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Dawn Laguens, executive vice president and chief brand officer of Planned Parenthood, is cultivating creativity in an organization that is fighting for its right to exist. IDEO's chief marketing officer Whitney Mortimer sat down with Dawn to explore how creativity plays out in her world.

Laguens Dawn

Image by Piper Loyd

Dawn Laguens in her Washington, D.C. office.

Imagine that you are the brand strategy steward of one of the world’s best-known nonprofit healthcare organizations, which provides care to millions of people, mostly low-income, across nearly 650 affiliate-run health centers.

Add to that the responsibility of steering a 100-year-old legacy brand into its second century, an “idea brand” that symbolizes a social movement built around the promise of autonomy and control over one’s own body.

You’re doing all this in the context of unprecedented social, political, technological, and regulatory upheaval.

And then there’s this: A significant part of the U.S. Congress is hell-bent on destroying you and your organization.

Spend a day with Dawn Laguens at her office in Washington, D.C., and you will know what it takes to play defense and offense simultaneously. At any given hour, she’s helping her teams navigate the best and worst scenarios that will shape the future—perhaps the existence—of the Planned Parenthood organizations.

So it might seem somewhat frivolous to explore the role of creativity on the very day that Capitol Hill delivers its plan to “defund” the enterprise.

Or is it?

Dawn Laguens felt herself called to service as early as the third grade, when she started a student council at her New Orleans elementary school because playground rules weren’t fair to girls. Equal parts grassroots organizer, brand strategist, and team coach, she moves through her day at breakneck speed, fluidly making connections and identifying patterns, despite the weight of what is at stake.

Learn more about IDEO's work to redesign the Planned Parenthood patient experience here.

Whitney Mortimer: How do you think about creativity at Planned Parenthood?

Dawn Laguens: We live in a highly resource-constrained environment, where the number of problems and things wanting a solution—whether it’s serving more people or engaging more people in the fight—requires a lot of MacGyvering. I think that having those limitations has made us more creative.

What’s MacGyvering?

It comes from a 1980s TV show and means taking what’s at hand and working under tremendous pressure in world-ending situations; it’s creative problem-solving with constrained resources and time.

Do you think of yourself as a creative leader?

Where I think I’m a creative leader is in making space for people to try stuff, dream, and experiment, and always to be pushing them to see it from a different side.

A remarkable thing happens when a bunch of smart, interesting people get with a problem; it’s like a mental ballet.

The creative part of problem-solving is using what you have at hand and prototyping, some of which I learned from my engagement with IDEO. Part of what I’ve been doing is building skills by being around creative people.

I recently pulled an IDEO when I created a “tam-pen,” where I took a tampon apart and built a clickable ballpoint pen piece into the applicator. I am thinking a lot about how we deal with stigma around sex, sexuality, and abortion, and periods are where a lot of the weirdness seems to start. We can start to attack this by making a tampon as common as a pen. I prototyped it through drawing, then making one by taping together a tampon and a pen, and now producing it. I imagine leaving them around conference rooms and classrooms all over America. To me, that’s one version of creativity, to try some things to jump-start a new conversation.

Do people in your organization think of themselves as creative?

I don’t think they think of themselves as creative as they really are, because people are kind of stingy with the word “creative” across a lot of professions. But we have people who work at Planned Parenthood who take a policy idea from over here and a communications idea from over there and combine them in new and different ways. That changes people’s lives.

We are already working in virtual reality, and thinking about how to use it both to educate and to create empathy. We are doing something different with this emerging technology—thinking about how to teach sex education in a radically different way, and also to help people understand the harassment that women face when they seek care.

On the ideas front, we are discussing how we can further knit together the environmental and reproductive health and rights movements around the growing and dire threat of reproductive toxins, work already being championed by reproductive justice organizations. This requires us to bring together two sometimes disparate movements to work together on fighting the pollution problems that are especially affecting the long-term health of low-income communities.

We are already working in virtual reality. We're thinking about how to teach sex education in a radically different way.

Dawn Laguens

Is creativity something that goes out the window in the face of adversity?

Everything feels so high stakes that there isn’t a lot of time for goofy creative. It’s super-focused, peak-moment creative, where everybody comes together around something that’s critical and time-sensitive.

You can risk it all by starving the future to pay for the present in terms of creativity, right? But you have to keep pushing and protect the organization from that. Sometimes people will look at your leadership and say, “Why is she letting those people go off and explore down that road?” And you’ll say, “Because we’re all going to have to walk that road eventually.”

David Kelley talks about “flipping” moments, where someone recognizes in themselves the capacity to do more and to be a creative person or leader. Have you had such a moment?

This will sound insane because it goes back so far. One summer I was the head counselor at a summer camp. When you’re the head counselor, you don’t pick the staff—you show up and there are 20 college students who will have to work together for the whole summer.

During one of the early training days, I thought, “Okay, I have a choice here. I am either going to find the very best thing about each of these people and celebrate it all summer, or it’s a disaster.”

That was a strong leadership moment for me, where I made an active choice that my way as a leader was to find the best thing about each person, to lift it up and point it out, and to coach (to the degree that you can when you’re 22 years old). I was probably not a very good coach at that point, but I definitely feel like that is what everybody got from me every day. And then they gave it to each other. I still try to do that today.

One of the challenges of leadership is knowing when to lead from the front, when to lead alongside, and how to lead through culture. How do you help others do the best work they can?

It would be interesting to ask my staff about this. I think they would say I’m a work in progress. It’s something that I think about a lot. I’m very verbal and can be overly dominant. We have this practice called “step up, step back,” where the people who are easily out front consciously step back and the people who sometimes hang back and don’t give their ideas are encouraged to step up. I’m a person who needs to step back, and so I practice that.

I have a little rock with the word “attend” on one side and the word “achieve” on the other. So my little practice is “attend to achieve,” to try to really listen for the gifts and ideas of others, not to pretend-listen, and to think ahead. I hold it in my hand in meetings sometimes if I know I’m in a distracted place.

As an organization, how do you gain a shared understanding of the people you are serving, a mental model that guides your strategy and priorities?

It’s great to have access to data and research, which obviously are very high quality and fact-based, but we are super plugged in to the real people we serve and the people who support our work.

Planned Parenthood is a different kind of organization because we have a view of the world that is built on lifting up the power and worth of women, which infuses the way we think about you, the person coming to us for care or information, and the way we engage you to be a supporter.

How do you unlock potential in other people at Planned Parenthood?

We have a lot of different kinds of leaders, and the most exciting news is in the young people Planned Parenthood is hiring today. They want to lead, and they didn’t come to Planned Parenthood for Dawn Laguens to tell them everything that they should do. They want me to coach and offer my experience, and they want to learn and stretch their leadership with somebody who’s going to support them.

I’m interested in new ideas, I like to move fast, and I can be short on culture if I’m not careful. I have always had managing directors and colleagues who are empathetic, aware, and focused on creating structures where everyone can thrive and do their best work. Right now, we are especially focused on creating structures that support racial equity both within the organization and in the work we do in the world. We are a long way from our goal, but we are very focused on it.

Right now, we are especially focused on creating structures that support racial equity both within the organization and in the work we do in the world.

Dawn Laguens

How do you encourage learning through failure?

That’s such a tough one because we know it’s the right idea to encourage risk and even failure, but we feel deeply that the stakes of failure are so high in our work.

Not to knock the design of, say, products, but it’s not like, “Well, that cup shape didn’t work out. Make a new cup.” If we fail, a woman doesn’t get healthcare. Or a young person doesn’t get sex education, or a clinic has to close. In so much of our work, there’s a buzzer. Somebody takes a vote, whether it’s an election or whether it’s a bill being voted on in the Texas legislature.

That said, failure and learning are part of any thriving organization. We worked with the IDEO team on a great patient and employee experience program for all of Planned Parenthood, including a set of shared workplace values and service standards that we use everywhere from the health centers to the national office. One of those core values is “We Try and We Learn.”

At a moment when there’s an existential crisis facing the organization, do you feel empowered to drive innovation?

Planned Parenthood leaders are called to be champions of innovation and to push the boundaries even in these toughest moments. It is harder when you have a lot incoming, because you have to survive the attacks, but if you don’t protect the little bit of the organization that gets to keep pushing those boundaries, one day they’ll have thought of a new attack and we won’t have thought of a new solution.

After the election, I called Ellen Chesler, who is one of the great biographers of [Planned Parenthood founder] Margaret Sanger. I asked, “What do you think Margaret Sanger would do? What would she be thinking about?” She said, “She’d be thinking about technology.” Margaret was always thinking that way. She had a lot of flaws, as many leaders do, but she was always looking for that next innovation. That’s how we got the birth control pill. It was her dream because she thought somebody could take it and no one would be able to know.

There’s a lot of innovation across our federation. We’re one of the earliest to move into online reproductive health services, apps, virtual reality, and very tech-enabled organizing. I always say if somebody’s going to figure out how a drone can deliver and insert an IUD, we’re going to be the ones who figure it out!

Advocacy is another frontier of innovation for us. We’re seeing so much great innovation around open source activism platforms, and we are deploying them as quickly as possible. You collect your crowd, decide what you want to do, and have a way to plug in. This is a DIY generation and they are not going to follow orders. And if it can’t happen through their phone, forget it.

We live in a more atomized world. People are looking for friends and comrades. They're looking for people to share their hopes and dreams with.

Dawn Laguens

What’s the opportunity for Planned Parenthood with new technologies like VR?

We already partnered to make one VR film called Across the Line that debuted at Sundance in 2016. We are using VR to capture what is going on in the fight for reproductive rights. And there’s definitely an amazing opportunity for using immersive VR as a tool for teaching and learning.

One of the gifts of VR is that it makes it possible to put yourself in the shoes of others. We always talk about that at Planned Parenthood. We don’t walk in somebody else’s shoes, and so we can’t make decisions for other people. We believe people have to make their own decisions and we have to trust that they’re going to do the best they can for themselves and their families.

For example, if Planned Parenthood is not out there saying what sex education and information could and should be on these new platforms, then it will be shaped by some company who just wants to sell a lot of whatever to young people, or by the government, which right now doesn’t even want to fund honest, accurate programs for teens.

Why do you think nonprofits are behind?

Resources are obviously a piece of it, but it’s really about permission. Nobody ever told nonprofits they can expect to be first. They always expect to wait. The mindset is, when the big for-profit corporation is done, they will give it to the nonprofit at a discount, or you can beg somebody to do something for you. That mindset is changing somewhat, but that’s the history: wait until somebody gives it to you, or lends it to you, or discounts it for you. Funders are trying to do the best with their dollars, but they too will have to come into this new mindset and be more willing to look at prototyping and at innovation by their grantees.

Do you see that more in a new generation of funders or investors who have come out of a different business experience?

The start-up environment is really starting to impact the nonprofit and foundation world now that more people are going into the field with those backgrounds and experiences.

Planned Parenthood has the chance to work with organizations like IDEO, and they are changing our organizational DNA by introducing new ideas and saying, “Actually, you are creative.” Again, that’s part of the permission. I work for a CEO, Cecile Richards, and a board that has put a lot of faith in me and our teams to go out and do this. We did not know if VR would work. We did not know how to bring that to Sundance. We did not imagine that many thousands of people would say that they were really moved by it and talk about how it changed their willingness to take action, which is the holy grail.

Do you think the urgency of your mission drives faster cycles to scale some of these innovations?

We think in terms of minimum viable people. Will it make a difference? What amount of difference will it make? Is this a solution that people can effectuate in a limited resource situation? You can have all kinds of dreams, but if nobody can actually do it, then it’s just a nice idea.

In the chaos and upheaval of the recent political and social environment, where are the bright spots to build on?

The outpouring of people. They are waking up, and they don’t take anything for granted. That’s huge! So what do you do with that? How do you keep people engaged? How do you encourage them? Cecile says that her mother (the former governor of Texas) always told people, “Don’t wait for instructions.” What we need now is a lot more do-it-yourself activism and that is what we are seeing.

We are also seeing so much more awareness and collaboration between organizations and across issues. It’s less transactional, more transformational work, and that is a very big bright spot.

How are you bringing innovation to how you organize people?

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund has been out there prototyping ways to do awesome organizing for years, not because we wanted to, but because we’ve been so under fire, even though a majority of people in the U.S. know Planned Parenthood’s work and support it.

There are a lot of these organizing moments—like the first effort to defund us, all the state battles, the thing at the state capitol down in Texas. What we learned is you can’t start the movement and you can’t stop it, but you can help it along quite a bit. We have all been learning that people have both a great desire and capacity to do it themselves if they have the tools and know you have their back.

That self-organizing mentality is a bit of a shift. We went through a period where we gave people a petition and they signed it. But today, folks want to sign the petition, deliver the petition, and actually get together to talk to other people about the issue. So that’s where our Defenders program comes in, and, similarly, what groups like the ACLU and MoveOn are doing, giving people an opportunity for action that they get to design—so true, human-centered design. Today people say, “Connect us. Let us be creative.”

You know, we live in a more atomized world. People are looking for friends and comrades. Basically, they’re looking for people to share their dreams and their hopes with, and maybe our organizations and our culture haven’t been giving people enough of that.

As for Planned Parenthood, what makes us unique and strong is this combination of a very forceful worldview about people’s potential and being a really dedicated, caring, and high-quality healthcare and education provider. The interplay between those things means providing care that is infused with a worldview. People feel that spirit.

Laguens Dawn 2

Image by Piper Loyd

I have a little rock with the word “attend” on one side and the word “achieve” on the other. So my little practice is “attend to achieve,” to try to really listen for the gifts and ideas of others, not to pretend-listen, and to think ahead.

Let’s talk about legacy. Planned Parenthood is a 100 year-old movement based on a radical idea—that people, women in particular, have agency and autonomy when it comes to their bodies.

I heard IBM CEO Ginni Rometty share her view on what it means to be a company with a 100-year-old history. She said that IBM wouldn’t be here today if they had spent too much time resting on their laurels, because every organization they have competed with is no longer in business. Their superpower was being able to rise above their legacy and reinvent themselves to survive and compete.

As the brand leader of a century-old organization, how do you think about what to preserve and what to abandon in the 21st century?

We’ve never really rested on our laurels; [not] since Margaret Sanger was handing out little pamphlets and went to jail, and then taught the women in jail about birth control; or since inventing the pill, fighting for Griswold v. Connecticut so that birth control would be legal to use, fighting for abortion rights, or fighting for coverage in the ACA. Some of it has been more defense and some has been more offense, but I always go back to this idea that the brand of Planned Parenthood is not healthcare or advocacy or education—it’s how we bring it to life. It’s an idea, an idea that’s still controversial today—that a woman’s body and pleasure are her own, and she gets to decide whether she shares her body with a lover or a baby or no one.

I'm always thinking about the brand. It's the responsibility that we have for something that's 100 years old and somehow both beloved and in the center of the storm.

Dawn Laguens

That idea went well beyond family planning, didn’t it?

Yes. Margaret Sanger was very clear that women should have sexual pleasure as well. Interestingly, more and more women are saying to us today, “I trust you on so many other things, and you’re so good at the healthy part. We would like you to help us with the happy part, too.”

This is a cutting-edge thing, a real innovation, which maybe shouldn’t sound that innovative. There’s a lot of people who can now have a healthy sex life, but who still aren’t having a happy sex life. They literally say, “Can you tell us how to have an orgasm? Can you tell us how to be in a happy relationship? And also how to not get an STD?” For them, Planned Parenthood is like their cool aunt—straightforward and honest and trustworthy, and that’s deeply a part of the experience that people expect.

Planned Parenthood is at the center of a kind of civil rights movement. Do you think that movements can be designed? The word “movement” has become a kind of buzzword in business today.

Things like the Women's March or the airport protests to protect immigrants are helped by some structure and support, but organizations and corporations can't manufacture the magic. You can support the moment, and it works better if there's a little bit of scaffolding and a way to link it to the next big moment, or, on the political side, the next election. A special shout-out to the Women's March organizers, who really hit the right balance of leadership and freedom.

How does a brand operate at the center of a movement? Where are you loose and tight in how you manage your brand in that context?

I’m always thinking about the brand. How are all the parts of our identity coming together to create that overarching, trusted brand? It’s the responsibility that we have for something that’s 100 years old and somehow both beloved and in the center of the storm.

There are definitely people who want to squash the brand, or are even violent toward it. We have to do things like licensing and policing use of the logo and such, but in my mind, those kind of attacks can also make you closed off from this more DIY brand moment. The idea is bigger than Planned Parenthood, and if we think we're going to do it all and manage it and curate it all, we won't win.

Planned Parenthood is both an idea brand and an experience brand. Planned Parenthood supports you to be a smart, informed, healthy-decision-making person so that you, a person who also cares about your world and your friends, can help other people. You can find your way and then help other people find their way to good, strong, solid information and care—and the life they desire.

So empowerment is at the core of the Planned Parenthood brand and promise?

Planned is powerful. To me it’s not the word “parenthood,” as much as it’s “planned.” You can plan and decide and make decisions around your body—who you share it with, how you use it, and how you have fun with it. These are some of the biggest early decisions that a young person makes. If you learn this as a pre-teen or teen, you’re going to be much stronger in everything else that comes after it.

At times, there has been a perception that Planned Parenthood is a lifeboat, like you’re drowning and we’re going to save you. That kind of attitude is not at all empowering; in fact, it’s disempowering. Today I would say we are clear we are a ladder, and really the people who stand next to the ladder and hold it steady while you climb.

If you weren’t doing this job, what would you be doing?

You know, I like to change things, especially things that could be working better for people. These are things that we should just be radically rethinking: education and schools. Cities. Criminal justice. All places where a person thinking and organizing things can actually do something radically different. Serving as mayor, school principal, or reforming a prison are great challenges that come to mind.

It’s not about fixing things as in, how will we make the prison run better or the high school run better? It’s about reimagining what a city can be. What education can be. What reform and justice can be. Get those right, and we have a better chance to get our country right.

Learn more about IDEO's work to redesign the Planned Parenthood patient experience here.

  • Whitney Mortimer

    Partner and Chief Marketing Officer, IDEO San Francisco
    Whitney Mortimer has led IDEO’s marketing efforts since 1997. As Partner and CMO, she helps shape IDEO’s position as a thought leader in human-centered innovation and design.