Design for Gratitude: Gratitude is the root of all virtues


Happiness is born from gratitude. If you want happiness in your life, cultivate gratitude. This is a simple insight, yet often elusive to attain. Living with a mindset of gratefulness was the mantra I was listening to from Brother David Steindl-Rast during his Ted Talk on an early morning drive.

The person I know that leads a life with gratitude is my 91 year old father. All my life I knew my Dad had an approach to life that I admired. The odd thing is I never put my finger on what exactly was the root of his approach until I asked myself, “who is the most grateful person I know?”

On my way home from work later that day, I did my usual routine and gave my Dad a call to check in on him. I asked, “how is your day going Dad?”

“Pretty well,” he said. “I have one issue though, my TV doesn’t seem to be working right.”

The TV is important for someone who is 91, lives alone and has limited mobility. So I asked, “what is the problem?”

“Well, I don’t get any channels except channel 2,” he replied.

“You only get one channel?” I asked.

“Yep, channel 2. But you know I was thinking to myself that at least I get Channel 2 and it is coming in perfectly clear!” he declared.

“That is great Dad, but maybe we could find a way to get the other channels going for you,” I replied. We took a few minutes over the phone and eventually figured out which button on his remote control he needed to push to bring all the channels back.

After I hung up, I thought about my morning drive on gratitude. What might seem as an inconvenience for most of us was an opportunity for my dad to show gratitude: “at least I get Channel 2.”

I remember my Dad telling me one time that “gratitude is the root of all other virtues.”

Gratefulness isn’t born into us, it is a cultivated and learned mindset. Hence, gratitude can be more present in our lives when we design for gratitude. The habits, rhythms and rituals present in our life often need a ‘gratitude cue’ to prompt the mindset we prefer. As Daniel Pink describes in his book Habit, “the cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.” Often our ‘automatic mode’ is a mindset of scarcity, fear and anxiety. Brother David gives us the cue to design into our life: “stop, look, go.” Too often when we design our day, and hence our lives, we don’t stop and look so that we might go in the manner we desire. A gratitude cue of “stop, look, go” gives us a chance to recognize that “at least I get channel 2 and it is coming in perfectly clear.”

Top 3 (Untraditional) Reasons for Giving Thanks

This Thanksgiving, instead of reheating the same old helping of “What I’m Thankful for Stew” (friends, family and health), I wanted to serve up something new. To be clear, I am thankful for all of the above, but sometimes the moments that cause us discomfort also give us our greatest lessons. The following are a selected sampling of times that helped me grow as a leader this year, all of which I am grateful for.


As an steady runner, I maintain balance and mindfulness through outdoor exercise. This year, I had to have surgery on my “good knee.” (The bad knee is already missing cartilage and my ACL is MIA.)

The recovery took much longer than anticipated, but it helped me become more attuned to my health. It also helped me better identify with people who deal with physical limitations daily.

The surgery helped me realize how vital it is to incorporate a wide variety of exercise and movements into my routine, which led me to biking, yoga, hiking and best yet, more walks with my wife. What seemed like a setback ended up adding so much more value to my life.

Catching the bus

Every spring, business and policy leaders converge at the Mackinac Policy Conference to discuss an array of topics that affect our region, including job creation and regional transportation. I decided to forgo the conference to learn about some of those issues firsthand.

So, I spent the day roaming around Detroit by bus to simulate a day in the life of people who rely on public transportation to get to appointments, work, etc.

It wasn’t easy. I  walked along roads in need of repair, in the rain, and reached my bus stop only to be greeted by a long wait. By 3 p.m., I was physically and mentally exhausted. I used my time to talk to my fellow commuters and become better informed on what many go through each day. It’s imperative for all decision-makers to better understand the populations they serve, and this is one immersion experience worth trying.

5,437 Miles
When I made the decision to study at Stanford’s Institute of Design in California, I chose to drive out West rather than hopping on a plane. That  long, long, five-day journey (each way) taught me so much:
  • I garnered a better understanding of how Greater Detroit is viewed by individuals across the country — both good and bad. This opened up rich conversations about our region beyond the headlines.
  • In the fields of California, I witnessed migrant workers loading fresh produce onto trains that would roll across the Mojave Desert and make its way to the Motor City. This made me think about how our work can incorporate local foods and community garden projects as part of the solution to end childhood hunger.
  • Lastly, I saw the impact of our Interstate system on towns around the near-defunct Route 66, which made me reflect on Detroit’s rich automotive history. It also begged the question of the consequences of progress, and what that will mean for Greater Detroit’s future. Questions we have no answer for yet.

As you gather this holiday season, I hope you are able to reflect not just on the joyous moments of this year, but on the ones that challenged and shaped you. 


VIDEO: Could you live on a $5/day food budget?

As humans, our own life experiences naturally influence our perception of others. We often think we have an understanding of someone else’s situation when in reality, we know very little about the circumstances of our friends, neighbors and community members.

To move closer to true understanding, we must make a conscious effort to seize opportunities that can help us gain new perspectives.

With this in mind, I have made a personal commitment to grow my understanding and build empathy through conversations, observations and immersion.

For example, as Thanksgiving approaches, I am more aware than ever of the role food plays in my everyday life. Recently, I wanted to see if I could subsist on a $5 a day food budget. Nationally, this is commonly known as the SNAP Challenge, which you can read about here. Notable politicians, including our own Congressman Sander Levin, have challenged themselves to walk a mile in others’ shoes by participating in similar efforts.

There have been both negative and positive responses to The Challenge. For me though, there is no controversy. It is an imperfect simulation, but it’s a positive step toward meaningful conversations. This is the true value of the exercise, and as I thought about it more, I decided to film my experience and share it with United Way leaders and volunteers.

The video below depicts a single day. I know my abbreviated experiment in no way compares with the stressors and barriers that 1 in 6 people in our community regularly face in just trying to put food on the table for their families. My intent was to build my own context around our work in ending childhood hunger. Sometimes, we need to step outside of our routines.

You’ve probably noted that my experiment was far from perfect. It’s been pointed out that an avocado would be too expensive to purchase in the first place, regardless that I had only eaten a quarter of it. What surprised me most, however, was the positive reaction I received when telling people what I was doing. The experience was seen as admirable somehow, and yet, the people who live this reality every day are often stigmatized and met with contempt by those of us who don’t. 

In sharing the experience, I’m pleased to say that the video inspired our Campaign Cabinet and many of our partner companies to take their own version of The Challenge. While it’s true that our own worldview may be limited by our personal experiences, with a little bit of effort, we can take steps toward reaching a better understanding of one another. I invite you to take The Challenge with us. Feel free to share photos or videos of your experience via Twitter at @mjjbrennan with the hashtag: #UWSEMFoodFor5.


10 Books: Design Thinking Journey

The 10 books that influenced my design journey over the past 2 years.

The 10 books that influenced my design thinking journey.

I have been on a long journey discovering the intersection of design thinking and social change. I often get asked, “what book should I read if I want to understand design thinking?” While there have been many books I have found helpful over the years, these are 10 books that have influenced me on my design thinking journey.

Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design by Jane Fulton Suri

All design starts with empathy and one of the best paths to empathy is observation. Suri’s elegant nudge encourages and inspires every reader to draw upon his/her observation muscle in everyday life.

Strengthfinders 2.0 by Tom Rath

Helping individuals learn design is accelerated the more a person understands him or herself. Strengthfinder 2.0 is a brilliant tool to discover the strengths within oneself. As one colleague told me recently, “Until I took Strengthfinders, I never thought of empathy as a strength. All my life, I thought the deep empathy I have within me as a weakness.” Getting the right mix of strength on a design team helps the work soar. Strengthfinders combined with Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley are cornerstones of helping teams optimize performance.

Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie

A dear friend slid this across the table early on in my design thinking journey and I often think it is an example of the right gift at the right moment. For every imaginative person out there (that is you!), MacKenzie, 30 year creative director for Hallmark, delivers a quirky and delightful book that reminds the reader — ‘you are a creative being’. For the budding design thinker or veteran, Orbiting the Giant Hairball helps you navigate and reframe a world that doesn’t necessarily understand or value the creative and intuitive side of humanity.

Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs by Larry Keeley and Helen Walters

I keep returning to this book, and each time I learn something new. Keeley/Walters create a framework to help every design thinker look at creating a pathway to innovation through a much broader and sustainable lens. The authors bust the myth that innovation only rests in the products itself when, in fact, the innovation resided in the WAY the product came to be.

The Opposable Mind by Roger Martin

This is one of the first books I read on my design journey. It had a profound impact on me. Martin shows us the power of holding two opposable ideas and, in that tension, discovering the more powerful solution. The intersection of the analytical with the intuitive is where design finds its strength. Martin gives a reader insight into the need for both the analytical and the intuitive, not just one or the other.

Creative Confidence by Tom Kelley & David Kelley

The Kelley brothers get after one of the biggest obstacles facing individuals and organizations: unleashing creativity that is resident in each of us. This is the book I most often point someone to if they want to begin to wade into design thinking. I have come to realize what the Kelley brothers have dedicated their entire lives to: the answer often lies within us. We just need to have the confidence to release the creative capacity within.

Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time by Margaret Wheatley

This is my most dogeared, underlined, worn out book. I often think Wheatley is 50 years ahead of her time. Increasingly, nature has become my greatest teacher. And it was Wheatley who awakened in me the elegance and instruction that exists in living systems. When I am feeling stuck, confused or just a bit out of sync in a design process, I turn to the many writings of Meg Wheatley for inspiration, insight and provocation.

Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley

Tom has a way of taking the complex and making it easy to consume. One of the big barriers in the design journey is people think it is only for the “creatives”. Tom brings forward a framework where everyone can find themselves in the family picture of design. He calls out the ‘devil’s advocate’ and asks everyone to tap into their strengths and higher self. A great book to hand someone who is a bit skeptical of the design journey.

101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar

Vijay Kumar has taken 30 years of development of methods at the Institute of Design at IIT in Chicago and put it into a brilliant framework. Vijay’s book is the perfect tool for someone who needs the concrete methods to understand there is a discipline and practice that sits behind design thinking. I return to this book for inspiration on new ways to tackle tough problems.

The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde

When communicating an idea, it is often better to sketch it than write it. I took a class at Stanford d School on sketch note taking. This book was the workhorse guide. The simple nudge to use your sketching ability reminds us all that we have a creative muscle. And it is fun to do and often more effective in communicating your message.

These are books that had an impact on me. What books impacted you on your design journey?

What or who inspires you?

a quick selfie

A quick selfie with David Kelley, Perry Klebahn and Jeremy Utley at the d school at Stanford University.

Perhaps it’s a mentor, your children or a vision of a better future.

In my life, I’m continually challenged and inspired by new experiences, and I’m happy that my time at Stanford University’s Institute of Design served up many of those.

While many people in my Stanford program made a big impression on me, three in particular inspired me everyday. David Kelley, Perry Klebahn and Jeremy Utley are amazing change agents in the design-thinking world. Here are three of their many insightful teachings—they stuck to me like velcro and I hope they stay with you, too.

3. “Act to think.” 

Jeremy Utley from the d.School said this during our first session. So often in our daily lives we sit, process, plan, think, reflect, but we never quite get around to realizing, doing, and implementing. The latter are critical, of course, because we learn most effectively through doing.

Since returning from Stanford I have been on a mission to share what I have learned with my senior leadership team at United Way. I could spend weeks telling them what I learned or I could challenge them to Act to Think. So, with minimal instruction, I asked each member of the team to divvy up into pairs and lead their own design projects. I know it is frustrating for some at times – we are an organization of perpetual over-achievers and perfectionists – and this messy, unknown space isn’t always comfortable. And I am sure that there are those that would have preferred a long, healthy dose of training and planning before being thrown into the “design limelight” – but in just a few short weeks the team has gone from students to teachers.

