7 Roles to Drive Change by Design
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7 Roles to Drive Change by Design

Organisational design

7 Roles to Drive Change by Design is a newly published book written by Joyce Yee, Emma Jefferies and Kamil Michlewski. The book outlines the roles that people can take in designing change within organisations. Supported by 13 strong case studies including Steelcase, Spotify, Deloitte Australia, SAP, Telstra, US Department of Veterans Affairs and Accenture & Fjord, the book is a practical tool that helps readers in implementing change within their business. In this blog, the writers reflect on what they learned from talking to experts and innovation leaders and highlight some of their key findings.

Change is hard. It is ironic that even as the most adaptable animal on the planet, we have a strong preference for stability and preserving the status quo. This condition is even more acute when considered at a group level. As Chris Argyris famously observed, we are only prepared to change when our fear of the consequence of failure exceeds that of the fear of change.

This fear of change, and how we overcome it using design thinking, is the focus of our book Transformations: 7 Roles to Drive Change by Design. We interviewed a number of people (such as Fjord’s CEO Olof Schybergson, Steelcase’s Vice President of Workspace Futures Donna Flynn and the head of Danish Design Centre, Christian Bason) who are leading change by design in organisations to understand how design is being used in this context. We break down what we have learnt by presenting 7 seven crucial roles that design, designers and non-designers play in the process. They are Cultural Catalyst, Framework Maker, Humaniser, Power Broker, Friendly Challenger, Technology Enabler and Community Builder. You can find out more about these 7 roles in our book, and also through our website.

So why change and why design?

Many organisational change efforts are driven by the need to cut costs, reduce complexities or optimise operations. Consultancies are wheeled in and the transformation is clearly labelled and conceived as an explicit and often wide-ranging programme. These types of changes are often more focused on processes and systems than people. However, it is clear that this approach does not work without helping people in the organisation manage change by placing them at the heart of the transformation. But how?

In many of the cases in our book, design was never explicitly used as a change agent at the start. The common narrative is this:

‘We’re not happy with how we’ve been delivering products or services. We want to create things that people want to use but also meet our business needs. So, we need to understand our users better. In order to understand our users better, we need to involve design. Once we have designed the new services we wonder how we are going to deliver them based on the existing organisational setup. We then realise that the current system is inadequate on a number of levels. We then see that the best course of action is to step back and change the fabric of our organisation. We realised that we can’t just change our structure and processes without helping our people manage change by placing them at the heart of the transformation.’

We, the authors, acknowledge that design is not the only change agent utilised for organisational transformations, but it is one of the most effective ones if we are aiming for a more human, engaging and resilient process.

So what did we learn from talking to 36 experts from 21 different organisations from around the world? Here are some of our key findings:

1. Design-driven change is versatile

We learnt that change is an on-going process and we are only beginning to capture and make sense of the role design thinking is playing in organisational change. Some organisations are starting the journey, some organisations have been using design in various capacities but in a less structured way, and some organisations are looking for ways to sustain an established design-led change culture.

2. It is inherently a team effort

We learnt that changes that have been enacted are not down to one person or a team, but involved different teams, functions and levels within an organisation. While our stories are sometimes told from a specific person’s or team’s perspectives, change using design cannot be implemented without a collaborative effort and support from the different areas of the organisation.

3. Adaptation, flexibility and ‘change empathy’ are key

We learnt that using design for change needs to be supported by people at various levels who understand how design fits into the organisation. How design-driven intervention is perceived is as significant as what it actually delivers in terms of new processes, new tools and new products and services. For corporate leaders unfamiliar with design, it might be treated with suspicion and often seen as ‘fluffy’.

Therefore, it is crucial that the story, narrative, language and symbols associated with transformation by design are carefully orchestrated to suit a company’s particular circumstances. For example, using terminology commonly used by the organisation to describe design and adapting the design process to suit how the organisation already works are two such strategies.

4. Design helps reconcile the contradictory tensions of organisational transformation

We learnt that design offers a unique framework for navigating the existing structures of an organisation. There is an inherent contradiction within frameworks created for organisational transformation – they are required to be purposeful, and yet have the flexibility to evolve. Design thinking can be both robust and at the same time offer the fluidity of free flowing process to create something new and useful.

5. Purpose, meaning, connection

We learnt that the humanising aspect of design goes far beyond simply helping an organisation learn about their users. The design element brings with it a renewed sense of purpose and sense of direction not centred on any particular system, but zeroed in on the efficacy and connection that the system makes with individuals on the ground, be that employees or users.

6. Focusing on the users diffuses tribal tensions

We learnt that design is very effective in bringing people together to support the process of change by neutralising the often-divisive tribal nature of large organisations through its focus on the users.

7. Design works in sync with the ambiguity of real change

We learnt that change is not linear and often does not offer results immediately. Change is extremely challenging and requires a dedicated effort throughout the organisation. However, if the aim is to create a human-centric organisation, design is best placed to achieve this goal. We hope that our examples and the 7-roles framework will better support people for the ambitious and worthwhile mission of transforming their organisation using design.