When people think about organizational change, what often comes to mind is an onerous process in which change is thrust upon them. This, unsurprisingly, leads to great resistance.
Afraid of their efforts being sabotaged by those with political resistance, many change agents keep their plans quiet during the design process so they can control the message when they make the announcement. This lack of transparency leads to additional pushback from people who oppose any kind of change until they’ve had time to get used to it, a form of blind resistance. Some see flaws in the newly unveiled change proposal or perceive it as a violation of the company’s values, a form of ideological resistance. The secrecy required to protect plans from political resistance exacerbates blind and ideological resistance. But what if there were another way?
Incorporate feedback earlier in the design process to produce a stronger change plan.
You can reduce resistance by using design thinking techniques in planning and implementing your organizational change. This means both enlisting leaders from across your organization in the process of designing the organizational change and establishing them as change agents and allies when it’s time to implement. By prototyping and testing your ideas, you can increase transparency, which will reduce blind resistance while building trust. It will also reduce ideological resistance while improving your proposal. By adopting a beginner’s mindset, you can create space for innovating on how organizational change is enacted, providing an opportunity to create a joyful experience instead of one shrouded in dread. So, let’s dig deeper into each of these techniques.
Bring more people on board
Adopt participatory design methods to bring many people from all levels of your organization into the change process. Involving a broad group of employees — both as co-designers on your design team and as users being interviewed about their experience — enlists them as change agents and allies early on. As the maxim goes, “involvement leads to commitment,” and design thinking provides many useful opportunities for involvement.
By inviting diverse perspectives, you can also learn what concerns they have: the ideological resistance. This enables you to incorporate feedback earlier in the design process to produce a stronger change plan. It also provides a preview of what ideological and political resistance you might face, and, for those with blind and ideological resistance, lessens that resistance because you’re consulting with them earlier than most change management models would advise.
Prototype your plan
Another way you can reduce resistance in your organizational change initiative is through prototyping. Using low-fidelity prototyping and testing techniques will set you up to implement a better plan, as you’ll get more feedback earlier in your process, when it’s easier to make directional changes.
For example, you could pilot new messaging with one person, and then refine your messaging before rolling it out to the team, and then refine it again before rolling it out to the business unit. You can do the same thing with prototyping new rituals such as meeting protocol. Prototyping with users will also increase transparency, leading to less initial and continued resistance.
Think like a beginner
A third way you can use design thinking to reduce resistance to your organizational change plan is to adopt a beginner’s mindset in how you execute. Thinking like a beginner enables you to question assumptions and not be swayed into doing things just because that’s the way they’ve always been done. Thinking like a beginner creates space for innovating on how organizational change is done, so that it can feel more like playful unlearning rather than a process people dread.
Using design thinking will boost your credibility and that of your change agents and allies.
For instance, early in your design process, when you’re learning about your users, you can use co-creation research methods to have your employees design the change with you. Your employees are experts on their experience. A change plan that incorporates their ideas will fit their context and emotional needs better.
Calibrating change with design thinking
The benefits of using this approach are numerous. In addition to reducing resistance, design thinking will help you better dose the change, ensuring you don’t move too slow or too fast. Your broad set of change agents and allies will help you keep a pulse on the organization so you can be nimbler and make micro-adjustments to your plan.
Most importantly, using design thinking will boost your credibility and that of your change agents and allies. People across the organization will have vetted and shaped your plan, so the your ideas will resonate with the broader organization. People will be more likely to trust the process even if they’re not in the steering committee, because they know it’s been inclusive.
Many organizations know they need to change but hesitate or delay because they expect resistance. A design thinking approach is the way to reduce that resistance and lead an organizational change initiative that is successful both in its outcome and enjoyable in its process.
This is the third installment in our series on organizational change by Holly Thorsen. Read the first piece, “How to tell when it’s time to change your organizational structure,” and the second, “Use storytelling to accelerate your organizational change.” Learn more about adopting design thinking techniques as an organization on our corporate training page.
Holly Thorsen is a Director at Cooper Professional Education and a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach.