Design thinking will make your team more democratic

Originally posted on Medium 


We often talk about design thinking in terms of generating creative and user-centered insights and solutions. Less often do we talk about design thinking as a way to align and empower teams and individual contributors. Despite best intentions, teams can revert to hierarchies and groupthink, instead of enabling equal participation and representation of people and ideas around the table. Avoiding these traps is possible through thoughtful facilitation and setting of expectations.

Here’s three ways you can use design thinking to make your team more democratic. (more…)

Why the Human Factor Matters for Technology and Development



In April, I was invited to speak on a panel for the Digital Technologies and Development event at Columbia SIPA. Below is an edited version of my remarks. 

Since this panel is on “making digital technologies work for people and businesses,” I want to briefly discuss why we need to keep the human factor in mind when we think about making digital technologies work for everyone. To do this, I’ll share three examples focused on human-centered design in technology and civic innovation. (more…)

Innovation is not Sexy


Innovation is hard work–much harder than the headlines will admit, and much more complicated than the colored post-its let on. While researching government innovation, I’ve had the opportunity to interview several leaders of innovation teams in cities across the country–and the conclusion from all their stories is clear: innovation is not sexy work. 

Innovation is at its best when it’s supported by data, research, and lots of outputs. It doesn’t happen overnight–it takes patience. While many exciting new start-ups disappoint, the companies and cities doing real innovation that leave us pleased as consumers and citizens are putting in the time and effort to build lasting innovations, sometimes in unnoticeable incremental changes. Sometimes the output is a great new app; other times, it’s changes to a boring process that makes a big difference.   

That’s not to say that innovation is not also exhilarating. But I’d argue that the best innovation isn’t sexy–it’s not a fun and quick creative brainstorming session followed by a perfect product that solves a problem. (more…)

Cultivating Empathy and Internal Awareness for Social Change

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“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?…Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard—it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.”

— Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

In what David Brooks deemed an “empathy craze” of the past decade, several bestsellers exalted the values of empathy, followed by a series of widely circulated opinion pieces questioning the limits of empathy. Schools and social entrepreneurs preach the value of teaching empathy. The core of trendy human-centered design is empathetic listening and design. I too, caught on to the hype—seeking to better understand empathy as it relates to my own work in social enterprise and social design. Here is what I’ve begun to understand.

Empathy has a critical role to play in creating positive social change; it will enable us to become more collaborative and respond more thoughtfully to social issues. We can cultivate and teach empathy—with intentionality, or willed effort, not diminishing its power—and we can encourage empathy without requiring action or agreement. But before empathy can achieve it’s full impact in our lives and in positive social change, we must cultivate internal awareness to understand our own context in the world.

Through my exploration of empathy, I remain with more questions than answers, and know that my opinion will evolve and change over time. I offer my thoughts here because this subject is important to the public discourse on social change and personal development, and I hope that others wiser than me will offer their own ideas and feedback in response. (more…)

Question of the Day: Sustainability of Partnerships

I love building partnerships. But I’m also constantly concerned about the sustainability of partnerships and how to create partnerships to last from the beginning. This has less to do with legalities of a partnership existing and partners meeting certain requirements, and more with long-term shared value in the partnership.

My question of the day is: How do we build sustainable partnerships? What steps do we need to take to ensure that partner visions and expectations align? Of course, partner organization circumstances and priorities inevitability change overtime, but how do you build around and account for those potential changes so that partnerships can continue to exist in the long-term?

What is a question of the day and how do I participate?

Weight Watchers and Cross-Sector Collaboration

This article—which is really more of the author’s personal history with weight loss and Weight Watchers—does not cover the usual topics of this blog. But the author brings up an excellent point about the weight loss industry and obesity politics today. Her argument doesn’t just apply to the weight loss industry; it applies to any social change issue. Weight Watchers and similar organizations will never do enough on their own to create change. Holistic and collaborative approaches from the private and public sectors, in addition to individual accountability, are needed to address the “eating like garbage” problem. Likewise, social change initiatives won’t be successful through organizations and individuals alone, and must include changes in policy and private sector practices. 

Weight Watchers, and programs like it, focus on fat people, but ignore the issue that, as a country, we’re eating like garbage. That’s all people, not just the fatties. We now want to push our citizens into programs like these — programs with very high failure rates that quantify success with a number on a scale — but we don’t want to, you know, stop subsidizing shitty crops and serving up crap school lunches. Programs that focus on weight loss above all else make it easy to shift the conversation away from the things that matter — food justice, government subsidies, pesticides, hormones — to extremely difficult individual accountability in the face of a system that pushes everyone, not just fatties, to consume garbage.

