Leading Change: How to Bring People into the Process

Four people collaborating with Post-its.


How do you lead change by bringing people into the process?

In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, Deirdre Cerminaro and Bryan Walker, instructors of IDEO U’s Change Leadership Certificate, share how to use stakeholder mapping to make people the catalysts for your change, how to turn change skeptics into champions, and how to surface insights about your stakeholders.

Deirdre Cerminaro is the instructor of Human-Centered Systems Thinking and an Executive Design Director at IDEO. Passionate about the power of systems design to create a more equitable future, much of her work at IDEO has focused on designing education systems.

Bryan Walker is the instructor of Designing for Change and is a Managing Director at IDEO, helping leaders transform their organizations’ cultures and businesses in pursuit of innovation, adaptability, and impact. Bryan is curious about the future of work and how design can affect and support change within complex human systems.

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What is Change Leadership?

A Tool for Systems Change: Stakeholder Mapping

Examples of Stakeholder Maps

Why Change Starts with People

How to Engage People with Change: Creating a Beacon

What to Do When People are Resistant to Change


What is Change Leadership?

According to Deirdre, there are two core tenets of human-centered systems thinking that really help with leading change. The first is to step back, look at the whole picture, and understand:

  • What's the context of the moment?
  • How are people feeling?
  • What's the context of the organization? 

The second is to zoom in and understand the needs of people at that moment.

  • What mindsets are they coming in with?
  • What change did they just experience?

Bryan says that an organization is a system, and one of the primary vehicles in which we shape the world around us. Because of that, it’s important to understand how they work, and how you can change them. While it's easy to overly complicate organizational change, where you focus on structures, processes, policies, norms, and cultures, Bryan emphasizes that at the end of the day, organizations are human.

Organizations are just a group of people working together to try to create something that they could not produce alone. When you focus on the people, you're reminded where change starts and what drives it. At the end of the day, change is always about people who have a vision for a better future.


“Change is about people who have a vision for a better future.”
Bryan Walker, Designing for Change Instructor and Managing Director at IDEO



A Tool for Systems Change: Stakeholder Mapping

Systems maps are tools that can give you a tangible starting point when approaching change. One type of a systems map is a stakeholder map, also called a network map, which enables you to see the people in a system and the connections between them. It's helpful for understanding the broad landscape, but also for identifying who has decision-making power in the system, who's really impacted, who's not connected to one another, where there are potentially misaligned incentives, and so on.

Systems maps are useful for a couple of reasons. First, they make it possible to make our internal mental models visible. We're all walking around with different mental models of how organizations and processes work. Sometimes, we're using the same words but talking about different things. Creating a stakeholder map takes it out of your head and allows you to talk about it tangibly with other people. The other reason stakeholder maps are useful is that people are at the heart of every system, but oftentimes their needs are misunderstood or overlooked.

Stakeholder maps are a tool that you can revisit at any point. Whenever you get new information, you can ask, “How would that fit into this system's map?” It's something that you can use as you're going along a change process to either remap what you've learned or to bring other people and new perspectives in.


Examples of Stakeholder Maps

One example of a stakeholder map is mapping a hospital system. You might map out patients, nurses, and doctors, but also insurance companies, policymakers, chaplains, and family members. There are so many different stakeholders in such a complex system, and you can map the connections, including the flow of money, emotional connections, medical knowledge, decision making, and data. All of this will give you a sense of the whole picture, where there's an interesting opportunity, and where you might actually zoom in and design something.

Here are a couple examples of how IDEO has used stakeholder maps to create impactful change.


Redesigning hospital spaces

IDEO worked with St. Jude's Hospital to understand the needs of families seeking treatment for childhood cancer. Families of patients end up living in housing on campus for long stretches of time, making them important stakeholders in that system. The hospital system also included playgrounds, schools, and jobs, and a systems map shows that only some of the needs of families are being met in the traditional hospital spaces of exam rooms and lobbies.

As a result, St. Jude’s created entirely new spaces for families to play together, take a nap between appointments, have classes for siblings, and give parents spaces to take work calls. A stakeholder map can help you see the whole picture, figure out what’s going on, and design something really tangible.


Improving the nurse experience

Bryan gives another example of a project that IDEO did with Kaiser Permanente. In big hospitals, there are lots of patients, physicians, and nurses. The head of the hospital realized that they had a problem with their shift changes, when physicians and nurses turned over and a new group came in. They believed that there were opportunities for better patient care and efficiencies in terms of hospital management.

They mapped out all the people involved, from those who needed to enact the change to those who were going to be impacted by it. Then, they brought all of them into the creative process from the very beginning, in order to figure out a robust solution that would work for everybody's needs. While leadership was worried that nurses would be resistant to change, they realized how critical the nurses were, not just in the creation of the idea, but the scaling of it across their healthcare network and into other hospitals.


“At the end of the day, organizations are human.

Bryan Walker, Designing for Change Instructor and Managing Director at IDEO



Why Change Starts with People

People support what they create. The more that you can bring people into the process of creating change, the more likely that change is going to be successfully adopted. You also end up with better ideas, because people can bring in different perspectives. Many design practices are about designing with people and bringing people into the process early.

Deirdre gives the example of work she did with partners who wanted to spur innovation and culture change in high schools in the US. They were trying to understand the potential leverage points in a school system where they could add the most value. They created a big stakeholder map of school systems, including teachers, students, parents, families, coaches, school principals, school leaders, district offices, policymakers, textbook makers, and so on.

One thing that popped out from making the map was that school principals play a hugely influential role in schools. They have access to unique leverage points in the school system—they're the only people in the building that can control the budget, the schedule, teacher training, and events. But they also have very little in the way of support or resources for themselves or as a peer network with each other.

Deirdre saw an opportunity to create a leadership development program to enable school principals to design school culture, giving them the tools of systems thinking to better understand their own schools. They created a co-design schools toolkit, which shared their learnings of the whole system and how to create specific interventions.

If you want to learn more about human-centered approaches to change, check out our Change Leadership Certificate.


How to Engage People with Change: Creating a Beacon

According to Bryan, a beacon is a tangible manifestation of the change you want to see, which begins to show the way forward. Oftentimes, you have a grand vision of the change you want, but how can you do something right now that demonstrates progress towards the vision and the value of beginning to move in that direction? That’s what a beacon is for. It produces demonstrable value, and helps more and more people begin to understand your vision and build the belief that it’s possible.

Bryan gives the example of a large pharmaceutical company in Peru. The vision that they had was digital transformation, adopting new technologies and unlocking the power of the internet to increase customer and employee expectations. While it sounded awesome, it was very abstract. One idea they had was: What if a customer didn't have to go into a drugstore to refill their prescription, but instead could do it by phone and have it delivered to their house? The company would have to develop all sorts of new technology and entirely new roles to fully implement this.

But they wanted to first create a beacon. They picked one store, got a moped, used text messaging, and actually began to deliver prescriptions to people within a 10 block radius. It took this abstract concept of digital transformation and showed how they could deliver greater customer experiences by leveraging technology in new ways. They learned about some customers who, because of physical limitations, couldn't even get to the stores before. With these tangible stories, people could really begin to rally around the idea of digital transformation and then start to come up with other examples or other beacons that began to create a fuller version of the larger vision.


“The more that you can bring people actually into the process of creating change, the more likely that change is to be successfully adopted.”
Deirdre Cerminaro, Human-Centered Systems Thinking Instructor and an Executive Design Director at IDEO



What to Do When People are Resistant to Change

Bryan says that from his experience, listening and making people feel heard often goes a long way when you have somebody who's resistant to change. A lot of the time, it's not that people refuse to change. It’s that they don't want to be changed—they want to be part of the change. And sometimes, the people who you think are going to provide the greatest resistance can actually become the greatest allies and advocates.

Bryan tells the story of a global NGO he worked with. The team was tasked with bringing human-centered design into this organization, in order for them to better design for local communities and have real positive impact. However, there was an individual within leadership that was known for his skepticism. As they were starting to build up the program, grow awareness, and gain momentum, the word went around that this person was very skeptical and didn't believe that the program would work.

Bryan and his team decided to meet with this person and hear what he was skeptical of, and was surprised to learn that he wasn’t skeptical of what they were trying to, he was actually skeptical that they weren't going big enough and that it was too small to succeed. At the scale and size of the organization, and the urgency of the issue, he wanted them to really look at their approach to change and see if they could accelerate and increase it. By listening to him and understanding his perspective, the team was able to create an even better solution.



About the Speakers

Deirdre Cerminaro
Executive Portfolio Director, IDEO

Deirdre is an Executive Design Director and co-lead of the Systems & Strategy practice at IDEO. As a former architectural designer with a background in business and psychology, she has a knack for breaking down complex systems and finding simple levers to drive lasting change. Passionate about the power of systems design to create a more equitable future, much of her work at IDEO has focused on designing education systems—from reimagining student services at a community college in Ohio to creating programs to deliver quality, affordable education at scale in Peru.

Deirdre holds a B.A. in Cognitive Science from Yale University and an MBA from the Yale School of Management. In her spare time, she can usually be found outside with her dog or off on an adventure. She's ridden her bicycle across the U.S. twice and hiked the 211-mile John Muir Trail.


Bryan Walker
Managing Director, IDEO

Bryan leads the Design for Change studio, helping leaders transform their organizations’ cultures and businesses in pursuit of innovation, adaptability, and impact. Bryan is curious about the future of work and how design can affect and support change within complex human systems. Together with his clients, he’s exploring what corporate leaders can learn from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists; how technology, a new generation of employees, and a shifting marketplace is redefining the workplace experience; and how leaders can drive change by movement as opposed to mandates.

Bryan earned a master’s degree in social anthropology from Oxford University and a bachelor’s degree in design and environmental analysis from Cornell. Outside the office, he can be found chasing the perfect wave.

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