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 d.school 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 d.school. 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?



I said to Michael Tenbusch, who serves as United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Chief Impact Officer, that we are going  to “turn up the heat” on our work in early childhood development.

He said that phrase reminded him of Ralph Bland, superintendent of Detroit Edison Public School Academy. Mike said, “Ralph has posted signs reading ‘212℉’ in his schools. At 211℉, you have really hot water. At 212℉, you have boiling water, which can create steam, which can move a locomotive.”

So often we give up on things much too soon. We miss the opportunity to see what that one extra effort, that one extra degree, will do to move one’s objective forward. I am reminded of Thomas Edison’s quote:

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

We all have many things going on in our work and lives. I found that the 212℉ anecdote prompted the question: Where in my life or work will turning up the heat a little bit more, that extra one degree, help me move a locomotive?

Are You Causing Enough Trouble?

I rented a car in Australia last summer, and what I saw made me laugh out loud. This car rental company painted the sides of every vehicle with unique sayings and personalities.  My vehicle happened to embody one of my favorite talents of all time: Johnny Cash.  This is what I found on the left and right doors:



Interestingly enough, we remember him more for the “Cash” than for the “Johnny.”  Which side of yourself do you present to the world? Sometimes, in order to create something great, you have to shake it up a little. Go on, cause some trouble today. 

We must rewrite Detroit’s future together despite bankruptcy

DetroitRewriteYesterday’s announcement of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing was unprecedented — no other American city of similar scale has ever filed before, and this is worrisome for many of our community’s residents because of the uncertain outcomes.

Everyone in our region will be affected. As a community, we will have to work together and create a viable road map to navigate the changes that are to come. We encourage anyone who is struggling to contact our 2-1-1 help line to find assistance for immediate needs. I ask you to share this information with your friends, family and co-workers and offer support in whatever capacity you can.

At United Way, we will continue working with our public, private and nonprofit partners to maximize our resources to assist this region. We will forge ahead, creating the best opportunities for educational success while we continue our work to provide basic essentials and a pathway toward self-sufficiency for our most vulnerable residents.

This won’t be easy, but no comeback story ever is. We will get through this. While no one wished for bankruptcy, we have the choice to rewrite our own tagline for the future our city. As the stakeholders of this region, we will ultimately rewrite our own story and achieve our Big Hairy Audacious Goal of making greater Detroit one of the Top 5 places in which to live and work by 2030.

Start Small and Fail Early: Social Impact Design

Poster Hanging @ Menlo Innovations

Poster Hanging @ Menlo Innovations

Scale (“go big”) and success (“think ‘win’”) dominate the focus of many leaders and organizations. Understandably so, as each individual and organization are measured by tangible results. When I look at work that has a lasting impact and is much more sustainable, however, I find that “going big” and being successful weren’t the center of attention.

Recently, I had a few insights shared with me that I thought you might like as well:

Jim Hackett, CEO of Steelcase, was explaining to me how design thinking has played a role in the way an organization operates and develops new ways to produce value for customers. As he was counseling me on where to begin such a journey, he advised me, “Mike, start small. And try not to make the first prototype, your first attempt, too precious.”

Those words connected me to a conversation I had with my brother Tom Brennan of the Green Garage — a business enterprise and a community of people dedicated to Detroit’s sustainable future. He said to me, “Mike, it is far better to fail early and often than to fail late. Failing late is rarely good. And remember, small is big.”

When designing for success, creating room to test an idea or concept is far better than jumping right to a wholesale solution.  For example, our first attempt to improve early reading habits of parents with newborns didn’t fair well.  The design of the program was too costly and difficult to manage.  In the end, we had to close it down in order to re-design our approach.

We applied those early painful learnings to help us shape a new early childhood pilot with the Detroit Medical Center that links moms with resources in the community such as literacy development and parenting skills  to ensure short and long term success for the child.   We have learned already from this early pilot how to improve our approach and to strengthen the long term relationship with the parent(s).  For example, it is far better for the mom if we follow up with her 30 – 45 days after the leaving the hospital than 14 days or 90 days.  These insights give us an ability to alter the design to ensure success.  To see more about this innovative program, click below.

These insights on the power of small and failing early made me think of how new and long established organizations have embarked on creative paths to solving problems and imagining a different future.

In a recent article in Fast Company, small start ups throughout Detroit are described as central to the rebuilding of Detroit.  New frontiers are often started with small beginnings.  The New York Times article describes Dan Gilbert and his early beginning — small in scale — that ultimately led to a much larger vision and capacity of transforming Detroit into one of the best places to live and work.

I think the next time we talk about going to scale and delivering success, we need to think about how we can start small, fail early and not make our beginning too precious.  From that we will ultimately experience big wins and lasting impact.

Other Blog Posts on Social Impact Design:

Social Impact Design: A New Way

Social Impact Design: Design Thinking

Design + Social Impact: Why They Belong Together?

Job #1 : Design For Joy

Now, Near and Far: Tri-Zone Leaders

Social Impact Design: Why Detroit?


Social Impact Design, the utilization of design thinking and methods as a problem solving tool for social issues, is a perfect match for the Greater Detroit area.

This city and region is arguably the country’s largest social lab. While the region faces social and economic issues similar to those of other metropolitan areas, nowhere else in the country are they as acute in nature and dense in scale as in the Detroit area. Describe another city in America that has gone from a population of 2,000,000 to 700,000?  This acute condition provides not only dramatic challenges but unique opportunities to carve out new solutions. The very scarcity of resources creates a powerful opportunity to address problems in new, creative, and courageous ways.

The intensity of the environment attracts individuals who are interested in “writing a new story.” Detroit in the 20th century moved from being a land of pioneers of industry to a place where people settled in to work, generation after generation. Today, the greater Detroit area is breaking new ground with 21st century “pioneers.” This is true in business, government, and the social sector.  Hence, this melting pot of abilities combined with the acute social conditions creates a ‘perfect storm’ environment for the growing use of Social Impact Design.

Today we are seeing countless new organizations and professionals coming to Detroit because of the enormous opportunity to create change.  Organizations like Dandelion, Mission Throttle, …. not only have established a root in Detroit, they are bringing new methods to solving historic social problems.  When you combine this with established organizations like United Way for Southeastern United Way, that has used design thinking to lay the framework for its early childhood work, Detroit is a place where the established organizations and the new pioneers find a frontier to go write the new story.

Design thinking is gaining traction as a key way to address some of the tough social problems we face in America.  Our experience and continued learning tells us there is no better place in the United States to apply social impact design than Detroit.

As our board member Ken Whipple said recently, “where else can you be part of the largest urban turnaround?”

Other Blog Posts on Social Impact Design

Social Impact Design: A New Way
Social Impact Design: Design Thinking
Design + Social Impact: Why Do They Belong Together?
Job #1: Design For Joy
Now, Near and Far: Tri-Zone Leaders