Rethinking change

How to create successful organizational change with a human-centred design approach.

There's a common belief that people resist change. This has led many organizations to design and execute change without deeply considering the employee experience. After all, if it’s inescapable that change is going to be a net-negative experience for people, what is left to do aside from bracing one’s self and forcing change through?

Change and growth are core to what it means to be human and are at the root of how we derive engagement and fulfillment. That is not to say that change doesn’t test people and require them to challenge themselves; however, starting with the premise that change is going to be tough for people all but guarantees it will be.

Putting the employee experience at the centre of change upends the change model. When done well, it creates an environment where your people push the change forward rather than leadership pulling everyone through something undesirable. Most importantly, it works at the deeper, cultural levels of your organization, ensuring that the change is more than cosmetic.

There are six ways that you can take a human-centred approach to change:

1. Instead of only focusing on how things will be different… connect people to the why of the change

A sense of purpose motivates people and supports an environment where greater autonomy can be granted to them. It forms the foundation for your people to bring their best selves to the work involved in change. In other words, the more people understand why a change is happening and can relate that back to their core sense of purpose at work, the less you’ll need tactical guidance, baby-sitting and even training.

2. Instead of analyzing stakeholders… uncover beliefs and behaviours

Organizations tend to know a lot about processes and outcomes, but they rarely understand the underlying beliefs that drive the behaviours that resist productive change. These beliefs form the deep grooves your organization runs on – they’re your operating system, if you will – but they’re all but invisible to those who work in your organization on a day-to-day basis. The human brain creates vital efficiencies by embedding these pillars of your culture below the conscious mind. Thus, understanding the beliefs that matter for any given change goes beyond traditional business analysis and requires empathetic research expertise by those who live outside of your organizational culture.

3. Instead of defining a solution… co-create the future

Co-creation is the process of including your employees and customers in elements of the ideation and design of a solution.

Many people working together to solve a problem are much smarter than one. Co-creation isn’t a democracy. It’s not about everyone agreeing; it’s about leveraging the collective intelligence and insight of your entire organization to create the best solution.

Co-creation also engages stakeholders in building the future they will help create. This is a critical departure from traditional approaches to change that engage stakeholders only after the new solution is designed and built. Human-centred change engages the subjects of the change (i.e. the people who will experience change) in the process right out of the gate, creating a powerful opportunity to ensure that the future works for the people who have to inhabit it.

4. Instead of plan, then deliver… test and iterate

Our complex environments demand agility. The right path forward can rarely be completely planned at the outset as complex change almost always encounters unknown unknowns that require adaptation on the fly. Organizations must move away from fully baked change plans and instead adopt a sense-and-adapt approach that includes room to explore. This means getting comfortable with experimentation, iteration and, most importantly, failure, which is the lifeblood of learning.

This can be particularly challenging for leaders who have developed their moral authority through the narrative that they “know the way.” The modern leader counts humility, curiosity and adaptability as essential attributes.

5. Instead of managing people through change… empower them to realize the change

Do people really want to be managed? In the past, a limited number of people in an organization had the understanding required to guide an organization. Hierarchies were constructed to pass that understanding into the organization through the management of people. This system of control made sense when only a few people had the knowledge and experience to make the best decisions and disseminating information was difficult.

Today, information flows fluidly in all directions. Organizations are working hard to overcome their top-down heritage and empower people with the best insight and decision-making ability to work more autonomously. Unfortunately, traditional change models still work on a centralized “decide and disseminate” model.

When people feel a sense of ownership over the transformation, the need for traditional change disappears. If your employees are engaged in the process, they won’t need to be trained or convinced to participate in their future – because they built it. They own it and are motivated to make it a reality.

6. Instead of driving to an ideal future state… make continuous change the normal state

The modern, agile organization understands that a key to its success is continual evolution. In organizations that believe this, we observe that employees see change as part of what fuels great career experiences for them. This is in stark contrast with the traditional organization that sees change as an unhappy task that must be forced on people from time to time. Stated more simply: organizations either see change as uncomfortable or they see not changing as uncomfortable.

Using human-centred design as a framework for change through exposing the beliefs that matter will enable you to build organizational empathy. As the empathy muscle grows, so does the ability of the organization to live in a highly productive state of continual evolution. This enables the idea of change to move from a discrete activity marshalled by change managers to an organization-wide, always-on capability. Your change managers can move from managing and coaching to helping build the empathy muscle across your organization.

The future of change

Change isn’t easy, and human-centred design won’t fix that – but it doesn’t need to. We will always be stepping into difficult things, but using a human-centred change approach and leading with empathy provides us our best chance for success.

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