A Designer’s Approach To Change Management

Change management is not the table at which you see a lot of designers. But I believe designers can add a lot to the strategy and process of change management. A lot of the tactics designers use and a lot of the skills designers have can be very valuable to change management processes.

Slowly but steadily, I’m approaching a point at which I can hardly see the difference between design and business problem-solving. Separation of the two seems so strange to me right now. I just can’t think like that anymore. To me, design is becoming a different way to think and do that can be applied to any business problem. One of the areas in which I’m experimenting with the design way is change management.

Organization as the limfac

If you take the design thinking and service design approach far enough, you are bound to bump into organizational issues. If you know what the user needs, what tech is available and what the business objectives are, you naturally end up with two organizational challenges. One is the way in which projects are done: agility, multidisciplinary co-creation, and management. The other is the total culture, mindset, strategy, and organization of companies. If you do everything else well, the organization becomes the limiting factor (limfac) for project engagement, acceptance, success. So organization design is a natural extension of design if your goal is the delivery of excellent services.

“The context used to be we were designing things within systems that were relatively stable. Now we’re designing things when the systems themselves need designing.” — Tim Brown, IDEO

Change management experiments

This concept is still a little strange. I have bumped into this area in client projects. I have raised questions from a design thinking standpoint. I have suggested and delivered some of the strategies I envision. I have participated in change management processes. But this is definitely an area I would like to explore more. A good place to start is our own design agency. Every organization has to adapt in order to survive and the design agency I work at is no different. The context of design and the design world is changing rapidly. Client questions change and the companies that offer design also change. There is a lot of re-positioning and mergers and acquisitions going on. Technology, social and business developments are changing the context in which design has to work. Accountability, agility, digitization and new services like design thinking and service design are themes that are shaping the new design landscape. Every designer has to respond to these themes and so do we. This is why we started with an internal change management program. Practicing what you preach is always a good way to learn and up your ability to empathize with your clients.

4 ways design can help change management

In client projects and our internal program, I am experimenting with the designer’s approach to change management. So far, I’ve found four ways in which design, the designer’s tool-, mind- and skillset can help.

1. Make it user-centered

The first thing I found useful is to think of the organization as a service. All the elements of an organization, vision, strategy, project management, values, KPI’s, hr, etc., should be designed for users of this service. The users of the service called organization are the employees. The organization should be designed to be of service to the employees, not the other way around. For me, this tuns the whole process of organization design and change management upside down. If you make this mental shift, you can make the organization user-centered. You can start with research into what the employees need, not just starting from business objectives. The same balance between user needs, business objectives and technological boundaries that applies to the design of products and services can also be applied to organization design. An organization consists of parts that need to be designed and each part can be designed with the user in mind. And a lot of the organizational elements are powered by technology. So the same viable - feasible - desirable balance needs to be found as it does in every design project.

In our internal change management program, we apply this by viewing the change as a design project and start with a Design Sprint to collect insights, create engagement and prototype designs. We test this prototype with its users: our colleagues, and developed a plan to test it in projects and develop strategies to apply the design.

2. Make things concrete

The second way the designer’s way can contribute to change management processes is by making things concrete. Apart from primitive visualizations like org charts, the organization is a very abstract concept. Strategy, governance, structure, culture etc. are all things that are hard to define and therefore hard to discuss. It is hard to determine what we mean exactly when we discuss abstract subjects. There is a lot of openness. This makes it easy to disagree because people can retreat to personal opinions. At the same time, it’s too easy to agree if things are not clear. As with any project in which designers participate, designers can bring clarity. The whole power of concepts like design thinking lies in the fact that designers add value to processes by making things. Making things makes discussions more clear and more focussed. Making things allows for a different type of learning. An organization is not a product, so it’s hard to design real objects. But you can make things more concrete none the less. You can work on mental images by visualizing the problem, the context, the system, the solutions. And you can design concrete concrete actions, behaviors, and systems just like you are designing products and services.

In our internal change management program, we apply this by challenging the employees to “design” a part of the organization: the shared vision, in the Design Sprint. We also prototyped, tested and iterated on this design quite a bit. Then we “designed” actions like internal projects, responsibilities, an HR program, knowledge sharing, learning objectives, project review formats, tools etc. One of the most visible concrete things we did is put the shared vision we designed on the walls in our office building so that everyone is constantly reminded of the journey we are one. This works for employees and clients alike. Both see it. Our clients are the user of the users of the organization design. So for them, it also has to work. With them, we also have to validate.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein

3. Be bold

One of the key character traits designers bring to the table is boldness, courage, the will to color outside the lines, the innate drive to think outside the box. Design is fundamentally about change. And to change things, it pays to look outside your comfort zone. In any design project, it’s a designer’s job to challenge, to reframe, to provide the outside perspective. Designers know that it’s a good strategy to try something crazy once in a while. It’s not necessarily so that the strange thing you suggest is a good solution, but it sparks other ideas that might work. Designers constantly do interventions like this. They provoke and observe. They do this to learn, to get new ideas. And change management programs are no different than any other design project. They benefit from crazy interventions as much as any design project. Things need to be shaken up, feathers have to be ruffled, crazy ideas have to be tried on in order to change things. If you stay inside your box and continue with the same thinking, same attitude, same mindset as you always did, things will not change. If things do not change, the key problem of organizational change is not solved. Introducing new things, new concepts, new ways of doing and thinking might lead to surprise, irritation, and conflict. When it comes to designing visual things this conflict is relatively small. But when you are working on organizations, the change comes closer to people and the conflict can be bigger. But I believe that if we can apply the same designer-boldness, we can achieve great things in change management programs.

