Organisational Culture Design: A Service Design Thinking Approach


[et_pb_section admin_label="section"][et_pb_row admin_label="row"][et_pb_column type="4_4"][et_pb_text admin_label="Text" background_layout="light" text_orientation="left" use_border_color="off" border_color="#ffffff" border_style="solid"] As a service designer, I see the potential to use human centered design approaches, such as design thinking all around me. There are the obvious, such as in improving a customer experience or creating a new community service. Then there’s the not so obvious. I’m particularly interested in what goes on inside an organisation – where employees become the customer. And the thing that really floats my boat? Organisational culture design.

This is something I’ve long been passionate about. I’m a firm believer that an organisation’s culture plays a huge role in both employees’ wellbeing, happiness and engagement in both their work life and beyond, as well as an organisation’s ability to flourish and achieve what it is setting out to do…or not.

Can culture be designed?

The concept of designing culture is a contentious one. Many will argue that it can’t be done. At a Lean Startup event I attended recently, CEO and Co-Founder of Culture Amp, Dider Elzinga put it well when he talked about culture not being created, but emerging and evolving. He also spoke of the need for intention. For me this is what culture design is all about. You want to make sure what emerges and evolves is intentional – planned, thought through and realised via conditions you’ve created to ensure culture is not left to chance.

There will always be things out of your control, particularly in a large organisation. You are working with people at the end of the day and every person comes with their own unique set of beliefs and behaviours to add to the mix. This is where the difference lies between creating and designing culture. Culture will create itself no matter what you do. By adding in design however, you, your people and your organisation can have a say in what you would like that culture to look like.

A service design thinking approach

So how might you design your culture following a service design thinking approach? Assuming you are an established company (for a startup it would look a little different), consider the following:

 1. Work out your current state

Ok, so this is easier said than done, but it’s so important. This is all about your actual culture. Not what you’d like your culture to be or what you talk about in your company values, but what’s really going on. How do people interact? How do they behave? What is accepted? What is not accepted? How do people feel about their work, their colleagues, their leaders and so on? And the most important question of all – Why?

There are a number of ways you can do this through service design thinking methods – interviews, workshops, journey mapping, observations, empathy mapping and the list goes on. I would strongly advise to stay well clear of traditional* engagement surveys however. I’ve seen how so many of these are designed. They give you the answers to the questions you ask and not much more (and are often incredibly leading). This is not what service design is about. Service design thinking is about getting deep down into people’s feelings, needs and motivations. It is about digging into the all-important “why”. When you ask someone these types of questions in a static survey format, you just don’t get the depth you need. You don’t see the body language, hear the inflection in their voice that tells you, they are not saying everything they want to say. Surveys do not give you the opportunity to ask a follow up question to get you to the real heart of the matter. And that’s ultimately what you should be trying to do.

*There are great companies out there taking a different approach to engagement surveys like Culture Amp with their product Murmur. Using these methods could work well along side a service design approach.

2. Co-design your ideal future state

This is about imagining what you really want you culture to look like considering what you are trying to achieve as an organisation. Companies often make a start at this when they design their company values as part of the branding (and often rebranding) process. All too often though, the words are relied upon to drive the culture forward with little substance or follow through behind them. They are not enough.

You want innovation? Having ‘Innovative’ as a company value is not going to get you there. What does innovative look like? What are people doing? What are people saying? What is the organisation producing? How does “innovative” permeate through practices and ways of working?

But hang on a minute, you said “co-design”. Ah, yes I did. It’s also not enough for culture to be designed purely by leadership or HR. If you really want cultural alignment between your organisation and your people, you need to get you people involved. As I spoke about earlier, it is the unique nature of each of your people coming together within the organisational environment that contributes to the creation of culture.

Get your people at all levels involved. Get them talking and sharing. Get them creating a collective vision. People often talk about how difficult it is to shift culture. I don’t disagree, but it’s a lot easier to shift people in a direction if they have contributed and collaborated on what that direction should be. It’s that old tactic of getting buy-in from someone by making them believe it was their idea. Except with true co-design, it will be their idea. And yours. And everyone else’s.

Of course, not everyone will agree on everything. The process of co-design itself however, should help people empathise and understand each other better, so this is less of an issue.

3. Identify the gaps between current and ideal state

Once you have done the first two steps, the next step might seem a little obvious. Work out where you current state is or isn’t matching up with your ideal state. One thing that is really important here is to look out for the things you say you currently are or do, but are not. One of the quickest ways to have your employees disengage with what you’re trying to do is by not walking the talk. Trust me, I have been one of those employees.

You might have a lot of gaps. You might find out some pretty scary stuff about your organisation. You might find out that “innovative” company value you have (and that everyone wants to achieve in ideal state), is coming up against some pretty fierce risk aversion behaviour that’s stopping it from becoming a reality. You might uncover that the “passionate about learning” culture you are striving for stops when it gets to your upper management or executive.

Don’t despair! This is good news. No really. Yes it might be slightly terrifying, but you know what you’re dealing with. You can’t fight the boogie man from underneath the covers. You can now come out of hiding and work towards creating some positive change.

But it’s not all going to be doom and gloom either. Your gap analysis will also show you where you are awesome. You will find some stuff that will be exciting and house amazing potential for you to achieve your cultural vision. Maybe it’s that your people are really passionate about your organisational purpose, or that your junior staff feel really empowered by their direct managers. This gives some great stuff to work with. As you’re moving into step four, remember to build on your strengths, as well as design for your weaknesses.

4. Design, prototype and test solutions

In continuing the flow of step three, get your people involved in coming up with some solutions to specific gaps and opportunities that were uncovered. There are so many ways you could go about this, which I won’t go into here, but focus on the things that will really have an impact. You might also like to consider prioritising gaps and opportunities.

Solutions don’t have to be a big. They might simply be about the way something is communicated, a new way of working etc. On the other hand, they could be a large initiative requiring people, time and resources. Whatever the size, it’s a really good idea to prototype and test. This can save you a lot of heartache and make for better quality outcomes.

It can often be difficult for people to articulate what they want or see the full picture of something until they experience it in reality. No matter how good a job you do at step one and two, it is often through testing a prototype with users you will discover something new and important.

Your prototyping and testing might uncover where things are or are not working, what you need to change and in some cases, things you need to scrap all together. At this point you need to be prepared to let go. Focus on the solving the problem or realising the opportunity, not on the solution you have created.

5. Repeat

Once you are on your path to a cultural revolution, your work is not done. Culture is an ever-changing beast that can’t be tamed. You must constantly keep an eye on how your culture is evolving (based on your intentional design) and continue to readjust.

Make sure you are continuously looking at your current state and re-evaluating where you want to be, based on how your organisation is changing. All to often our mandates as an employee change with evolving conditions: governments change, CEOs retire, markets crash, new industries emerge, spin-offs are created, companies merge, natural disaster hits, innovations disrupt, strategies are born and the list goes on. Organisational cultures need to bend and change to adapt to new conditions. By getting into the habit of constantly evaluating and designing yours, your cultural beast can be your biggest ally.

So to those that say culture can’t be designed, I ask ‘have you tried?’ I’m happy for you to prove me wrong, but I would be prepared to guarantee that by taking a service design approach, you will at least see some positive cultural change occur. It’s amazing what people can do when you get them designing together.

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