“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
–Heraclitus, As quoted by Plato in Cratylus
How do you build the capacity for continuous innovation within a company? Bryan Walker developed a curiosity for this challenge, designing for change, as he was determining how to help organizations get new ideas out in the world. As a partner at IDEO, Bryan leads the IDEO Design for Change studio and is an instructor in the upcoming IDEO U course, Designing for Change.
As Heraclitus alluded to centuries ago, change is the only constant. This is as true now as it was in 500 BCE. In fact, change is more than constant, it is ubiquitous and palpable. Companies used to compete by optimizing operations and getting more efficient. But now advantages gained from efficiency are becoming the norm in every industry, and to compete it's necessary to innovate and evolve. So how can you go about helping your organization change and adapt?
“Change is hard, but it can also be beautiful.”
Traditional Ways Change Occurs
Before we jump in with ideas, let’s understand how change efforts typically occur within organizations. There’s often a knee-jerk reaction by leaders to make change happen quickly. They’ll try to restructure and change processes or incentives, which can be effective but can also be risky. These tactics often make employees feel change is being forced upon them rather than them participating and being a part of the change.
Bryan argues in his course Designing for Change for a different type of change, one that’s based on influence and is more grassroots and sustainable—a human-centered approach to creating change through influence and design. This approach starts with mobilizing people around purpose, then creating momentum through action (tangible quick wins to get people to believe that the change is possible), and then scaling and sustaining that change. Not all of us are in the position to re-architecture our companies and that’s a good thing because no matter where we sit in the organization we can effect change. Here’s a roadmap for one way to go about it.
Mobilize People Around a Common Purpose
When looking to get started effecting change, a good starting point is asking the question, why do we exist beyond making a profit? A purpose needs to be in service of others. It can serve as a guiding light for you and your colleagues and often you don’t need to look far to find it. Employees who work in companies with a purpose that is inspiring, useful, and clear are 11% more likely to feel challenged at work as opposed to overwhelmed or bored.
One example comes from a large global pharmaceutical company, Dr. Reddy’s, who during their journey to better align their company created a new purpose statement, “good health can’t wait.” Articulating this purpose empowered Dr. Reddy's employees to take risks and try new things.
Build Momentum by Taking Action
Often people are unaware that a change is possible, or they're too deep into the problem and can't see potential alternatives. In these cases, an experimental project or behavior change can show people that something different is possible. Quick wins are essential to incite people to join and become part of the change. In Designing for Change, we call these beacon projects. They're designed intentionally to show the team a new path is possible.
One story of leading change through influence comes from an IDEO client working across a siloed company. She used one small change, a weekly team update, to get more inter-business unit collaboration. She invited colleagues from other businesses to join her team's regular weekly meeting. Those who showed up realized how similar the challenges were across the businesses. This led to an increase in project collaboration and learning from each other’s work.
Scale and sustain the change
If you’re an agent of change, you will be going against the grain and you will encounter natural friction. There will be setbacks. Things will take longer than you like. When encountering frictions, see it as a gift. Consider it to be illuminating what about the larger system will need to be changed. Create a journal and build a list of all the pain points and friction—these will be insights moving forward.
You’ve been swimming upstream, and here comes the hard part. To sustain and scale change, you have to change the flow of the river so the river makes it easier to behave in the right way. You need to determine, what do we need to design to support or discourage certain ways of behaving?
From here your purpose and your beacons will inform your strategy, decision-making structure, processes, incentives, talent, and infrastructure.
When working toward change, it’s natural to have challenges along the way. This is where you’ll apply design thinking—you can use this iterative model and prototyping mindset to show people this change might be possible. You'll need the design thinking tools of building empathy, generating insights, and prototyping to experiment with the types of change you want to see. Remember if you’re trying to drive change, you have to be in service of others. It’s easy for your own beliefs and agenda to get mixed in. People support what they create. You want to bring people into the process of creation so that you’re not trying to sell someone on your idea, but working together on “our” idea. There's art and science to co-creation. In the end, you're trying to build a movement, not a mandate, for change in your organization.
Like this post? Dive in deeper and learn more from instructor Brian Walker in the Designing for Change course.