Jane wants change. Jane wants more specific project goals, influenced by more research. She wants to design beyond where she typically feels caged. Rarely does she feel like she’s sending goal-meeting, user-loving, outcomes-achieving stuff out into a very deserving universe.

Jane gathers an audience to pitch some ideas on changing things organizationally to help fix this. She walks into a cold room, blurts out facts around how logical her ideas are, peppering in some emotional anecdotes. She speaks out into the darkness of a silent room. 10 slides later, one stakeholder makes a binary statement about considering her ideas and balancing them with other priorities. Jane thanks her “1 shot” group and takes the slog of sadness back to her cube, lamenting that her organization will never change. Within two weeks, Jane has picked up her backlog of tactical design (“red widgets, please”) and her presentation joins the graveyard of good ideas.

So what happened? Jane is good designer for her company. Her ideas around change are good ones. Was it her company being resistant to change? Did they think her ideas were infeasible or wrong?

Perhaps the issue is something completely different. Perhaps it’s not about the quality of her ideas or something specific with her company. It could be, but the more likely reality is that she isn’t using her great design skills internally to affect organizational change.

Good change agents are nothing more than good designers

Good change agents are nothing more than good designers. You already have good design skills. And if you are like Jane and trying to change things where you work, try applying those skills internally. Observe and you’ll make stuff happen. And by gaining a better understanding of the organization through this process, you’ll find yourself with more opportunities to affect bigger changes.

Here are three familiar steps to try internally, along with some exercises to get you going:

1. Mental Model your Stakeholders, Internal Clients, and Peers

Getting heard and being a successful influencer of organizational change is about knowing the business, understanding organizational goals and priorities, and working in context. What is good design? Knowing your user, understanding their goals, and developing something that fits their context.

  • Interview Your Peers, Bosses, and Other Stakeholders: There are many ways to accomplish this: through regular social interactions (when was the last time you left your desk?) or by hopping on projects with them. Being an upbeat and accessible resource, listening over time, and asking about what you hear from them can go a long way.
  • Model Your Data: We are modeling rockstars, right? Service blueprints, mental models, affinity diagrams, journey maps, personas—we own this! Just change the scenario to model information surrounding organizational goals, stakeholders, initiatives, organizational roles, and what you hear as the needs of your co-workers.
  • Set Reasonable Goals: Start small. Don’t try (or expect) to accomplish massive change all at once. Often we swoop in, do a bunch of research, design, and product and then get assigned off to the next thing, right? Treating internal change like a project and applying your UXey skills to it isn’t like this. It’s a slow, strategic, long-term, progressive enhancement type of project (so long as you’re still doing your day job). You can research, experiment, pivot, redesign, and pilot so long as you make small wins and show value.

2. Understand Context—I Mean Really

Think back to the last time you worked with new technology. Yesterday? This morning? How did you read into the work? First you got your hands on it, then you found guidelines around it, and then you started working design models into it, right? Same playbook for internal change:

  • Observe Organization Culture, Processes, and Norms: Our business school friends often quote Peter Drucker on this subject: “Culture eats strategy.” Failing to observe your organization’s culture will make your efforts feel strange and alien to folks in your organization. How does your organization make decisions? What do successful projects look like? What processes are expected? How do people relate to each other? It’s pretty easy to see opportunities for redesign in your organization’s culture—resist the overwhelming urge to judge at this step. That’s a whole other project. Just treat it like you would with your users: it’s data, data to design with.
  • Study up on Organizational Behavior: How many of us love patterns? Pattern libraries, guidelines, the whole nine. How all of your peers and stakeholders work together within your organization is (mostly) just more patterns. What’s the structure of your organization (hierarchy, matrix, flat)? What outlets do folks have to get information up, across, and down within the organization? What happens when folks don’t feel included? How do social/interpersonal connections mesh with project work? How do people react when they hear ideas that aren’t prioritized or that they don’t feel empowered to work on?
  • Model How this Affects Decisions: Your ideas can all be designed to work within organizational patterns and culture. It’s the difference between an idea feeling too big or completely foreign to feeling manageable, key to what’s going on right now, and, ultimately, “ours.” Be sure and model examples of how tough (big, costly, radical) ideas have made it through and easy ones (small, show quick value) – and start with the easy ones to build trust and success.

3. Design your Solution Iteratively

Observe, design, observe. Observe, design, observe. Just like your day job, right?

  • Don’t Forget your Design Principles: Refresh your memory of design principles from your external projects and consider what they’d look like applied to your project of organizational change. Try to define design principles based on the goals you’ve set from your research. They’ll be different for everyone, but a few common design principles seem to apply well internally: progressive disclosure, proximity, and feedback. Note your design principles and stick to them as you try out things in your organization.
  • Test your Working Prototype, Refine: Once you set your goals and begin design, remember: iteration applies here too. Organizational change is really hard stuff. You will fail. You will still hear “no.” You’ll still have folks look at you in strange ways. Go lean. Set some hypotheses and success criteria, run experiments, and pivot.
  • Develop AND SOCIALIZE a Roadmap: Most of all, as you work your way in, make sure others are championing and moving things along (it’ll happen). Be influential, spread ideas, and inspire folks so that others (not just you) lead the resulting efforts. Develop your roadmap, but let it flex if new opportunities meet similar goals. Use your roadmap to measure your success, but just like working with stakeholders on a design project, it’s all about achieving good design to meet their goals.

Good change agents are good designers. Identify one change you want to make (“get better stakeholder review sessions”), break down your problem space, and start your design process. See what happens when you change your approach. Observe what goes well (and take notes on why you think it did). Observe what doesn’t go well (and take notes on that too).

Now, let’s give Jane another go at it. Jane knows how her organization sets project goals. She knows who sets them. She knows what pressures, pains, and goals they have. She does things progressively. Will Jane’s outcome been different this time?

Image of curious goat courtesy Shutterstock.

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Comments

Becky, thank you for the timely article. I'm in the early stages of creating a UX strategy for the team and, long term, the organization. Heady goals. This helped lay out the challenge ahead in a simple, concise way. Thanks again!

Thanks, Steve. Well, actually...go Steve, go! Good luck! :)

Becky, thank you for this practical guide. Part 2 — Understand Context — is most powerful to me. More than once, I have failed trying to bring any change into my team's process or approach. You just told me why I failed! I've never considered the context of my organization's culture and dynamic. In fact, I never wanted to accept that culture — not to mention, work within its limitations. This article is invaluable.Also, with goat on my mind, I was replacing the word "goal" with "goat" while reading this article. Highly recommend.

Olga - thanks for the kind words! I'm glad sharing experiences was helpful. Accepting, changing, avoiding, and understanding culture are such fascinating topics. I would love to hear how your experiments go!!