Ben Grossman-Kahn on bringing Design Thinking to Nordstrom (001)

The first season of Innovate by Design is exploring how design and innovation can be fostered inside large organizations. My first guest this season and on the show is Ben Grossman-Kahn, who is the former director of Nordstrom’s People Innovation Lab and recent founder of Ben has background in education and was a coach at the at Stanford University before joining Nordstrom in 2011 to bring design thinking to the company. At Nordstrom he became part of the Innovation Lab Team before starting the Technology People Lab.

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Highlights from the interview:

  • How to convince top management about qualitative data and research.
  • The limited of t-shape people.
  • How to start a design thinking movement with 1000$ and an abandoned room.
  • How to use evidence based research to support your efforts.
  • The importance of bringing leadership along.
  • How to change the culture of an organization using a catalyst program.
  • A powerful tool to change people’s mindset.
  • How to bring design thinking into the everyday practice of employees.
  • How to reframe design thinking as a toolkit that gives employees the ability to perform in the 21st century aka. the 4Cs: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.

Practical Nuggets

Exercise: back to back listening (4:20)
a tool to illustrate the power of different points of view

  • Let people stand back to back in a line or circle.
  • Play a piece of music.
  • Ask people to imagine – let the music take them into a place or evoke memories or responses from their lives and then turn around and share with their partner
    this is very quick.
  • People will realize that you can listen to the exact same piece of music and realize that you can have totally different response based on their own history or background.
  • Then, play the music again and ask participants to see the world through their partner’s eyes.
  • This makes people realize how hard it is to see someone else’s point of view but also how it could be really transformative to their imagination.

Tool: Employee experience journey (35:35)
Give the employee a little foto journal and the assignment to take photos of meaningful work and things that help them get work done and barriers and red tape. Afterwards they were interviewed about senior leaders on about it. One senior leader responded that “In twelve years working for the company, he never heard some of the stories, or insights or experiences from the employee level that he heard in that interview. So from that point onward he as well as others were sold on the idea of empathy and were believers in it.

Idea: Make your mindsets sticky (41:20)
We intentionally crafted these mindset to be very sticky and viral … we thought of the mindset component like something like a marketing campaign … like catchy slogans and catchphrases: yes and, bias towards action, fail forward fast … that are sticky and easy for people to remember.

The Nordstrom Design Thinking journey

  • 2011 Innovation Lab team formed
  • 2012 Innovation Lab hired design thinkers, Ben was one of them
  • 2012 Ran first Innovation Bootcamp for Nordstrom
  • 2013 Ben, founded People Lab
  • 2015 Began measuring Innovation Bootcamp impact on alumni
  • 2015 Ran 7th Innovation Bootcamp

Top 3 accomplishments

  • Measuring design thinking program outcomes
  • Training over 700 employees and over 50 coaches
  • Shifting focus to design thinking mindsets and seeing increase in alumni utilization of DT

References shared by Ben:

Nordstrom’s LAB process – combining lean, design thinking and agile

Nordstrom’s NorDNA – except from the handbook, poster

Articles & web resources:
Roger L. Martin, (June, 2011) Innovation Catalysts, Harvard Business Review
Partnership for 21st Century Learning – 4C Model
Olgar Dotter – Corporate Empathy – Building human – centered environments for innovation

Chip & Dave Heath – Switch
Robert Chaldini – Influence

Albert Bandura (Stanford University) on self efficacy & overcoming phobias
Bj Fog (Stanford University) Tiny Habits Program
Ronald Heifetz (Harvard Kennedy School) Adaptive leadership theory

Brent Brown on Empathy vs. Sympathy  

3 Facts from the pre-show interview

Ben’s worst DT Moment

Following up with a team after a DT workshop with them to learn how they were applying, and hearing “oh, we use a lot more post it notes now”. Realizing that DT risked falling into the edutainment category rather than being perceived as valuable to business as agile and lean are.


When we started to measure Innovation Bootcamp impact, and saw that alumni found it much easier to bring back DT mindsets over process and spread to teams. Led to major pivot and focus on DT for the 4Cs. (communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking)

Ben’s No.1 thing he would do when he would have to start all over again.

Start with the mindsets first.

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