Culture Creator: Joanna Kirtley, Design Thinking Strategist at Capital One

This is part of a series of posts about people who directly shape the culture of their organizations.

Joanna at work in the Capital One Lab space

Joanna at work in the Capital One Lab space

Joanna Kirtley is a Design Thinking Strategist at Capital One Labs. I interviewed her at the Capital One Lab in Clarendon, Virginia.


What led you to where you are now?

I did my undergrad in product design, and then I realized I more interested in people than products. I started working at Jump Associates, where I focused on design innovation strategy. Jump has a very learning-oriented culture. Everyone is constantly teaching each other new methods through workshops. When I moved to Boston, I started working at Continuum. I enjoyed being at a company where I could actually see the physical results of the design on the shelf. When I moved to DC, I joined a design meet up group and found out about Capital One.


What is your current job position and organization? How do you and your team shape the culture of your organization?

I am a design strategist at Capital One Labs. Our team focuses on two types of work. One is creating design thinking learning experiences such as workshops and training. The other is project coaching work, where we embed ourselves into a line of business as design thinking coaches or team members.

Our team has grown from a group of four to 11. We don’t really know how the culture is going to change, but we know that it is about to. There is a part of us that is already nostalgic and sad to grow. One way that we create culture is by doing activities together. Last year we went on a retreat. We made dinners together. We discussed our successes and challenges, and did visioning for one year, two years, and five years out. We each created a journey map visualizing the experience we’d had of working with a team of business partners.

 It’s harder now to get on the same page as a team. We used to have weekly informal one-hour calls. We shared inspiration via email on Monday mornings. Now there are too many people for everyone to share individually. We might end up subdividing the team.


Talk about a specific initiative you’re working on related to work culture.

When we brought on another team member, this was a chance to do a mini-retreat. We did a day of workshopping so we could help her understand the lay of the land, and how we do things.

We have a culture of informally soliciting feedback. The head of our group will solicit feedback from the whole group by polling the team. However, there is less accountability for people to respond as we grow. We make a point of using Google hangouts for check-ins so we can see each other in person. We have a lot of shared Google docs. There is a lot of ability to peek in and look around. Nothing is off limits.

When we lead workshops, we try to make the environment feel very different than the normal bank environment. We have music playing, have post-its everywhere…

The last way we share our culture is through the stories we tell and how we present out our work. We all aspire to tell the story of the project, to not just make it a deck, but also to have videos, quotes, and pictures of the customers. We make sure the story we present is well-designed.


The Clarendon Lab Space

The Clarendon Lab Space

Where are they best levels (individual, team, or unit) and times (meetings, rituals, regular check-ins) within an organization’s routines to intervene and develop human-centered culture in an explicit way?

When I work on projects with teams from the bank, I’ve had the most impact in changing the way people think about work through a personal basis. It’s important to go out to dinner with each other and have informal conversations in the car.

The best way to explain the importance of having a human-centered culture is to show someone how to interview a customer. I try to take my teams and talk to customers who are different than we are. The teams have a moment in which they think, “Wow, THESE are the people who are our customers.” This is especially important if we are trying to understand the needs of customers who have a lack of financial literacy. I try to show that it’s important to do the research, be human centered, and be customer driven.


How have you seen the culture of Capital One change?

 The digital design team recently had a quarterly all-hands meeting and they used a clever activity. We were all on a dinner boat cruise, and before we arrived, the organizers had collected from each of us the top five things that we each “geek out” over. They created a set of trading cards with this information, plus our bio, office location, and a picture of ourselves. Each card had a number, and you had to find the other people with the same number. This led to better conversations, and also let us keep a physical artifact.


The Design Thinking Library: an artifact of culture

The Design Thinking Library: an artifact of culture

For fun: Tell me about how you started your blog.

I started my blog, JoWritesBlog, because when I was doing business development at Continuum, I was selling the tools to others, but not using them. I wanted to keep using them.