Not long ago, a coworker and I found ourselves contemplating the eclectic Berlin skyline. We were on the rooftop of our client’s office—a leading European brand in online retail—and thinking back on what we’d learned from embedding with them for a year.
There was a lot to celebrate. We’d launched an innovation lab and piloted new products as part of a larger, multi-year collaboration to expand the organization’s human-centered design capabilities and enable culture change.
And our collaboration had revealed something crucial: In order for the product to be successful we also needed to support the underlying organization, which meant looking more holistically at strategy, process, tools, and incentives.
That became an opportunity for me, an interaction and product designer by training, to apply my trade through an organizational lens. It turned out that the prototyping methods that I had learned could also be applied to people and processes. By experimenting, responding to feedback, and iterating, we could help nudge behavior change within the organization.
Here are the five big lessons I took away:
We were working with product managers, engineers, and designers, so instead of explaining what we planned to change with academic research and abstract frameworks, we used language they already understood. We were going to run scrappy experiments, learn quickly, and iterate. If the ideas didn’t work, we’d pivot and try something new. But instead of prototyping products, we were experimenting with people and processes.
Big insight: Meet people where they are. Ground organizational design in a familiar context, and make it tangible in order to build trust.
Behavior change is hard. So, we started with small experiments. What was the least that we needed to design in order to learn—the minimum viable product (or MVP)—and to help nudge new behaviors? In one instance, to test our hypothesis on the need for a company-wide training program, we started by creating a workshop for one multi-disciplinary team of 10. Its success soon paved the way for a broader rollout.
Big insight: Organizational change doesn’t have to begin with big initiatives. Starting small with prototypes can lead to big learnings and start to shift behavior.
Email surveys are an obvious way to take the pulse and determine whether experiments are resonating with individuals, but they can easily fall to the bottom of a priority list. We tested more lightweight, in-the-moment feedback methods. After prototyping a beer and knowledge-sharing gathering, we asked attendees to place a magnet on a board to indicate their responses to a few questions, like: “Would you come again?” and “Did you learn something?” It was an easy and immediate way to figure out if the idea was worth evolving.
Big insight: Simple and in-the-moment measurement tools can be enough proof of concept to move forward quickly.
Early on, I was determined to get all of the senior executives involved in our prototypes. What was I thinking? Their understandably divided attention and packed calendars made that next to impossible. In the end, some young, energetic community managers were the ones who embraced our ideas and helped push them forward. Not only did they have the time and passion for the projects, but they were also trusted leaders within the company. Community managers helped us organize an informal gathering of product people to share methods over beers. (Yes, beer again. When in Germany!) We asked a VP to simply show up. When he saw the overwhelming attendance and impact on the community, he became one of our biggest advocates. Teams that had been working in silos started to meet regularly. The more we demonstrated quick wins, the more senior leaders got on board to encourage new behaviors throughout the organization.
Big insight: The best agents of change may not be the most senior folks. Look for individuals with passion and social capital.
There are two things that we did that helped ensure that our ideas lived on after we were gone. First, we found owners within the organization who would commit to moving our ideas forward. Second, we helped create an internal group dedicated to maintaining momentum. This group provides leadership training and coaches teams to ensure both a top-down and bottom-up approach to behavior change.
Big insight: Prototypes are just the beginning. Organizational transformation requires dedicated owners and a multi-layered strategy.
It all adds up to a set of behaviors: Get scrappy, get tangible, find your people, and learn by doing. It never hurts to do some reflection from a rooftop, too.