Hack Your Org’ — A Plea

How to diffuse a (service) design mindset without permission

Irrespective of whether you call it Service Design, User Experience Design, Human-centered Design, Design Thinking, or Lean Startup: human-centric and hypotheses-testing management concepts have grown rapidly in popularity in recent years. And although nowadays even your CEO might talk about the importance of customer-centricity and agile working modes (shall I add ‘in times of digital disruption’?), you still feel that something is amiss …

If a new management concept faces resistance and structural blocks, it cannot prove its value and will end up in a vicious cycle. To make it a virtuous cycle — without leadership support — its evangelists have to hack their way against the odds of the organization. (Carlgren, L. (2013). Design thinking as an enabler of innovation: Exploring the concept and its relation to building innovation capabilities (Doctoral thesis). Chalmers University of Technology, p. 62)

Maybe you realize that you design one ‘successful added-value micro-service’ after another, but you are never allowed to touch the broken parts of your organization’s business model? Maybe you discovered that the user needs you identified and the way your industry develops juxtapose your organization’s strategy? Or you found, that incentives are bound to artificial business goals that even work against what your customers desire and the work that needs to be done? Or, maybe it’s just the countless workshops without any implementation? The list goes on and on …

All new management concepts — especially those with an outside-in focus like those named above — can only be as effective as the organization allows them to be. Management often wants to reap benefits, e.g. being as creative and ‘agile’ as a startup, without having to face the consequences of injecting such ‘foreign’ DNA within the firm. We Germans have a saying for that: “Wash me, but don’t make me wet.” (Un)fortunately things don’t work that way. Once you bring in a new management trend, it will either both irritate and change the existing system or, worst case scenario: the system will fight back, corrupt the concept and render it useless. So, wouldn’t it be a great idea for management to deliberately support the concept from the very beginning by simultaneously building up those innovation capabilities the concept needs to thrive? Wouldn’t also Service Design profit from some design-friendlier context?

Well, the harsh truth is: there are only a few organizations where leadership is really strategic about the introduction and embedding of design (read: innovation) capabilities (e.g. Intuit, IBM, GDS).

Far-sighted leaders at those companies adopted necessary precautions and tried to remove innovation barriers before the actual work started. If they weren’t able to discover them upfront, they at least established mechanisms to circumvent obstacles while they occurred. This is what I call “deliberate innovation capability building”. If done right and with perseverance, companies can end up with an innovation system that cannot only accommodate one management trend like Design Thinking or Lean Startup but a mash-up of different management concepts, which have been adapted to the context of the organization.

The reality in most organizations however, looks a bit different, to put it mildly. Instead of empowering innovation work, managers are incentivized to control deviant behavior (a.k.a. your efforts to challenge the status-quo). They search for quick fixes, recipes and shortcuts to muddle through. You, dear reader, are probably in one of those organizations where no one rolls out the red carpet if you propose to extend the competencies of design practice to areas beyond its current operating range. Instead of getting support, you will be faced with resistance from many parts of the organization. Some people might even refuse to listen to you and your ‘dangerous insights’. Or worse: you might well be in one of those innovation theater companies where management proclaims to change ‘company culture’ by design (thinking) without undertaking the slightest effort to support its diffusion beyond workshops and fancy skunk works labs.

Sound grim? Not at all! When the going gets tough, the tough get going. You don’t have to wait for others (read: top and middle management) to deploy the ‘right’ conditions for you to innovate. All you need is apply your creative energy to the systems and structures of your own organization and get a bit, umm … subversive.

If there was one pattern of behavior that I observed in people who made things happen in inert innovation cultures, then it was that they all were ‘hackers.’ Not hackers in the popular sense of intruding computer systems but rather ‘hackers of culture’ and ‘systems’ within their organizations. Describing the spectrum of hacks they applied to colleagues, managers, policies, and even spatial structures would go way beyond the scope of this article. I listed three inspiring ones below.

(noun, verb \’hak\): Reading code rules differently than others do | Mod or change something in an extraordinary way | An appropriate application of ingenuity | A creative practical joke | A clever solution to a tricky problem

What unites all ‘culture hackers’ is the fact that they either built up innovation capabilities themselves or that they forced management to act and do so eventually. And you know what? You are in a perfect starting position to do that as well. Who, if not you, knows how to decode people’s behavior and systems in order to reassemble a better version of itself? So, stop complaining and get going: apply your designerly thinking to the system that hinders you and your design practice and unfold its potential.

Change it from within. Become a hacker of your culture and build innovation capabilities from the bottom up!

Some Example Hacks

1—Fake Press Release

How a cheeky innovation team shook up its sluggish management.

Situation: Although its business model was under heavy attack from startup companies, the sedate management of an incumbent company in a mature industry would deny any threat. Against the perception of basically every employee, they claimed no challenger would be able to conquer their market space and that there would be no need for innovation beyond incremental.

Hack: The company’s under-financed, under-staffed innovation unit thought differently: if things would go on as they did in the past, their jobs would be at stake. Thus they faked a press release, drawing up a disruption scenario happening today, which was only realistic ten years from now.

Result: The management believed it and got totally agitated. They made the press release an internal issue and tried to get even the earliest prototypes from R&D ready for a presentation at the next trade fair. They always claimed ‘there was nothing to fear’, yet they panicked and tried to get ‘at least something ready against this new disruptive offering’ in customer and public perception. Once the innovation team revealed their plot, the management was very upset and thought about either firing the whole team, or providing them with more resources. They decided for the latter.

2 — Pot-sight

If the engineers refuse to look at your insights, bring them to a place where they can’t avoid them.

The Pot-sight hack

Situation: A user insights team needed to find a way to get the attention of engineers as information was deliberately ignored (ppt not read, posters on black board removed, etc.).

Hack: In their desperation, the insights team decided to put insights in a place the reluctant engineers couldn’t escape. They created insight summary posters and put them in front of the pots. In other words, they attached them to their lavatory doors.

Result: The engineers surely weren’t amazed by that perky move but it worked. It was hard to refuse exposure to the material in these ‘moments of silence’ and the data from the field had at least an unconscious effect on them.

3 Invention Roadshow

How an engineer disseminated a billion dollar business opportunity against the odds of his organization.

Situation: A Design Thinking team had found a feasible opportunity that was unbelievably viable and desired by customers. However, they were a group of just two and no one would pay attention to their concept as 200 other high-profile people were already working on solving the same problem. Their solution sounded just too easy to be true.

Hack: To make people aware of their solution’s potential, one engineer had an idea. He glued a functional version of their network infrastructure prototype to the outside of his laptop screen. To permanently expose it to critical stakeholders, he went over months to meetings, cafeterias and different R&D units with his roadshow laptop. Whenever he was working with it, people started asking him about the prototype.

Result: By exposing their concept to many people, the Design Thinking team built a coalition of proponents. Eventually it got funded and integrated into the NPD pipeline. Currently, the final implementation is being done together with a key customer.

Have culture hack to share? Want to learn more about culture hacking? Get in touch with us: hackthe.org.


Jan Schmiedgen is an innovation consultant and design strategist based in Berlin, Germany. He is also a HPDTRP Research Fellow at the Hasso Plattner Institute.