Applying Design Thinking To Change Management

Designing Change: Applying Design Thinking to Change Management

An ACMP NorCal event summary from Propeller Change Management Consultant Anne Kircher and Design Thinking expert Molly Needelman


Change is a constant. From disruptive technologies to organizational transformations, change managers need to adapt to meet stakeholders’ ever-shifting needs. But how can we stay tapped into needs that are constantly changing? How can we bring fresh ideas to complex challenges? 

Enter design thinking, an iterative, human-centered approach. Applying the principles of design thinking to change management can help generate innovative ideas that truly meet the needs of your stakeholders.

What are the similarities and differences between design thinking and change management?

The two disciplines are both rooted in people, collaboration, and empathy. Design thinking has a strong focus on exploration: embracing ambiguity and purposefully diverging beyond the expected.

Change management, on the other hand, focuses on execution and implementation: driving alignment, encouraging adoption, and bringing new ways of working to life.

Applying design thinking to change management is about more than just leveraging their commonalities. The curiosity, creativity, and exploration from design thinking can supercharge your change management work.


How can they work together? 

Design thinking can be thought of as a set of phases. Or it can be thought of as mindsets including focusing on exploration, embracing ambiguity, and getting feedback directly from people – and that’s the way we’ll look at it.

We’re not advocating that you ditch your current change management model. Whether you’re using the Prosci ADKAR model, Kotter’s 8 Step Process, or any other methodology, design thinking can work in tandem to unlock creativity and provide a deeper understanding of the big picture. Design thinking can help change managers solve “wicked” problems, develop human-centered solutions, generate a high volume of creative ideas, and accelerate change.

 We’ll talk you through four mindset shifts to apply design thinking to your work.

4 Mindset Shifts to Apply a Design Thinking Approach to Change Management

Mindset Shift 1: Problem Solving→Problem Finding 


Change Management
Change managers are typically brought in to solve a specific challenge. They tend to go straight to problem-solving to move the project forward.  

Design Thinking
Design thinking experts are also often brought in to solve a problem. They approach the presenting problem with curiosity. They explore and ask if there might be an even bigger problem hidden below the surface. This is called problem finding. You approach the given problem with a beginner’s mindset and ask a lot of questions in order to look below the surface at the many things contributing to the “presenting problem.” 

Let's Put It Together
Rather than jumping to solutioning, change managers should spend time exploring the problem space. Ask questions and be curious. What are the implications of the change? What could the downstream impacts be? Whose voice matters? How could we approach this differently? By shifting to problem finding, change managers can broaden their perspective about what the change is about. Plus, taking a problem-finding lens helps us think more broadly, and inclusively, and discuss aspects of the change that we didn’t realize were there.

Try It Out ↓
Question Storming. Write down as many questions as you can about the project. Cluster and prioritize questions. Develop a plan to dive deeper.

Mindset Shift 2: Business Centered→People-Centered


Change Management
Change managers often spend time getting a really deep understanding of the needs of the business, but less time developing an understanding - and empathy - for the many people affected by the changes.

Design Thinking
Design thinking really hones in on developing a depth of empathy and understanding for all the people potentially affected by the work, from core stakeholders to the interns and from the most high-value partners to the first-time customers.

Let's Put It Together
Taking time to deeply understand the ecosystem of people impacted by any business change can help you better understand the opportunity, help the affected people see the value in the change, and ultimately help you land the change successfully.

Try It Out ↓
Empathy Map. Look at a wide range of stakeholders. For instance, your executive sponsor, a junior employee, a senior employee, and a customer. Map out what they are thinking, feeling, hearing, and seeing about the change. Go beyond the surface level.


Mindset Shift 3: Seeking Clarity→Embracing Divergence


Change Management
Change managers are constantly dealing with the unknown. When they kick off a project, there is often a lot of ambiguity, and they work to drive forward and gain clarity. With the high volume of unknowns, it can be tempting to jump into systematically moving forward without stopping to consider alternative paths. 

Design Thinking
Even when design thinking experts want to converge on the answer quickly, they purposefully delay ‘the’ answer to give themselves time to explore other potential answers. The right answer might not be the obvious one. Think about making pancakes. Even if you have all the right ingredients, the first pancake you put on the griddle doesn’t turn out quite right. It’s important to get past that first pancake—that first idea—to the other tasty pancakes that are possible.

Let's Put It Together
Instead of moving forward with their first idea, change managers should push themselves to think through other possible approaches. For instance, rather than going with the same tried and true approach to announcing a change, think of ways to bring creativity in. Bringing fresh ideas to your work can have an outsized impact, especially if your stakeholders are experiencing change fatigue.  

Try It Out ↓
Crazy 8s. Set a timer and come up with eight totally unique ideas in five minutes. Challenge yourself to think big -- it’s always easier to scale down wildly creative ideas than try to bring energy to lackluster ones. You can do this activity yourself or with a group of core stakeholders.


Mindset Shift 4: Quick wins→Quick failure


Change Management
Change managers talk a lot about generating quick wins. And for good reason. Demonstrating quick and early successes is a tried-and-true way to build momentum. 

Design Thinking
In contrast, design thinking experts like to fail quickly. They get people’s feedback on ideas at all stages of development, learn from what’s not working, and iterate to make the ideas better.

Let's Put It Together
So how can you have a quick failure in change management? You might run your messaging by skeptics or resistors to see where they might object. You could focus on giving deliverables to your core stakeholder group in draft form and encouraging them to poke holes in them, rather than waiting until they are polished. Or you could hold a premortem. 

Try It Out ↓
Premortem. We’re used to doing postmortems at the end of a project to talk about what worked and what didn’t. A premortem gets ahead of that. Gather your core group of stakeholders. Set the stage that you’re time traveling to the future and the change has failed. Ask them: why? This can help you figure out avoidable roadblocks in advance and build them into your change plans.


Wrapping up 

Think of these mindsets as tools in your toolbox, rather than set processes to follow for every project. They can be scaled up or down depending on the time you have. While there might not be time to build a full empathy map, you could think about deeper, unexpected questions to ask in stakeholder interviews. Or you may not formally do the Crazy 8s activity, but you can push yourself to think beyond the first expected idea. Applying these mindsets can help you infuse new energy into your work, create a deeper understanding of your stakeholders, and help you develop creative solutions to make the change stick.

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