How to Use Design Thinking to Navigate Culture Change

How to Use Design Thinking to Navigate Culture Change


According to Forbes, agility to how we manage change is one of the top four soft skills in demand for careers in 2017.

Tell me if these sound familiar to you:

“Change is constant.”

“We live in an increasingly more complex world.”

“We need to be agile, fast moving and responsive to change.”

As cliché as they may sound, there’s truth to these phrases.  As organizations become agile and move faster, the annual performance review has become outdated.

Is your organization considering shifting from an annual performance review cycle to a real-time feedback approach?

If so, I’m going to walk you through a tactical example of using design thinking to navigate culture change, as you move from annual performance reviews to real-time feedback.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is two things:

  • A system of beliefs, a way of thinking or ‘mindset;’
  • A process and methodology, or set of practices outlined in 5 different phases; empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.

The purpose of design thinking is to solve problems and address unmet needs by exploring the possibilities of what could be.  It’s not a skill you master, but instead a lifelong practice.

Ready to get started?  Good, let’s put our design thinking hats on.

5 steps to take when Applying Design Thinking to Culture Change:


1. Empathize: Create an Empathy Map

An empathy map is a popular tool used by design thinkers and agile practitioners. However, average people like me and you can use it too.

It’s a 4-quadrant graph where you outline what your customer or stakeholder say, do, think, feel.  Download your copy from Stanford d.School here.

Using our example of moving away from annual performance reviews to real-time feedback, many people in your organization will have questions around how this is going to be implemented and rolled out.

Over the coming weeks, start observing and documenting what people say, do, think, and feel using an empathy map to gain deeper insight.

For example, this is how it might look like:


Using an empathy map allows you to immerse yourself in the culture of your organization as you’re going through this huge change.  In the next step, we’ll look at how you can use the data gathered from your empathy map.


2. Define: Needs to Insights Formula

Once you’ve created your empathy map, review it and look at what the “needs” are. Those are easy to find as they’re usually verbs.  When you have the “needs,” you can begin using them to identify insights.

Remember: Be careful to avoid coming up with solutions at this point.  Solutions are generally seen as the nouns in empathy maps.

From my empathy map, I identified the following insights:

  • Need to clarify the use of a new tool
  • Need to understand the impact
  • Need to communicate and ask questions

With the “needs” identified, we can begin exploring the why of each need to uncover more insights.

  • Why do they need clarification?
  • Why do they need to understand?
  • Why do they need to ask questions?

Finally, we link it all together using the Needs to Insights Formula below:

< Who > + needs to find a way to + < unmet need > because ___< why >___

Example: My team needs to find a way to clarify and understand the new feedback system because they are feeling uncertain about the impact it will have on our culture.

In the next step, we’ll look at how to begin solutioning with our newfound insight.


3. Ideate: Reframe the Insight into a ‘How Might We’ Question

With our newfound insight, we can now reframe this into a “How might we…” question or HMW for short.  Asking an HMW question switches your neural pathways from a stagnant, fixed state to a creative state.

Get those creative juices flowing by asking more HMW questions.

How might we clarify, communicate and answer questions so that we can align our team and create a new feedback and recognition culture?

The design thinking process follows a diverge-converge-diverge-converge rhythm.  In this step, our HMW question is convergence.  We have figured out the questions to ask, now let’s explore some possible answers.

This moves us back to a divergence where we want to create more choices. So, let’s bust out the post-it notes because we are ready to brainstorm!

Pro Tip: Involve your team and brainstorm together during a meeting.  If you have remote colleagues, do so on a wiki.  There are no wrong or bad ideas in a brainstorm.

The goal is to get all the most outlandish, wild, and wonderful ideas out there.


4. Prototype: Produce the Experience

This is the fun part.

Prototype the experience with whatever you have at your disposal; Legos, Play-Doh, sketch boarding, or whatever your fancy!  Prototyping is the moment to play out what the experience might look like.

You want to do this for two reasons.

First, prototyping allows you to find the quickest path to direct experience so that you can learn the things you need to learn.

Second, doing is the best kind of thinking.  We’re so used to thinking before doing, when in fact, we learn the most by doing.

Using our example, work with your team to create a story on what rolling out real-time feedback will be like.  This allows everyone to envision the experience.

Put your HMW question up on the whiteboard, throw materials on the table, and give your team the opportunity to prototype.


5. Test: Involve Someone New

Once you’ve gotten a chance to prototype what the experience will be like, invite a colleague who was not involved in the design process.  Walk them through your prototype experience and treat them as your first user.

Have others on your team to watch, observe and take notes.  Loop back to your empathy map and gather new insights as you go through this iteration.

When you’re done, complete a retrospective to extract the learnings.  It could be something simple as answering the following three questions:

  • What went well
  • What didn’t go well
  • What needs to change

At Culture Summit, we like to use a tool called Scatterspoke for our retrospectives.

From here you can decide if your design might need some tweaking, launch a new iteration, or use the insights to help with implementation.

It will be up to you and your team to know what’s the best next step based on the learnings you were able to uncover.

Vanessa Shaw is founder of Human Side of Tech, through which she advises forward thinking thinking executives and HR leaders to operate their companies with a culture-first approach, so that they can turn challenge into opportunity when facing rapid growth, digital disruption and culture change.