An online resource for designing a better world.

The Open Hand Approach to Social Intrapreneurship

June 14, 2017

by: Chris Lambert

For almost a decade, Open Hand Studio has worked as an incubator for public interest design projects within the structure of CannonDesign. The global design firm launched the studio in 2008. At the time, a team in our Chicago office was in the midst of a pro bono project, and like many design firms, we had team members who were interested in continuing to provide valuable service to mission-driven organizations.

We elected to formalize our pro bono efforts under the name Open Hand Studio, which has offered significant benefits. The name gives our teams a short-hand internal point of reference, and acts as a useful introduction when talking with community groups or social enterprises. Name in hand, we still had to make deliberate choices about how to think about Open Hand, and to date, the studio concept has worked well as both a formal and informal structure.

The structure of Open Hand as a studio with a history and consistent practices provides our employees guidance about working with non-profits that often have never worked with a design professional. People in the firm who have worked on past Open Hand projects help inform future efforts, which has been critical to the studio’s sustainability

Informally, Open Hand wants to encourage broad participation and local leadership of projects. All CannonDesign employees are members of the Open Hand Studio—rather than a defined group. We’ve also put together a flexible program that enables teams in any of our locations to source, scope, and execute projects that matter most to their communities.

Since starting Open Hand, we’ve undertaken projects across the firm at a variety of scales for social services, educational, health, civic and environmental organizations. Over time, we’ve learned important lessons that help us continue to work on pro bono projects. This article will outline some key lessons to encourage greater uptake of social intrapreneurship programs among our peers. It will also offer a brief reflection on where Open Hand is headed.

Start at home

When trying to initiate social impact projects, the biggest challenge is often finding a client and a project. We tell teams to think about their network and the kinds of social issues most relevant to them and to our firm.

After finding a great client, take the time to define a scope and clearly describe it internally and with the client. Design firms actually have built-in advantages in defining projects in a way that may prove challenging to volunteers from many other industries, and we should use those skills when working on a pro bono basis.

Round up usual and unusual suspects

Building a coalition of senior leaders as well as enthusiastic participants has generally been the right mix to generate positive outcomes. Some CannonDesign offices have employed a process of seeking applicants to lead a given pro bono project. That approach is a great way to identify interested parties and discover unexpected leaders.

We recommend casting a wide net for ideas on a regular basis—at least quarterly, and preferably monthly— to collect ideas for upcoming pro bono efforts and give opportunities for updates on current projects.

We’ve heard stories from our architects, engineers and other designers that pro bono projects have been energizing in a different way than paid project work, and as a result, we encourage broad participation in Open Hand.

Go, go, go

We spent the first few years of Open Hand Studio working from the mantra: proceed until apprehended. In our experience, executive leadership will almost always support social impact projects in theory, but in practice some self-determined employees have to make the effort to drive successful projects. As the name implies, intrapreneurship requires drive and determination.

The formal structure of Open Hand Studio is designed to help ease projects toward a “go” decision. When colleagues seek advice on how to get started, Open Hand veterans try to provide easy advice on potential pitfalls and how-tos, and we’ve established processes that enable our legal, compliance and business office teams to have a basic comfort with the nature of social intrapreneurship.

First do, then talk: Repeat

After a success, even a modest one, have the discipline to communicate about that success. Casting a wide net both with internal stakeholders as well as in external media has significant benefit in terms of developing a consistent social intrapreneurship program.

Over the last six months, we’ve done quite a bit to celebrate CannonDesign’s collaboration with Civic Consulting Alliance on the physical redesign of the Cook County Central Bond Courtroom. The project has earned significant accolades, which both serves to advance better outcomes for our client and the broader criminal justice system and only makes our next internal Open Hand project conversation easier.

Thanks to the longevity and success of the program, Open Hand has the opportunity to address thorny projects in many of our communities. We’re helped immeasurably because the goals for Open Hand Studio align with and are a clear extension of the firm’s purpose. As we look to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Open Hand’s existence in the year ahead, we’re seeking to continue strengthening local social intrapreneurship efforts across all of CannonDesign’s communities.

We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’re always looking to improve our ability to execute on our pro bono projects. We’re making a concerted effort to enable all employees to talk about Open Hand confidently and consistently. In particular, we’re looking to make sure our history of work and opportunities to engage with Open Hand are outlined as part of onboarding new staff across our offices.

As a profession we’ve reached a point where those working to leverage design for greater social impact have options other than to strike out on their own. While the road has been not always been easy, CannonDesign’s support for Open Hand has yielded a double benefit: it has allowed public interest work to come to life while also elevating social consciousness across the firm.


Chris Lambert is VP, Workplace Strategy at CannonDesign. He has particular expertise and focus in looking at workplaces and evaluating qualitative and quantitative factors to inform strategic decisions. In addition to his workplace strategy expertise, he has a background that combines sustainability consulting, urban planning, marketing, communications and research.

Leave a Reply

Continue With More Articles in This Feature

An Introduction to Social Intrapreneurship

May 17, 2017
By: Achal Patel & Russell Gong Overview Management consultants are typically not thought about as impact designers, but five years ago, a team of young professionals in Deloitte Consulting LLP built a movement to drive... Read More

More Stories About Built Environment

Book Review: Design for Good

October 26, 2017
In Design for Good: A New Era of Architecture for Everyone, John Cary has written one of the most consequential books yet for people who are concerned with the future of the built environment in the... Read More

DC City Series Infographic

October 18, 2017
This DC City Series Infographic pulls together some of the brightest minds at work designing for social good in the Washington, DC metro region. Far from a definitive list, this cohort is a starting point... Read More

Fast Company Innovation Festival – October 23-27, 2017

October 16, 2017
From October 23 through 27, 2017, Fast Company presents the Fast Company Innovation Festival. The third annual Innovation Festival’s theme is “Leading With Optimism,” and the event will take place across all of New York... Read More