We are extending these learnings beyond our four walls, as well, exploring powerful new intersections between social entrepreneurs to make an even greater impact on our communities. More on that project to come in future blog posts.

2.  “I want one pissed off customer and two delighted ones.”

Perry Klebahn, one of the co-leads of the Stanford program, said this after hearing my teammate and I describe our prototyping process among patients at the Stanford Hospital Cancer Center. One after another, patients told us they want to meet other patients with similar interests, during long hospital stays.  Yet, when we arranged opportunities to connect, our patients were no-shows. 

“You simply aren’t pushing the boundaries enough,” Perry said. 

We needed new insights, so we went back to the proverbial drawing board and interviewed a patient who had been sitting in a waiting room for 20 hours.  Based on this interview, we came up with an idea to connect like-minded patients via video, while they wait for their appointments.  To put it mildly the reviews were mixed, but the idea opened up a whole new frontier for the design team.

1.  “Fish don’t even know they are wet.”

When I met with David Kelley, the founder of IDEO and the d.School at Stanford, he shared this insight as we discussed the role of design thinking in problem solving. David said many organizations miss major growth opportunities because they miss the underlying source of a problem or opportunity—the real issue they should be tackling.

For example, Kodak invented the digital camera, but their metaphorical “water” was film: They missed the market opportunity of digital because they were swimming in film.  

Kelley says, “Design thinking gives us a way to reframe problems so we can discover new solutions.” In other words, design thinking helps us see not just the water we swim in, but the fishbowl as well.

Do you have a quote that inspires you? Share it in the comment section.

Embracing Failure: How We Learned a “Sexy Vegans of Stanford” Calendar Is a Bad Idea

Our instructors are pressing my classmates and me to embrace failure. “Failure supports learning,” they tell us. “Failure inspires insight. Failure yields clarity.” My classmates and I are working out what all of this means for our projects, our home organizations and our development as design thinkers.

Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy avoiding failure, and the anxiety and frustration that often follow. At Stanford, I’m being asked to reach a level of comfort with those feelings because setbacks are a crucial part of building “creative confidence” — the self-assurance supporting a person’s ability to invent and innovate. So, as I work with UWSEM staff and partners to further our exciting work, I’ll need to run toward the outstretched arms of failure and help to nurture our courage to produce and test new ideas.


Learning from Failure and Building Creative Confidence

A couple weeks ago, I led a team tasked with solving the hypothetical problem of redefining the Stanford dining experience for vegan students. The team broke into three smaller workgroups to develop three prototypes (in this case, an outline of a public relations strategy) to change perceptions of veganism on campus.

I can’t emphasize this enough: prototyping is a messy, iterative process. During the prototyping stage, we’re expected to fail early and often so we can usher in more meaningful, insightful and imaginative ideas.

Some of us sprinted toward a brick wall of failure and, I’m happy to report, lived to educate the rest of us. One group developed and tested a racy calendar mockup featuring “sexy vegans.”  After testing the idea with students, the group returned to the larger team humbled by some tough feedback. “Sexy wouldn’t work here,” students told them. “Students here just aren’t interested in that.”

Out of disappointment rose some sharp, student-centered ideas: “You have to relate to what people here care about—that’s doing well in school,” they said. “What if veganism helped us improve test scores?”

The students suggested a calendar focused on what they find meaningful—being smart and staying afloat in a demanding academic environment.

Inspired by Failure: Shaking Up the Routine

What can failure reveal about UWSEM’s approach to donation solicitation, staff development and UWSEM’s framing of enormous societal challenges? I’m about to find out.

Next week, I’ll fly back to Detroit for a few days to meet with UWSEM’s board of directors at a quarterly board meeting. What I’m learning at Stanford has inspired me to question the way we structure our work together. We’re gaining a greater, even more nuanced understanding of the problems facing metro Detroit; our approach to addressing these problems—including our board meetings—should reflect that.