If we really wanted to make a difference in national health — from WW to fat kids — we’d be focusing on health. Weight would not be a factor. Programs like “Weight Watchers” would be “Health Watchers” (or, er, something catchier?) and we’d focus on eating fruits and veggies, moving our bodies, and loving ourselves at whatever weight. We’d also be encouraged to be more active in food justice for all and diets that are exciting and delicious, as opposed to scary and fraught with hysteria.

Weight Watchers and Cross-Sector Collaboration

“Our education system is a key reason for our lack of skills in collaborating effectively. This is now out of sync with today’s world of work. We do not emphasize collaborative skills and teamwork much in education, from K-12 to high school to college. It is an afterthought, it seems. Learning how to work well with others should be as important as learning math or accounting.”

Morten Hansen in this great article on cheating at Harvard

Bombay Connect: Creating Space for Social Innovators (

My article for

On the top floor of a modest building on a quiet street in Bandra, Mumbai, you’ll find a colorful and cozy office space. Inside, you’ll see bookshelves with an eclectic library collection and in between sunny windows, you’ll find pictures and colored post–its taped to brick walls. On one side of the post-its wall, people list support they need—graphic designers, new team members. On the other side, people list support they can provide—editing, business plan feedback. On any given day in the office, about 30 individuals can be found working on laptops at shared desks or holding meetings in one of the meeting rooms, all busy launching and developing business models to promote social change in India.

Co-working is a growing phenomenon that has doubled every year since 2006, with an estimated2,150 co-working spaces worldwide. India’s co-working scene is still nascent, but one of the most popular spaces is the aforementioned office in Mumbai—Bombay Connect, a co-working space for social innovators. It was founded three years ago under UnLtd India, an incubator for early-stage social entrepreneurs. UnLtd India started their incubation model with the intention of creating a complete support ecosystem for social enterprise in India, which is where Bombay Connect plays an integral role.



Bombay Connect works on a membership model, and benefits include access to working space and events. The office co-working space includes desks, wireless internet access, a library, kitchenette, and conference and meeting rooms. Bombay Connect also hosts one to two events each week, including clinics on marketing, HR, finance, and fundraising. Fostering a strong sense of community among its members is of the essence to Bombay Connect, which hosts regular networking events such as music shows, pottery-making, cooking courses, and movie screenings. They also host monthly Dabba Chats, which are member-led meetings for peers to share ideas and solutions to problems such as sanitation, education, and technology. Events are open to both members and non-members to introduce non-members to the space and encourage new and different perspectives.

“I’m very happy with the ecosystem we’ve created. We’ve seen connections happen,” says Preeti Dawane, who oversees membership engagement and outreach activities at Bombay Connect. “I like the environment here—it’s easy-going and everyone is really helpful and easy to approach,” noted a new Bombay Connect member, who recently moved back to Mumbai to work on a marketing start-up and a NGO after living in the United States. “It’s a great platform to get to network with people who are very forthcoming in sharing ideas and insights.”

Bombay Connect has gradually grown in membership and now has over 50 members. Membership ranges from 1250 to 7200 rupees per month, depending on the number of hours a member works in the space. Approximately 90 percent of members work in social enterprise and 10 percent work with mainstream business. “We like to include mainstream entrepreneurs because they come with fresh ideas and energy, so that social entrepreneurs will benefit from their perspective,” says Dawane.


While co-working spaces have taken off in other countries, there are few co-working spaces in India. One reason, Dawane explains, is that entrepreneurs looking to keep low budgets will use their wireless connection from their home for work. Distance and travel time, especially considering Mumbai’s slow and unpredictable traffic, are also factors. Nonetheless, Dawane has seen a continued rise in membership, noting that “a lot is changing because of the benefits from co-working.”

Bombay Connect’s model enables India’s social entrepreneurs to pursue their ventures at lower start-up costs and foster synergies with other social enterprises. In the past three years, Bombay Connect has already seen its members thrive. “It’s great to see how members have grown out of the space when their team is big enough for them to move out. If they manage to grow out of the space and have their own office, and have their ideas take off, that’s part of the impact that we are having in the social space,” says Dawane. Bombay Connect eventually aims to move into a bigger office space and add different locations throughout the city, and throughout India, so that social entrepreneurs across the country can develop their ventures and collaborate in a Bombay Connect space.

Learn how to become a Bombay Connect member or attend an event here.

Bombay Connect: Creating Space for Social Innovators (

How Successful Virtual Teams Collaborate

Adjust for size. Teams have been getting larger and larger, some even exceeding 100 people for complex projects, according to one study. This trend has made true collaboration increasingly difficult to achieve. One solution is to use a flexible, fluid team structure that consists of three tiers: a core, an operational level, and an outer network. The core consists of individuals responsible for strategy and important decisions. The operational level includes those who are doing the day-to-day ongoing work and might make decisions about their portion of the project but they don’t tackle larger issues (which are handled by the core). And the outer network consists of temporary or part-time members who are brought in for a particular stage of the project because of their specialized expertise. Using this hierarchy groups together those who need to collaborate with one another for particular purposes (and exclude others who aren’t important to that process). 

Train for collaboration. Many skills are difficult to train and develop. Some experts, for example, contend that leadership is more nature than nurture. Not so with collaboration. PricewaterhouseCoopers, for instance, has had great success in training employees to collaborate by targeting communication skills, emotional intelligence, teamwork, and networking. 

Have role clarity but task uncertainty. Many managers believe that teams collaborate best when the roles of members are flexible but the group has a clear idea of how to get from A to B. But the reverse is actually true, according to a study of more than 50 teams in different industries. That research found that collaboration increased when people had clearly defined roles but were uncertain about how to achieve the team’s goals. The uncertainty encouraged everyone to collaborate and think more creatively about different ways in which to fulfill the group’s mission.

How Successful Virtual Teams Collaborate

Design for Change Lessons Learned

As part of my job working with an affordable private school, I helped run Design for Change, an international competition that provides youth the opportunity to use design thinking to create a better world, using the concept of “I can.” Working with a group of 8th and 9th class students, we visited an old age home and held a rally in the school and community raising awareness about taking care of the elderly. 

The entire process reminded me of a few important principals of collaboration and management. 

Work in Small Groups: I’m a big fan of wide-scale collaboration, but for certain situations, in-depth brainstorming and collaboration is better in a small group. At first I tried to facilitate a brainstorming session with the entire 8th class of 40 students, only to be met with disinterest and chaos. Once we brought the number down to a group of 6 for initial brainstorming, and 15 for implementation, it was easier to manage and more productive, for the students and for me. We missed the valuable perspectives and participation of the other students, but I had the core group of students regularly present their findings and activities to the whole class to keep them involved in the process. 

People do listen to the naysayer: After a long conversation of brainstorming and coming up with a great solution for child labor awareness, one student argued that our idea wouldn’t work and that we should choose a different one. I tried to explain the concepts of “I can” and trying something that could fail, but the message was already lost and the other students quickly also decided that their idea would be impossible. We went back to the drawing board and came up with another great issue, but I was disappointed that one naysayer would easily change the hopes and perspective of the group. 

Let there be awkward silence: As the students worked to come up with slogans for their rally, they were having trouble generating ideas. There was a lot of awkward silence. Breaking the silence, one student jokingly sang a slogan to the tune of a famous Telugu song. The students laughed, but I encouraged them to try adding lyrics. There was a lot more awkward silence, the students being too shy and hesitant to go down this path. But less than ten minutes later, they had one full song and wanted to write two more. There is a tendency to fear the awkward silence moments in collaboration, but letting them happen allowed for creativity and forward-movement. 

Facilitate, don’t micromanage: I’m not the best at being hands-off when managing projects and people (though it’s something I recognize and constantly try to work on). Since this was a project for students to take action, not adults, I tried to be as hands-off as possible. When the students would ask me what to do next, I would turn the question back to them, and they almost always had an answer. Constantly asking for help with what to draw or write, I wouldn’t give them much of an answer even though I had my own ideas. They created great posters and slogans all on their own. They didn’t need my help in ideation or implementation (even though they thought they did), only to facilitate meeting times and liaise with school management. There are times when it’s important to be more hands-on as a manager, but I rightly identified this as an opportunity to be more hands-off, and the project and participants were better off for it. 

A little support goes a long way: The students I worked with aren’t often encouraged to think critically or creatively, and never work on projects where they are in the driver seat from idea to implementation. Throughout the process I made sure to emphasize that they could do whatever they wanted because it was their project, and I trusted them. They soon became so excited about the project that they eagerly stayed after school multiple days,  asked me to come in on my days off, and worked on days that I didn’t even come to the school. All it took was an introduction to the opportunity and a show of support, encouragement, and trust in their abilities, and the students really ran with the project and made it their own. 

Here is a Prezi overview of Design for Change at my school, with photos and videos.

Scaling Impact

This is a really excellent piece in HBR on scaling social ventures. The author spent the past several years attempting to understand how social enterprises can scale their impact. He found seven tactics that can be used to scale:

“Staffing. It’s hard to take a venture to the next level without knowing how to recruit, train, and retain talented people. Perhaps more than anything else, this has been the key to PlayWorks’ successful scaling. It has figured out how to keep growing a staff of great “coaches” to supervise and manage recess in schools all over the USA.