In our own change management program, boldness has created some conflict as well. Interventions have been made that ruffled some feathers. Suggestions from outside the comfort zone have been rejected at first and led to hefty discussions. But the whole idea of bold interventions is to open the discussion, to open people’s minds, to find new solutions. I found that discussions about organizational interventions take a lot more energy than visual suggestions in traditional design projects. That is logical as the organization is a service that is much closer to people as the products and services the organization delivers. But we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them :)

4. Combine a BHAG with an MVP

Boldness can also work as a motivator. In regular design projects, having a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) can motivate people to start moving, to put in the energy. Achieving a goal that most people didn’t think was possible, can be a huge motivator, a confidence booster. Working towards a seemingly impossible goal can create the necessary team spirit. But good designers know that in complex problems, the BHAG should not be a fixed point. You need to learn along the way and adjust, and pivot. Each journey starts with a single step. So you need to design the first step, the Minimal Viable Product (MVP). This is not only to get quick wins but also to learn if the solution you designed works in reality. In order to design an MVP, you need to envision a roadmap, to see how the MVP can lead to the BHAG in time. You also need to find out what the most crucial part of the solution is, where you have to test your assumptions, define what you need to learn. You need to see what the basic building blocks are that need to be built in order to move to higher-level solutions.

In our own change management program, we have high-level goals of accountability, agility, operational excellence, and service innovation but we found that we need to start with basics like shared vision, dissecting our service catalog, knowledge sharing, learning programs and discovering OKR’s. These are all building blocks we designed that are necessary to achieve our higher level goals. These are all elements of our organization that we need to design, test and develop and learn about.

2 areas in which designers have to step up their game

Designers can add a lot of value in change management programs. But next to being able to transfer your tool-, mind- and skill set to a different field, you need to learn a couple of new things as well.

1. Systems thinking

Organizations of any size are complex ecosystems. You cannot design or change them as a whole. Ecosystems are changed by interventions: introducing or changing elements, observing what happens and then repeating that. In any system, there are points of leverage in which small changes can result in big changes. The trick is to find these leverage points and to design the right interventions. The impact of design is increasingly defined by its ability to change the ecosystem of an organization. The environment in which the designer operates has to become part of the design. Designs cannot perform in a vacuum any longer. Designers have to understand the ecosystems that organizations are and understand how to find the leverage points. All things are connected. A lot of designs end up in drawers or are not fully taken advantage of because they do not connect to the ecosystem of organizations. Systems thinking is quintessential. Even more so if you are designing the organizations themselves. In that case, you are working on the ecosystem itself. But you cannot design the ecosystem directly. You have to design interventions, parts. The more leverage the point you design has, the more impact the design has.

In our own change management program, we analyzed our own ecosystem to identify positive and negative feedback loops. Based on knowledge of the organization, the business, and input from the Design Sprint we created a system map. On this, we could identify the point that holds the most leverage. In our case, this was the shared vision loop. So we made this the topic of our first design intervention. Not having a clear shared vision is the limiting factor that holds back learning, reviews, service innovation, quality management etc.

“Do not push growth: remove the factors limiting growth.” — Peter Senge

2. Organization knowledge

As with any area you are designing for, it’s good to have knowledge of the field. Organizations are a medium, a topic, a matter on which there is a lot of knowledge. I think the added value of designers in change management programs is that they bring a different view. But it’s good to have some basic knowledge of organization models, organization theories etc. Bringing a fresh perspective requires keeping a beginners mind, but it also requires some basic knowledge. I believe designers can contribute to the necessary innovation in organization theory. But in order to be effective at this, you have to study the matter. Just like a chair designer can only come up with new, innovative ways to work with wood by immersing himself in the matter, an organization designer needs to immerse himself in organization knowledge.

In our own change management program, among other theories, we used the systems thinking approach of Peter Senge, the Value Disciplines ideas of Michael Treacy en Fred Wiersema, and ideas from Agile and Scrum. Especially in the analysis of workshop take-aways and creating a coherent vision from the building blocks from co-creation sessions, having a framework of organizational theories is helpful. Co-creation is greatly enhanced with expert guidance. Most of the time the co-creators are no experts in the area that needs design. Linking the insights to established theoretical frameworks and practices is far more powerful than having people re-invent the wheel.

Applying design (sprints) to organization design

In the SPRINT book, Jake Knapp and his co-authors talk about how their design method can be applied to any type of big problem and how the prototyping mindset can also add value to problems in which design is traditionally not considered a problem-solving tactic. The book itself focuses largely on product design with making customer journeys, drawings of interface solutions and interactive prototypes. Using the method, principles, and mindset to purely organizational design requires some creative adjustment. In our change management program, we used some of the tools from the SPRINT method. But this is just one part of it. The SPRINT book is based on the designer’s way. And applying the designer’s way to organizational design and change management is an area that is ripe with opportunity. Not only for designers to expand their field of work but also for innovations in organizational design.


Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :)