Written by Marc Bolick
In our last post we talked about how the real value of design thinking lies in changing people’s mindsets and, specifically, how people collaborate to solve problems collectively. This goes beyond any one design project or innovation initiative that you might be driving forward using a design thinking approach. It is about that moment when you encounter the ‘wall of culture change,’ and it can be a daunting undertaking.
The kinds of barriers that you might face when trying to drive change throughout an organization are myriad. Make not mistake, embarking on this kind of effort it is not for the faint at heart. The good news is that many people have gone before you, and there are many tactics that are used in any initiative that involves organization level change that can be applied to driving a design thinking mindset.
What follows is a non-exhaustive set of approaches that can be a starting point for your strategy to roll out the human-centered way of working to a wider audience. This is not meant to be exhaustive, rather these are some of the critical things to keep in mind as you consider moving beyond the project level implementation of design thinking and toward weaving it into the fabric of how your organization works.
1. CLEARLY DEFINE YOUR VISION
Probably the most important step is purposefully envisioning what changes your organization needs to undergo and why design thinking should be part of that change. Don’t just stumble into trying to change something as complex and consequential as your organizational culture. Have a plan and map out how you’re going to go from the current to future state.
A good starting point for a vision can be a simple How Might We statement. Writing things down in black and white tends to focus the mind, and ensures that you are aligned with the people who will be supporting your efforts. Once you have a written statement of intent, consider showing your vision in some visual fashion. This is a good moment to engage a graphic designer, they are very good at taking broad and ambiguous concepts and making them clear so others can understand (yes, that’s what design is all about!).
By all means, make sure to put humans into the picture, show how your change will affect the people both inside and outside your organization. Ask yourself who you need to get involved. What stakeholders do you need to manage, who is going to embrace the change and who will resist. Go through a stakeholder mapping activity and identify internal as well as external stakeholders, and map the value exchange between those stakeholders and the change initiative. This will go a long way to helping you and your co-conspirators understand the motivations of key people, and be able to proactively engage them throughout the process.
Don’t just stumble into trying to change something as complex and consequential as your organizational culture.
2. GET ACTIVE LEADERSHIP SUPPORT
Simply put, if you don’t have leadership actively engaged in the effort to spread design thinking, you will more than likely fail. Get leaders involved upfront, make sure they understand what design thinking is and what business benefits the human-centric approach can bring.
In some cases it may be obvious who falls in the category of ‘leadership’, but in others it may be more complex. While it’s always good to have the backing of the CEO, that may not always be feasible or desirable. Rather, use your stakeholder mapping output to determine those people who have control over budget, people and strategy. This group will be your pool of potential leadership support. Determine which of these leaders is critical to success, meaning you need them to either provide resources or approval. Present your vision to these leaders, and treat your vision as a prototype. Be prepared for their constructive input, they will be much more open to supporting your effort if they see it as something they helped shape.
Finally, you want active support. Ask these leaders to officially ‘bless’ the effort by showing their support either in writing, or, ideally, in a video message. Here’s a good example of a ‘leadership permission video’ from Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International. The active support also means you are able to regularly call on the leaders to bless projects, workshops and design challenges. When calling on leaders, always keep in mind that you need to provide them with value, something that’s a win for them, as they help support the initiative of embedding design thinking in the organization.
3. DRAFT A TEAM OF VOLUNTEERS
You can’t do this alone or even with just your team. From your stakeholder analysis you should be able to identify the people and teams that are most important for driving the change you seek. While there are some ‘usual suspects’ that are likely to be on your list of needed supporters – marketing, HR, product people – the exact people or parts of your organization that need to buy into your vision will depend on your unique circumstances (and the scope of your vision!).
Once you’ve identified the parts of the organization most needed, ask for volunteers from those teams to join the effort to affect change. It’s likely that the people you recruit for this effort will be fully loaded with work and, at least initially, not have specific time carved out for this new initiative. This is all the more reason to have them volunteer and participate based on their own alignment with the vision.
One of our colleagues pointed out that when he was leading a change effort inside a large corporate he sought out what he called ‘Los Desperados’ to join the effort. These were people who were dealing with such dire situations in their work that they were desperate for a new approach to solving problems. By working with ‘Los Desperados’ you have a highly motivated group where you have fertile ground to make quick wins and develop positive stories to tell about how design thinking can help people solve intractable problems.
4. MANAGE THE NAY SAYERS
Easier said than done, for sure, but there’s not doubt that your efforts to spread design thinking will be quickly derailed if you don’t actively work to counter the inevitable “nay sayers” who seek to block your efforts. As we discussed in our last post these people can range from those that feel you will be creating more work for them, to people who simply feel you’re trying to do something that’s part of their job description.
The good thing is that it’s usually pretty easy to identify these blockers. What you need to do is have a very specific strategy for managing their resistance. And, keeping a human-centric approach in mind, people usually have completely valid reasons for their resistance. You need to try to see their perspective and be open to integrating their concerns in your plans. That will go a long way to getting their buy in.
Consider keeping a running list of stakeholders and grouping them as promoters, neutrals and detractors. If you can move detractors to a more neutral position, where they won’t actively resist change, that’s a win! Finally, when you encounter someone who simply won’t stop resisting, that’s when you escalate to your leadership and seek their support to help remove roadblocks.
5. COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE
Design thinkers embrace the notion that effective storytelling helps to motivate people and drive positive change. When I think of storytelling I usually think of a story about something that has already happened. In our context this would be when you are communicating the progress, success and failures of a design thinking project. This is critical, and should be straightforward once you establish the storytelling habit, the ‘voice’ of your initiative, and the most effective channels to reach those you want to influence.
Equally important is telling the story of your future state vision for the way things might be if you change the mindset of the organization to being more human-centric. We have found that people love to make other humans happy. It is deeply satisfying to know that your hard work has made someone else’s life better.
The problem is that most people can’t see how what they do day in and day out actually affects their (internal or external) customers. As a leader of change, make sure to leverage this powerful human connection and communicate how your vision will better connect your colleagues to the people the organization serves.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how critically important it is to use effective visual design in your communications. Make your vision easy to understand and show the connections between your colleagues inside the organization and their customers.
In our experience most organizations have ample room for improvement in their ability to deliver great experiences for their customers, employees, partners, donors, beneficiaries…whoever you serve in your mission. This leaves lots of opportunity for you to slip in the design thinking methodology and principles as a way to solve real business problems.
Hopefully these tips can serve as a good starting point for you to lead the process of creating a more human-centric and collaborative organization. Remember that design thinking is very much a team sport. You can’t do this alone. The cool thing is, you can (you should) use a design thinking approach to help structure how you implement design thinking on a wider level in your organization!