Organisational Change through Design

Boon Yew Chew
Aug 14 · 7 min read

What I learnt at the final week of CIID Summer School 2019

Last week, I attended the “Change Management through Design” summer school course at CIID. The course was facilitated by Mary Wharmby and Grace Ascuasiati of Design Transformation, and formerly from Spring Studio and BBVA, where they led the design transformation change across the BBVA organisation.

Photo banner for CIID Summer School in Copenhagen in partnership with UN’s sustainable development goals — 8 July to 9 August
Photo banner for CIID Summer School in Copenhagen in partnership with UN’s sustainable development goals — 8 July to 9 August
Hello, CIID

It was exhausting, but I got a lot of out of it. It renewed my optimism for design thinking approaches as a counterpoint to traditional top-down, management-driven initiatives, by balancing it with human-centricity, creativity and experimentation, iteration and learning.

The main takeaways for me was about maintaining focus on people, having the right attitude, making incremental impact and trusting the process. I’ve tried to document my reflections from the course here.

Design Thinking in Org Change

Design thinking has been around for awhile, and designers are no strangers to its methods and applications. This course re-emphasizes its process in non-designer hands — a phenomenon that’s been taking place across enterprises like IBM (pdf), Salesforce, and Kaiser Permenente. It transitions the designer’s role from craftsperson and facilitator to teacher and coach.

Each enterprise design thinking / org change case study has its own unique set of stories — which, in and of itself, is interesting — and it’s often hard to see past the hype to question whether it really does put people at the heart of the process (e.g. design thinking is, in many ways, a sales process). We also discussed the expansion of the problem space that designers traditionally operate in, shifting away from areas like products and services to areas like HR, accounting, and legal.

I learned about Jeanne Lietdka’s work, an extensive piece of research about the impact of design thinking within orgs. There’s an iceberg model she uses to communicate four different types of changes, which really resonates with me. It reveals the complexities of change and how design does really well in tackling the root issues below the surface of the iceberg, by focusing on people and designing solutions that address their needs and contexts. (Her webinar and reports also evidences the case studies in her extensive research that maps to different parts of the iceberg model.)

Jeanne Lietdka’s organisational change iceberg model
Jeanne Lietdka’s organisational change iceberg model
source: https://blog.mural.co/designthinking-roi

A critical shift in the transformation journey is where there’s a change of conversation, says Mary. It signifies people’s willingness to engage in dialogue, a fundamental component of human exchange. Often, you can’t engineer your way to a solution within the iceberg — but design thinking can help you figure out where the main challenges are, and what possible leverage points exist for more optimal solutions.

A real-world brief with real-world participants

The course was very hands-on, and was brought to life via a real-world brief, provided to us by our partners at UNOPS (a United Nation’s project implementation arm). We were asked to help UNOPS improve and hopefully achieve, their gender parity targets for 2020 within hardship duty stations across the world (i.e. somewhere between 47 to 53% male:female ratio across the org).

All this stuff is in the public domain and very up to date. If they had credible solutions yesterday, they would have attempted to implement it today.

We were also given a lot of supplementary reading around gender parity, UN strategy as pre-work for the course. Grace mentioned she had done a lot of primary research on the target audiences, which produced the personas we worked off in our teams. So, a lot of preparation on all sides (facilitator + participants + stakeholders), which I really appreciated.

I mean — it’s 5 days worth of learning. I really wanted it to count!

This real-world challenge and the involvement of UNOPS stakeholders also made a lot of difference as it levelled up the course and enabled the maturity of the facilitators and participants to really shine.

I was blown away by the representation of non-designers in the class — fairly senior people with strong expertise in areas like change management, trade and policy, operating models. The ratio of non-designers to designers was about 3:2, it felt like. Despite this, everyone was really open to learn new things and work together. It made me really crave for more courses that intently leverages the diversity of talent in groups.

photo of students from the Org Change through Design class—CIID Summer School 2019
photo of students from the Org Change through Design class—CIID Summer School 2019
Can you tell between the designers and non-designers? (not as easy as you think)

The methods we used in our design process were fairly typical tools of the trade, for example:

  • personas
  • empathy maps
  • ecosystem models (of various sorts — spiral diagrams, 2x2s)
  • prototyping (of various sorts e.g. bodystorming, paper prototypes, customer journeys)
  • value proposition canvas
  • concept maps
  • how might we’s
  • mission statements

OK, there were a LOT of tools for 5 days… we were tool-tastic. What would typically be taught as a course on its own ended up being a 5 minute introduction (“This is an example of body storming. Go!). I was half wondering how my non-designer friends were coping although we were really productive and healthy. The facilitators deliberately paired designers and non-designers within the teams.

What made it really work was the expert facilitation and packaging of these methods into a process (and getting feedback each day and tweaking bit by bit along the way too!) — just the right amount of stuff to guide us to the right sort of outcomes. You could teach an entire masterclass on designing and running a 5-day workshop for this sort of thing!

There were also some new tools created by Mary and Grace (e.g. org change canvas) they experimented with us, which was an interesting exercise. Some teams came up with their own “tools” — at one point, our team used a narrative structure to construct a story, as one of team mates had a background in drama.

Successful change initiatives are about unlocking diversity and deep levels of expertise. It’s always easier said than done. What Mary and Grace echoed several times is that design thinking approaches can offer a ‘common language’ for organisations to collaborate. And by starting small, making early wins with a select group of advocates, and building on top of that — this change then starts to percolate across other groups over time.

Obviously, a week isn’t going to yield substantial solutions, but our hands on simulation of the process was sufficient to prove the value of how to do things right.

Design thinking skepticism normalised

The course helped me realise my own blind spots about the term, “design thinking”. I’ve seen design thinking applied in a lot of bad ways, and skeptical perceptions of it over the years has made the term taste a bit sour for me. But this course helped normalised my perceptions.

My skepticism, I think, grew out of many observations and experiences of superficial applications and peddling of methods, thought leadership, and perspectives… then obscured by hype, media and social amplification — all of which has distracted me from the heart of what makes all this valuable: people.

I felt as though Mary and Grace’s approach throughout the course was built on a sensitivity that big changes are hard and tends to work against the way you think it does, but design (when done in the right way) can be a powerful approach to empower all kinds of people to build the right bridges and solutions without killing each other. Plus, they had the evidence from the past work to prove it. Suddenly, all these design thinking case studies became a lot more interesting and relevant again.

The main difference between the more-common product and service design situations versus designing for organisational change is the empowerment of non-designers within organisations to apply design-based approaches to their work, which isn’t limited to products and services, which is the primary area designers partner with non-designers, but also functions like HR, accounting, legal, etc. — there is a big difference in mindset, hearts and approach between the two.

Knowing the difference helps me breath a huge sigh of a relief. In an instance, I see the landscape, and I can ask myself — am I here to help improve a product’s value, or help someone deliver meaningful systemic change? And sometimes it’s both, but knowing the difference helps, and I’m grateful for the course in helping me navigate that.

A photo of all of us on Team Apple
A photo of all of us on Team Apple
I love my team (Team Apple — left to right: Jesper Nolhage, Martin Qwist, Cosima Steiner, Eduarda Freire, me)

Related resources:

Boon Yew Chew

Written by

Principal UX designer at Elsevier, London. IxDA local leader and board alumni. Visual thinker. Sketchnoter. Has a brain in his stomach.

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