Business environments are undergoing rapid and continuous change, and organisations and their HR leaders would benefit from a design thinking-led approach to change management, writes Colleen d’Offay

Around 70 per cent of change management programmes fail, according to research by Deloitte, which found that the reasons for failure suggest a broad array of causes. Almost all research acknowledges employee acceptance of change as an accurate predictor of success. Put another way, employee buy-in goes a long way toward change acceptance and, ultimately, its success.

A March 2018 poll of Frontier Software webinar attendees found that around 50 per cent of respondents saw employee resistance as a barrier to change management success. Additionally, a lack of consensus and a lack of buy-in from management were offered as other reasons. Combined, this data supports the wider research and reinforces the importance of people in the change management equation.

Traditional methods of change management adopt a common-sense and logical approach to the process, which typically follows four stages.

Firstly, the reason for change is explained to those who will be impacted. Then, the management team must be seen to model the desired behaviours that will bring about the change. Thirdly, process and practices must be re-engineered to incorporate and reinforce the change. Finally, the staff affected by the change must be trained to develop the skills required to embed the change across the organisation. The entire process is supported by frequent communication sessions.

Design thinking: an entirely different view of the same process
Design thinking has been around in many guises for some time, but has quietly emerged as a discipline over the past decade. In its simplest form, design thinking is a mindset, the primary focus of which is to develop an understanding of the people for whom a solution is being designed. Design thinking is often referred to as “human-centric” because its focus is on the affected people; their feelings, knowledge, beliefs and attitudes.

“Failure to engage the affected parties at the very beginning of the process ensures resistance to change and the potential failure of the change programme itself”

This alone challenges the more analytical approach to change management that has traditionally applied. It is a process that is iterative in that it seeks to devise multiple solutions to a single problem. Testing and refining seeks to identify a single solution that satisfies all aspects of the human-centric mix. It has traditionally enjoyed great application in the design of actual, physical objects, so how can it be applied to change management?

Design thinking suggests that failure to engage the affected parties at the very beginning of the process ensures resistance to change and the potential failure of the change programme itself.

Design thinking recognises that people impacted by change have the best and most nuanced view, not only of the solution, but the actual problem itself. When design thinking is incorporated into a change management programme, practitioners are able to get a deep understanding of the problem from the perspective of all affected parties. Subsequently, the same people can devise a solution that satisfies the needs, feelings and attitudes of all, be they management who recognise there is a problem or the people who will ultimately action the solution itself.

Design thinking has many schools of thought and many process models. Below is a 5-step model devised by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. The model they propose is as follows:

 1. Empathise: walk in their shoes
This step requires the change management leaders to put aside their own assumptions about the problem in order to deeply appreciate the experiences, knowledge and beliefs of those people impacted by the change. Immersion in the physical and process environments of these people helps all parties to fully understand the environment within which change is being designed. This process generates enormous amounts of information and should take some time.

2. Define: derive a consensus on what the problem really is
The information gathered during the first empathise stage is collated and analysed to produce a problem statement on which all must agree. The statement should be put in human-centric terms. To illustrate, rather than saying, “The call centre abandoned call rate is 45 per cent”, try “How can we restructure our processes to ensure greater call resolution and reduce abandoned calls”?

3. Ideate: go outside the box
This stage requires the team to generate solutions. There are many techniques available, including Brainstorming, mind-mapping, storyboarding or role-playing.

“Practitioners are able to get a deep understanding of the problem from the perspective of all affected parties”

4. Prototype: to start creating solutions
This stage is iterative. Solutions generated then need to be fleshed out. Depending on the problem, you could be detailing a process or building prototypes. The aim of the prototyping stage is to explore the options generated in the ideate stage as possible solutions to the defined problem.

5. Test: will it work?
This stage requires the end-users to test the prototypes developed. This step enables the end-user of the solution to test the new ideas in real-world scenarios to determine whether the problem is actually resolved by the devised solution. If not, more solutions may need to be generated.

It is important to note that the five stages are not always sequential. They do not have to follow any specific order and can often occur in parallel.

Starting with your people
Design thinking places the people element of change management at the very beginning of the process. The employees affected by the envisaged change are involved in defining both the problem and the solution. By doing so, one of the major contributors to project failure – resistance – is largely overcome as the change is both defined and resolved by the people it most directly impacts. Other steps employed in more traditional change management programmes could be applied after the design thinking process has concluded.

Business environments are undergoing rapid and continuous change. Survival requires review, adaptation, and a shake-up of existing processes and a greater engagement of the entire workforce. Senior managers can no longer afford to initiate and launch major initiatives only to see them fail. New frameworks and mindsets are needed that are less overtly analytical and that engage the human resources above all else.

Design thinking offers a solution and is rewarding early adopters with great successes, although reports are anecdotal in nature. Despite the lack of empirical evidence to support the success of the approach, more and more companies are adopting design thinking as a flexible, holistic approach that is delivering repeatable results with little resistance. Some have even been so bold as to suggest that design thinking will eventually supersede change management entirely.

For further information regarding change management processes, download the free e-book, Change Management – The only thing constant is change or visit Frontier Software at www.frontiersoftware.com. Image source: iStock

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