Design In Motion (Peter Norlin Blog)

Design In Motion: How Design Intelligence Can Shape Workplace Culture

An Innolect Blog offered by Peter Norlin

1. Beginning the Journey

As a student of organizations for over 30 years, and as Innolect’s Practice Leader for Strategic Change, I use Innovative Intelligence® to help people co-create “productive workplaces” (the title of a powerful book by Marvin Weisbord). And I’ve spent my professional life thinking about how people learn and change, especially at work. In an effort to define and talk more precisely with leaders about my own work, when people ask me about my field, organization development (OD), I say that OD is the “design and facilitation of processes, structures, and relationships that help people at work to fulfill their purpose and reach their desired goals.”

Unfortunately for us, though, because OD is a complex, hybrid discipline with roots in psychology, sociology, adult learning, business, education, and anthropology, my colleagues and I tend to agree only that we’re focused on the “human side of enterprise” (as an early text described our playing field). After that, we typically find ourselves splintering into niches and frameworks that keep us arguing late into the night.

However, no matter how we each frame our assignment as OD consultants, we are all required to work as designers. Sometimes, we are asked explicitly to create an “organization design,” a formal structure that determines specific relationships between departments and roles, but in fact we’re always designing, since we’re always devising activities and experiences (i.e., processes) to help individuals, groups and organizations learn and change in precise, desired ways.

So one of the exciting opportunities that we’ll explore in future posts is how to build an important new foundation for meta-innovation, that is, a more innovative way to create innovative organizational environments, especially in business settings.

Let me begin our conversation by proposing a way to think about the relationship between design and a workplace that seeks to embody a “culture of innovation.” This perspective is based on my experience and a personal, strongly-held assumption: namely, that we can’t design and create organization cultures directly. (For a particularly cogent, persuasive definition and illustration of “organization culture,” read Edgar Schein’s book Organizational Culture and Leadership).

Because culture (i.e., “the way we do things around here”) is transmitted and expressed as behavior, the critical question becomes, can we “design” behavior? And based on our experience in the field of OD, the answer is “yes.” In my next post I’ll begin to outline a roadmap of a particular design process that can help shape a “culture of innovation.”

2. A Framework For Our Design Process

In my last post, I underscored two important, related assumptions about learning and change and the specific dynamics that surround them. First, if we are to be successful at introducing and orchestrating any type of change, then we must consciously see and use design as the key activity that must drive that process. And since, in most cases, any change we seek is likely to involve people doing something differently, then as their behavior changes we will inevitably experience a predictable shift in their workplace culture. But how does design lead to a transformation of culture? Before we consider how to design and shape a particular type of culture, it’s important to consider first why design is required to propel us toward a desired future scenario in the first place.

To clarify this relationship, I have found that the following framework, while simple, is robust and sufficient; it outlines a reliable path from dream to reality, with a clear progression of necessary steps in between. These steps highlight a sequence of progressively-unfolding outcomes that does, in my experience, eventually lead us from design to the new future we seek. This sequence of steps involves:

design -> structures -> behaviors -> culture -> innovation -> necessary future

Although this series is presented in a linear chain, it is, however, a cycle that is repeated in large and small ways whenever a change is planned and implemented. And a few questions arise immediately.

Why include the “necessary future?”

When designing processes that will guide people through learning and change, everything depends on knowing where we’re headed, and where we want to end up. If you’re familiar with current “organization speak,” then you’ve probably heard this referred to as a “vision” of the future. These days, I tend to label this endpoint the “necessary future,” which is another name for “the future we’ve decided we must have.” In the pathway I’ve outlined above, we’ve specified a necessary future that’s infused with innovation, which is, in turn, the outgrowth of a culture that is creating it.

What are we designing?

In subsequent posts, I’ll be talking with you in greater detail about the implications and design possibilities embedded in this proposed framework. What is the core nugget here? If we know what messages and expectations that we want the culture of our organization to drive and express—in this case, promoting innovation—then we must first decide what behaviors will create that culture, so that we can then design the organization structures that will determine those behaviors. This strategy is based on a basic law of systems thinking (i.e., “structure determines behavior”), and so the design challenge, when we seek to influence human behavior, is determining how to introduce, refine, or change those specific organization structures that will invite people to act in ways that will then lead them to produce the outcomes they want.

So, along the way, I’ll be illustrating how we might approach the challenge of designing “innovation cultures” by reviewing some key principles that Innolect Strategic Change consultants use to design organization structures and processes that encourage people to change their behavior in ethical, reliable ways. I’m looking forward to an energizing dialogue.