Change Journeys: What Change Are You Working On?

In this episode of our Creative Confidence Series, hear from Bryan Walker, a Partner and Managing Director at IDEO who leads IDEO’s Design for Change studio. He shares what’s different about IDEO’s human-centered approach to change and lessons from his work with clients across the world to inspire change—from culture shifts to growing innovation capabilities—in organizations big and small. Listen to more episodes of the Creative Confidence Podcast.

Bryan Walker, Designing for Change

When you break it down to the most basic definition, change is simply a “from to,” says Bryan Walker, Partner and Managing Director at IDEO and head of the Design for Change studio. It’s going from today’s current state to a more desired future state. While the definition may seem simple, identifying the right "from" and "to" for your organization, much less activating that change, is an at times arduous but rewarding undertaking. Unlike raising twin toddler boys, Bryan finds making change happen in organizations to be not that complex and very doable.

To help you get started, we invited Bryan on to the Creative Confidence Series to talk about change journeys—a way to think about the type of change you seek—and tips for overcoming common barriers that can bring your progress to a halt.

A human-centered, design-led approach to change

From consumer electronics to healthcare and fashion, Bryan has guided all kinds of companies through journeys of change. He and his colleagues in the Design for Change studio at IDEO focus on helping leaders transform their organizations' cultures and businesses in pursuit of innovation, adaptability and impact.

While there are other change management models out there, Bryan says they’re typically more top-down and work best when there’s greater clarity in the change you want to make and what’s required to achieve it. At IDEO, a human-centered, design-led approach to change is well suited for ambiguous challenges where you’re not exactly sure what needs to happen or how.

If you “incorporate those who will be affected by the change into the process of change,” Bryan says you’re more likely to find solutions that will last longer, work for more people, and inspire a movement where people support your change.

“What we make matters,” Bryan says. “But how we make matters even more. And that is believing in the power of co-creation.”

Take a project Bryan and his team worked on to redesign the lobby space at TownePlace Suites, a hotel chain by Marriott. Research with guests had surfaced the idea of shifting the lobby space from a hangout area to a launching pad for exploration outside of the hotel. To figure out how to do that and get stakeholders bought in on the change, they invited everyone from executive leadership to service staff to come through the prototyped lobby and contribute ideas and feedback. The result was a more robust concept that went to market in about half the time it normally would with “off the charts” buy-in from franchisees.

Finding your change journey

Bryan’s team has worked with enough clients by now to notice some patterns. Organizations today are often seeking a change in culture, innovation capabilities, manufacturing processes, or digital or business transformations.

Change Journeys

Often multiple journeys are happening at the same time and are interconnected. In order to make progress, Bryan recommends focusing on one key journey, but understanding that other changes may have to happen to realize the bigger shift.

His team’s work with Ford Motor Company exemplifies the interrelated nature of change journeys. Their goal is to move from an automobile manufacturer to a mobility service provider—overall, a business transformation. They’ll still make cars, but that will be only part of the business. In order to pull that off, they have to improve their innovation capabilities. To do that, they’ll have to become more digitally enabled, shift their manufacturing processes to embrace the circular economy, and take on a lot of new behaviors and beliefs in their corporate culture.

To focus your journey, first write a change statement outlining the present state and your desired outcome. Tie this statement back to the benefit people will see from your change and know that your statement will evolve over time as you get more clarity.

Shifting the culture in a call center

In the IDEO U Designing for Change course, some form of culture change is the most common focus area for learners. To dive deeper on what culture change looks like, Bryan shared the story of a financial company that was having issues with the call center that supported their financial advisors. The financial advisors seeking accurate information had arrived at an unwritten three-call rule—call at least three times and get the same answer twice before relaying the information to a client. Clearly, something was wrong.

IDEO was brought in to get to the root cause and help change this behavior. First, the team set the stage for experimentation. They handed out lab coats to all 300 employees to signal the mindset shift and said that performance would not be measured for the four weeks of experiments. Their first prototypes failed, but uncovered an important insight—people didn't feel like they could ask for help because they were worried they’d look stupid. Finally, they landed on a prototype that got traction. They created an online channel where everyone could ask for help. Once newer employees saw experienced folks asking questions, they began asking them too. By enabling the veterans to model the behavior of vulnerability, they found a solution that successfully shifted the culture and improved accuracy.

Bryan takes a few lessons away from this experience. “There needs to be some sort of collective moment or act that signals that something’s different here,” he says, referencing the lab coat moment. And know that a movement of any kind requires both a first mover to instigate change and followers to build on it. Identifying the people that will fill those roles is critical.


“In order to have a sustainable change, it needs to tap into and connect with a collective ambition, but also respect the individuals within that collective's needs.”
Bryan Walker


Overcoming barriers to change

While change is necessary for organizations to stay competitive, it’s not an easy task. Bryan has seen every kind of challenge and resistance you can imagine and has tips for overcoming some common barriers.

When the urgent eclipses the important — Something happens that requires unexpected and immediate attention, like a dive in market performance, and any project that feels long-term goes out the window. Bryan’s advice:

  • Plan for these moments from the get-go. Put in place a set cadence for your work and plan milestones to keep you going.
  • Read the temperature. You might have to dial down change in those moments, but you don’t want to stop completely because it’ll be difficult to start again.

When change becomes associated with one individual — People begin to see the change as “your thing, not our thing.” Bryan’s advice:

  • Pass the mic. Find people who have become bright spots and elevate them as a spokesperson or figurehead.

When leaders aren’t on board — An authority figure doesn’t see the value in change and withholds resources or approval. Bryan’s advice:

  • Find out what they DO care about. Frame your change as a solution to their concerns.
  • Resize the change. Start smaller than you planned, build your case by showing success, then elevate it to a whole other level when you’ve earned more support.

You’ll likely encounter other barriers on your journey of change, and your process will evolve as you go. Imagining a journey of change and planning for it is challenging, but it’s just the first step. As you take action, remember to keep people at the center of your process.

“In order to have a sustainable change,” Bryan says, “it needs to tap into and connect with a collective ambition, but also respect the individuals within that collective's needs.”

To learn more about leading human-centered organizational change, check out our 5-week online course, Designing for Change, taught by IDEO Partner and Managing Director Bryan Walker.

Courses Starting Soon

Foundations In Design Thinking - IDEO U Certificate
Designing Strategy Course from IDEO U