Will Harris and DtM showed how innovation can be nurtured to span cultures. The bonus insight is the design practices that enable innovation to cross cultures also works within them.  In fact, these principles may be more important working within a culture to overcome biases and shared assumptions that limit innovation.

Have you applied lessons from cross-cultural experiences to work within your culture? What happened?

Thank you, Segal People, for this insight! Thank you, Will Harris, for an inspirational presentation. Design that Matters, indeed.

A Collision For Good


Two great ideas collided yesterday. I left not only unharmed but enlightened; the kind of energy that produces the Oh, this is so cool feeling. The first idea came to me carried within Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s article How Great Companies Think Differently in the November issue of Harvard Business Review. The second came from reading about the intersection of design and knowledge management featured in Jeff Merrell’s blog Learning. Change. By Design. I’ll share my excitement about both ideas, then possibilities from the great collision.

Reviewing my yellow highlighted version of her article, Kanter makes the compelling point that great companies just think differently. Their primary focus is  building enduring success through meaningful societal contribution. Sure they make money; but money is an outcome, not the singular intent.  To use an old phrase, they “do well by doing good.”  She compares this thinking to transactional companies who view profit as a primary intent and people, communities and societies as parts to ft in “later. ”Not naming names, but we can think of companies in both categories.

Kanter suggests six practices that distinguish great companies:

  • They have a common purpose and core identity. Their purpose and values guide their actions, not numbers of widgets.
  • They have a long-term view. Decisions are made in terms of creating a sustainable institution, recognizing that immediate investments in human capital may have a longer term, but lasting, pay back.
  • They create emotional engagement. The positive energy from purpose and values that serve real needs of real people encourages the hearts and inspires effort from constituents.
  • They partner with the public. Instead of a tired “public or private” debate, great companies recognize that agendas that align with private partners, people and public agencies frequently produce long term benefits.
  • They are innovative. Of course, great companies have innovation practices. But because of their practices- leading with purpose, a long term view, emotional connection and a wide net of partners- great companies also create more possibilities.
  • They allow self-organization. They trust people to work in the organization’s best interests and build relationships based upon shared interests.  They encourage connections across borders and reporting relationships to pursue ideas.

The second idea was encouraged by Jeff Merrell’s observations about what design does, particularly in the minds of Design For America students. Design thinkers see solutions where others see problems.  They do it by sort of standing in the middle of the mess and looking, listening and learning. They see patterns and make connections.  And, they suspend judgment about what should be and work with what is and what could be. Design thinkers look at the same connections the rest of us do but see new possibilities.

Now I’m at my collision.  Could design thinking move transactional companies to be great companies? Could it inspire an elevation of the “how much and how many” conversations to “why” conversations? Conversations that tackle questions like:  Why are we here? Who do we serve? How do we improve their lives? in meaningful ways.

My question is a bit rhetorical, because I believe design thinking can move more companies to the great side. Maybe it’s the right thinking at the right time; a path out the binary choices of greed vs. envy, profit vs. service and mine vs. ours. Rosa Beth Moss Kanter makes a compelling case that great companies don’t make these false choices. Design thinking can guide the rest.

To learn more about design thinking and Design For America, check out

To read Rosa Beth Moss Kanter’s article What Great Companies Do Differently, see the November issue of Harvard Business Review at

To read Jeff Merrell’s blog Learning. Change. By Design, check out