Communicating.Susan G. Komen for the Cure has excelled here, getting the word out about breast cancer and persuading hundreds of thousands to support its work combatting it.

Alliance-Building. A great way to grow impact without a large organization is to partner with other entities such as community groups, governments, and corporations. KaBoom does this to build playgrounds in needy neighborhoods.

Lobbying. Here, a model is the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which has accomplished much by persuading legislatures, judges, and regulatory authorities to make tobacco products harder and more expensive for young people to acquire.

Earnings Generation. Increasing numbers of social programs grow with revenue generated by their own operations. Examples include the social enterprises in the “portfolio” of REDF (Roberts Enterprise Development Fund), which helps nonprofits create viable businesses (in food-service, property-maintenance, extermination, recycling, and other areas) to provide jobs to disadvantaged workers.

Replicating. Aflatoun has scaled its impact by making it easy for others to copy what it does, providing access to the curriculum materials it has developed for teaching children financial skills to franchise partners all over the world.

Stimulating Market Forces. The textbook example on this front is Fair Trade USA, which by creating a certification system for “fair trade” goods (that is, sustainably produced commodities like coffee, chocolate, bananas whose growers are not exploited by middlemen) gives consumers market information they previously lacked.


A scaling strategy, in short, is a plan for creating a special blend of capabilities that fit well with an organization’s theory of change and its surrounding ecosystem. Most social entrepreneurs want to maximize their ROI, even though the “social returns” they seek have more to do with jobs created, lives saved, or cleaner water. A well-thought-out scaling strategy is the best assurance —not only to them but to their many stakeholders —that they have the potential to make a real difference in the world.”

Scaling Impact

“The fact is, we have much more in common than we ever stop to think about. As a generation that predominantly grew up in the wake of 9/11, we all – from the Army Ranger to the Peace Corps volunteer to the college student – have a story about where we were and how we were affected by the events that day. In the decade since, many have set out to accomplish great acts of service, all over the country and around the world; to be a part of something greater than ourselves, whether as a result of 9/11 or a different call to serve. Until we work to bypass our preconceived notions toward people and groups about whom we know very little, we will continue to lose out on a critical opportunity to connect with one another and find common ground. So, fellow millennials: Take a moment to think about what service means to you.”

Julia Stern, from NY Times, “Millennials, in Uniform or Not, Come of Age in the 9/11 Decade.” Check out

“But social entrepreneurs alone cannot change the world.They need artists, volunteers, development directors, communications specialists, donors, and advocates across all sectors to turn their groundbreaking ideas into reality. They need fundraisers, supporters who can change policies, someone to create a brochure describing their work. If everyone wants to start a new organization, who is going to do all the work?……….In order to harness this generation’s desire to create change, we must move away from the antiquated concept of vocation, which emphasizes what’s in it for the individual: whether it will sustain their interest or bring them fame or fortune. Instead, we need to help young people start their professional lives by asking questions. What issues, ideas, people, and projects move them deeply? What problems are theirs to own? How can they combine their heads and hearts to address those problems? What is their unique genius and how can it be of use to the world beyond themselves? They needn’t be founders of new organizations to have an impact on the world. But they should be founders of their careers.”

From Not Everyone Should Be a Social Entrepreneur in HBR

Why Teams Make Us Happy

Scott Belsky of Behance has a great piece on teams, collaboration, and happiness. He quotes ”Hive Psychology, Happiness & Public Policy” by J. Haidt, P. Seder, and S. Kesebir:
(1) “The most effective moral communities – from a well-being perspective – are those that offer occasional experiences in which self-consciousness is greatly reduced and one feels merged with or part of something greater than the self.”
(2) “The self can be an obstacle to happiness (given our inherent limitations as humans!), so people need to lose their selves occasionally by becoming part of an emergent social organism in order to reach the highest level of human flourishing.”
He asks:
“And what is the role of professional networks like Behance in connecting us, and helping us, reach beyond our own resources?”
Networks (such as StartingBloc and YPFP) can help create a team-like environment of like-minded professionals, for creative energy and accountability. The sense of being part of a larger movement and greater cause is the key. 
“Perhaps we reach a higher level of contentment and overall performance by working alongside others, if only from the camaraderie and sensation of being a part of something greater than ourselves?”
Belsky has a nice conclusion that I think many can get behind: 
As creative humans, we tend to always reach beyond our own limits. We want to keep learning and defy past accomplishments. In essence, we want to transcend ourselves. But we are most fulfilled when we push beyond what we can do alone. Whatever our goals, working with others may be the best path to happiness.

Why Teams Make Us Happy