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Design Thinking for Organization Design

EK Team members discussing Knowledge ManagementAt EK, we are mindful that for any Knowledge and Information Management initiative to be effectively adopted within an organization we have to ask ourselves two questions: “who will have to do their jobs differently?” and “what new processes and practices need to be put in place to ensure those individuals are equipped to succeed?” Not answering these questions can lead to ignored technology systems, subverted processes, and painful organizational change.

That’s why when we’re developing a Knowledge Management (KM) strategy for a client, we are intent on understanding the organization within which they are operating. Our goal is to help build a more adaptable workforce that is prepared for change – whether it occurs in organization structure, process, or technology – and can sustain their KM strategy over time.

Design Thinking: An Approach and Mindset

Determining how we can support the underlying organization is no small feat. To do so, we often leverage Design Thinking to reimagine how people can work more effectively together. The value of Design Thinking lies in the fact that it is both an approach and a mindset. As an approach to problem solving, Design Thinking necessitates that we seek to understand our end users – those individuals for whom we are designing a KM strategy. We treat our end users as partners and co-creators, discovering what is meaningful to them so we can be sure that we are focusing on what matters. To start shifting behaviors within an organization, it’s critical that we meet them where they are, immerse ourselves in their perspectives, and co-create solutions. We want everyone to be aligned about the challenge we are solving and understand why things need to change.

As a mindset, Design Thinking is about being open-minded and curious. It’s about building empathy and setting aside any assumptions that we might have about the people for whom we are designing. And it’s about being comfortable generating and iteratively working through various possible solutions, knowing some won’t work, but trusting that some will.

Building a New Organizational Model

How do we enable employees to embrace and adopt new ways of working that support a proposed KM strategy? American architect and designer Richard Buckminster Fuller once said “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” At EK, our approach to organization design recognizes that we have to create a future that is different from the present. We have to look at and reimagine various aspects of an organization. When we’re seeking to understand our client’s organization, we are looking to see where they fall on a spectrum of topics, including:

  • Organizational Structure: Do employees have formal roles within a fixed hierarchy or is the organization comprised of self-managing teams, which support the creation of more fluid, natural hierarchies?
  • Leadership Style: Do leaders manage by command-and-control or do they think of themselves as servant leaders?
  • Information Flow and Knowledge Sharing: Does the company adopt practices of transparency, or is information considered power and provided on a need-to-know basis?
  • Coordination: How do teams and departments work together? Do people typically work in silos? Alternatively, does the organization support cross-functional collaboration?
  • Decision-Making: What guides decision-making – profit, growth, and market share, or values and organizational purpose? Are frontline workers given autonomy to make decisions?
  • Mindset and Perspective: Do people in the organization follow established, stable processes (i.e., there is one right way of doing things)? Or is change viewed as an opportunity and, subsequently, people are rewarded for thinking innovatively?
  • Performance Management: Does the organization operate as a meritocracy, with people advancing based on their individual talents, or is the focus on a team’s overall performance?

These are just some of the areas that we delve into through a combination of interviews, focus groups, and workshops as we think through how to help an organization successfully harness their knowledge. While every organization is different, we do see common elements in successful KM organizations. Organizations that are adaptable and promote openness and connectivity often have servant leaders, create channels to share information more broadly, empower teams (or departments) with responsibility, hold people accountable, and use a combination of centralized and decentralized decision-making practices. Ultimately, by looking holistically at the structures, processes, communication practices, tools, resources, and incentives that are in place, we can identify where change is most needed in order to help an organization achieve its Knowledge and Information Management goals.

Design Thinking and Organization Design

We approach organization design from a Design Thinking perspective, recognizing that if we want to create the conditions that change behavior, we have to understand our end users’ wants, needs, pain points, and goals, and the system within which they work. Our Design Thinking for Knowledge Management approach (DTKM) – Empathize, Define, Iterate, Prototype, and Test – allows us to do just that.

During the Empathize stage, we meet with people from across the organization of different job levels, tenures, and areas of expertise to look at the problem through their lens, surface pain points that they are facing, and discover unmet needs. Our objective is to understand why things are the way they are and to build a foundational partnership from which we can later co-create solutions.

Once we have a clear assessment of the organization’s current operating state, we move to the Define stage. It’s here that we analyze and synthesize the information collected during our interviews, focus groups, and workshops to identify the core organizational issues affecting the end users, and we visualize a target state for the organization that will support their KM initiatives. It is critical at this stage that we align leadership and staff around the vision for change, why change is needed, and what the risk of not changing is.

With our target state defined, we can start prioritizing where we need to focus – what areas of the organization need our attention the most to support their KM goals. That’s when we begin to Ideate. We work with our end users to explore new ideas and practices that will help nudge behavioral changes. We visualize new ways of working to see where, for example, we can simplify burdensome organizational processes.

Armed with possible solutions, we then move to the Prototype and Test stages. Since our focus is on people and processes and shifting behavior, our goal in this experimental phase is to start small and try out new ways of working through developing minimal viable “products.” From an organization design perspective, this could be testing different approaches to decision-making within a project team. It could also involve rolling out a KM training curriculum to a select group of end users to see whether it could be adopted enterprise-wide in the future. Ultimately, our goal is to see what works and what doesn’t, and iterate based on feedback.

Once we have a solution, it’s important to demonstrate quick wins and identify a KM leadership team and tribe that can commit to sustaining the change and ensure the new behaviors stick. People need to see tangible action that is delivering real value, and they need to see their leadership visibly and actively supporting the recommended efforts in order to participate themselves.

In Conclusion

Each KM strategy we develop and implement for our clients is unique. It is dependent on their needs, priorities, and goals, as well as the people, process, culture, and enabling technologies that comprise their organization. Similarly, there’s never a “one size fits all” approach to organization design. Our Design Thinking for Knowledge Management process is effective in keeping the focus on end users, learning about the context in which people work, and driving recommendations to the organizations that are practical, sustainable, and will enable new behaviors to stick.

Want to learn more about how we use Design Thinking to rethink how people work together in support of a KM strategy? Contact us.

Kristin McNally Kristin McNally Kristin McNally is a strategic communications professional and change management practitioner who is passionate about helping people work together more effectively and authentically. More from Kristin McNally »