How to Prototype Organizational Change

In our latest Creative Confidence Series Chat, Suzanne Gibbs Howard, Dean of IDEO U, chatted with Mathew Chow, Director of Organizational Design at IDEO San Francisco, about prototyping organizational change.

Mathew Chow is one of IDEO’s first formal organizational designers, helping clients create and define the values, incentives, rituals, teams, and spaces that help shape their culture and behavior. It’s a process that he says starts with understanding the human needs at an organization, and learning how they play into its ultimate goals.

How to get started

Mat and the IDEO team take a purpose-led, design-driven approach to organizational change. This approach revolves around three guiding philosophies:

  1. Mobilize: Get people inspired and on board with the notion of change.
  2. Pioneer: Create manifestations of the change that show what it could look like inside a company or organization.
  3. Scale: Grow capabilities, tools, and systems to transform a company and a culture.

When you’re first starting out on an org design project, it’s easy to think about how changing one piece of an existing structure might affect the whole, but as Mat explains, that approach is just guesswork. Instead of making predictions and adjusting what already exists, he thinks about org design like jumping into a game of pinball. Like any established organization, a game of pinball comes with complexity, bumpers, and nooks and crannies that can help you gain points, or pose a challenge. No matter what, though, “you don’t sit and stare at the pinball game to see where to place the pinball.” Instead, you learn by playing the game.

How to Prototype Org Change

But how, exactly, do you jump in? Cheaply and quickly, Mat says. In the design world, you’ll see the term MVP thrown around a lot. It means minimum viable product, and it’s basically the least designed version of a new product that still works. When Mat goes into org design projects, he’s looking for the MVO—minimum viable organization. How can you make change with as few people and as little money as possible? At a big organization, like an airport, that might mean 12 people across 12 different agencies; at a smaller company, it might mean a team of two. But the question he’s trying to answer is: How can we make meaningful change with few people and a small budget, then scale that across the organization?


“Just like you can create MVPs to redesign products, you can create MVOs to redesign organizations.”
Mat Chow


Prototype through Role Play

 To get to that answer, it’s best to start small, with a one-hour role-play exercise. In a recent project with a non-profit that was considering moving into the for-profit space, Mat’s team decided to test out what the most extreme version of that transition might look like: what if the non-profit became a VC firm? The team enlisted five key people who represented a cross-section of the organization and asked them what they would need to make it happen. The important questions—as they are for any project—were:

  1. Where do we have the capabilities?
  2. Where do we almost have them?
  3. Where do we lack the capabilities? 

The team created a fake pitch book for a fake company and had a couple of key people from the organization consider what they would do to evaluate an investment. By considering the most extreme version of the shift, the team was able to see where the hardest part of the transition might be, and test their hunches about what might be most important.


“As you scale, telling the story of the evidence through your previous prototypes is very important. That’s how you engage stakeholder feedback and have fewer people who will push back.”
Mat Chow


Create Minimum Viable Organizations

In Mat’s view, any new project or product is an opportunity to design a minimum viable organization alongside it that can scale and grow and learn at the same time. When it comes to defining an MVO, it’s best to start by dropping what Mat calls “free or cheap pinballs.” In a smaller organization, it could just be an hour of time and a couple of brains focusing on what kind of team it would take to support a different kind of product. After all, “the same mindsets of prototyping a product or service definitely apply in terms of identifying what your key assumptions are.”

In a project with an international airport, Mat and his team took a look at changing the baggage service delivery experience. They decided to add a feature that would show travelers when their baggage was expected to arrive. Because it was an international airport with a lot of logistical and security concerns, it was an extraordinarily complex project across many siloed teams. In the beginning, the team started by bringing in no fewer than 80 or 90 people, from baggage crews, airlines, and customs and immigration. From there, they asked, “If we’re going to organize around the work, instead of working around the org, who do we need to be involved in this prototype? That really resonated as a guiding principle as they scaled as well,” Mat says.

Their initial prototype started with one airline employee with a stopwatch who could time how long it would take for bags to arrive, and a small, cross-sectional team. “We were very intentional about representation from different groups,” Mat says. The small team was able to test the prototype, build evidence that it would have an impact, and create fodder for leadership buy-in.

By designing with an MVO mindset, you can:

  • Get started sooner, fail quickly, succeed faster.
  • Work radically interdisciplinarily across silos.
  • Help ground change in the tasks you're trying to accomplish.


“How can we make meaningful change with few people and a small budget, then scale that across the organization?”
Mat Chow


Moving Beyond Prototypes

In a project with a law firm, working to design its employee feedback process, Mat and his team came up with what they thought were really good solutions, but they weren’t quite sure about how to scale. So they called a cross-sectional group into a room to figure out which influences they could tap into to encourage uptake, and tried out an exercise. If they wanted everyone at the firm to start wearing a blue hat to work, how would they encourage that behavior? It was a great way to answer the question about how influence actually happens. You have to ask, “What are they levers you’re playing with to cement a new shift,” Mat says. “As you get to a bigger and bigger scale, those levers become different.”

One of the best ways to keep change moving is with quick wins and bold moves. (What can you push forward with $50 and three people?) You want to make sure you have evidence of what your org changes can provide for people, and how you can tell that story. “Make sure it’s a visible thing, and you capture it in the right aways, and bring the right people in,” Mat says. “Make it quick and cheap, and also a win.”

If you’re curious to learn IDEO’s tools and mindsets for organizational design, join our Designing for Change online course.

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