During February’s meeting, UWSEM’s board will take part in a design thinking prototyping process with our Detroit-area community of donors, clients and volunteers. We’re involving people at both ends of the spectrum of community engagement and philanthropy—people who are highly engaged in local community work or philanthropy and people who aren’t yet involved. We want to understand community members’ lives and motivations, while forging stronger connections between our daily work—our routine board meetings, for example—and community needs. We also want to understand the next generation of donors and how we can design a donation and volunteer experience that will support them. I hope we can work together to develop even deeper insights about UWSEM’s role in Southeastern Michigan.

I know my plan could burst into flames, but I’m eager to tap into the creative potential of UWSEM’s leadership so we can better empathize and innovate as an organization. The potential rewards are game-changing, and they’re too powerful and important to ignore.

Using stories from his own life, David Kelley describes how to rediscover creative confidence

My Journey to a New Way of Thinking

I haven’t written anything in a while because, as you’ll read, I’ve been busy making a huge transition.

Last fall, after nearly 30 years with the United Way—and nine years as CEO of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan (UWSEM)—I decided to step away from Detroit to develop new approaches to UWSEM’s work. A few weeks ago, I made my way across the country to join an invitation-only, ten-week program on design thinking at the Institute of Design at Stanford.

Designer and IDEO CEO Tim Brown defines design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s tool kit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements of business success.” The Stanford program is all about unconventional problem solving and helping non-designers to apply creative methodologies to huge, messy challenges.

I jumped at the opportunity to bring this perspective to UWSEM. After much discussion and reflection, the UWSEM board and I agreed that this was a worthwhile investment. I knew it meant taking a big risk with some heady implications for my team and for UWSEM as a whole. Thankfully, everyone involved—the board, my team, and my family—sees the same great potential for design thinking to advance UWSEM’s work for the benefit of the Greater Detroit area.


Participants from Ford, Victoria Secret, TripAdvisor, and Stanford Hospital join me for a quick photo at the conclusion of our two-day boot camp.

“We need to advance our work.”

As a way of perceiving the world and facing today’s challenges, design thinking fits in perfectly with the vision, mission, and values of UWSEM and it holds so much promise for nonprofits working in the trenches to benefit the communities we serve. I’ve long realized that doing right by Southeastern Michigan—including UWSEM’s community of clients, service users, and funders—will mean transforming our vision of Southeastern Michigan and thinking more creatively about its problems and potential. The UWSEM community and partner organizations have brought creativity and imagination to our work, but I hope we can go further to develop new ways of engaging and partnering with residents.

As we work together for social change in Southeastern Michigan, we need to put residents at the center instead of the institutions that serve them. We’ll need to combine empathy with a commitment to creative, solution-focused thinking if we’re going to turn around our failing schools and ensure that everyone in our community has basic needs—safe housing, healthy food, and quality health care.

“Acting to think, not thinking to act.” 

“Two hundred executives will arrive on Friday. You’re going to prepare for this work by teaching an intensive design thinking two-day bootcamp on Monday. Between now and then, you should be ready to present and lead your team.”

These were some of the first words I heard from my instructor during my first week at the Imagine, for a moment, that within three days of a ten-week program you’re told that you’re no longer a student, but the teacher to executives who came from all over the world to be part of this design bootcamp!

This program flips everything I’ve known about the education process on its head—no syllabus, no prescribed texts, no top-down instruction. I’m empowered to apply what I’ve learned and take action with the understanding that failure is welcome and should be used to inspire new solutions or insights. I’ll plan, think, and develop new skills while working with my classmates on challenging, hands-on projects. I’ll be “acting to think”—applying the principles of design thinking to large and complex projects—and not “thinking to act” —confining my experiences to the classroom, readings, and hypotheticals.

I’m transforming from CEO to student and teacher and I’m ready for all of the challenges and opportunities this change will bring. The prospect of what’s ahead is truly exciting.

Over the remainder of the program, I’ll explore the potential of new leadership strategies in mission-driven organizations and examine opportunities for design as an agent for transformation in Detroit. In the process, I want to share my journey through the Stanford design thinking program and reveal its potential for UWSEM’s growth and development.

Will you take this journey with me?