On Leading Organization-wide Change

In October 2014, I was asked to share how I have led organizational changes at Covenant Eyes. The following text is from an e-mail message I wrote in response to that question, covering design thinking, decision making, asking better questions, and influencing behavior in order to reach shared understanding.

Lao Tzu described the essence of an effective leader, which as I interpret it is one who is excellent at drawing the best out of other people and facilitating groups to work together toward a common objective, quickly empowering others to lead change and grow as leaders, managers, or producers in their own right.

Tao Te Ching, 17 (Lao Tzu)

The greatest type of ruler is one of whose existence
the people are hardly aware.

Next best is a leader who is loved and praised.
Next comes the one who is feared.
The worst is the one who is despised.

When a leader doesn’t trust the people,
they will become untrustworthy.

The best leader speaks little.
He never speaks carelessly.
He works without self interest
and leaves no trace.

When the work is accomplished,
the people say: “Amazing:
we did it all by ourselves.”

Of course there are numerous scriptural descriptions of leadership, such as Matthew 20:25–28 when the disciples were getting riled up about who would be a leader or favored and Jesus instructed, “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is held in contrast to the Gentiles who lord authority over others instead of serving. And there is also the example of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples as an example for them to humble themselves in serving one another.

This is good, right?

My experience says that the only real way to change an organization in any sustainable way is captured in this concept, but there is more to it than these proverbs.

So, here’s an overview of how I’ve tried to make these changes at Covenant Eyes.

  • Design Thinking
  • Awareness of Healthy Decision Making
  • Consulting: Developing Others by Asking Better Questions
  • Actions Speak Louder Than Words; Behaviors Change Perspectives

I’ll provide a fly-over of what these mean to me one at a time.

Design Thinking

Many others have already characterized what this means, among them Tim Brown of IDEO, and in my view, Massimo Vignelli especially in the first part of The Vignelli Canon, although I don’t think he ever called it design thinking. You’ll also see examples of this in the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.

I think it all hinges on one concept, said by Fr John Culkin in his thoughtful partnerships with philosopher Marshall McLuhan, “First we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Most people are naively shaped by their own tools, including designers themselves. Tools are simply part of our environment, and most often they are provided for us already intact. As consumers, we don’t typically make our own tools, whether it is a house, fork, computer, software program, et cetera. Yet, this massive collection of objects that we use in our lives fundamentally influences, even directs, our behaviors and our thoughts.

As a designer I see this daily, and I believe that it is the worthy purpose of a designer to take care in the shaping of tools, knowing that the shape of those tools will in turn shape people. This is a crucial sense of responsibility that comes with real cause and effect, and it is further heightened when one has a sense of how many people use said tool and how long it may be in existence.

Should we not take care of our work upon realizing that it can effect the world for good or ill? Of course!

Design is sometimes misconstrued as the attention on the creation of an object, but that is too narrow. It is on the humans, their relationship with an object, the object, and how that reflects back into the lives of the humans. In being used, a thing influences the user’s actions and attention. So we do not only design a thing, we design a potential for actions, thoughts, and feelings between people and things. And often between people and things and people. And to what end, and for whom? (This is a better understanding of the field of interaction design.)

Vignelli refers to design process as first about the semantics or meaning of the design task, then the syntactics used in the construction of a solution, and then in the pragmatics that describe the real communication and/or delivery of value.

The AIGA (America Institute of Graphic Arts) published a booklet called Why Design that contains a grid of 12 boxes laid out in 3 rows that describes an overall design process. I can give you a printed copy of this grid. The first row arranges the work needed in Defining the Problem, the second row describes Innovating, and the third row describes Delivering Value. I propose that Vignelli’s semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics resemble the rows of the Why Design grid. These and other frameworks of design thinking all describe a general process used by designers in coming up with effective solutions to all sorts of problems.

Design is a problem solving discipline, and has many cross-overs with healthy decision making, including the concept of divergence and convergence.

Awareness of Healthy Decision Making

I think of decisions and decision making in three zones, personal, small group, and corporate. We are not rational beings! Yet decision making often benefits from a disciplined approach that challenges many of our natural cognitive biases. Some decisions are inconsequential and so don’t really require all this extra effort, but some are of consequence and deserve respect.

Michael Roberto has a series of 24 lectures called The Art of Critical Decision Making, and it is an excellent study. I require my staff to go through it together, and they are often surprised at how many principles of decision making directly correlate to patterns of work they find in design thinking.

Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions is a book that describes a series of cognitive traps that we are all in danger of falling in to. These are listed as the following and the book expounds on each. I think you’d find it an interesting read.

  1. Exposure Anxiety: The Fear of Being Seen as Weak
  2. Causefusion: Confusing the Causes of Complex Events
  3. Flatview: Seeing the World in One Dimension
  4. Cure-allism: Believing That One Size Really Fits All
  5. Infomania: The Obsessive Relationship to Information (Info-hoarding and Info-voiding)
  6. Mirror Imaging: Thinking the Other Side Thinks Like Us
  7. Static Cling: Refusal to Accept a Changing World

If one does not understand the threats to good decision making and does not have a toolbox of good decision making methods useful at personal, group, and corporate levels, then one is ill-equipped to lead and coach others through times that require healthy decisions.

Consulting: Developing Others by Asking Better Questions

When I was a freshman in college, I had the good fortune of going through a 400-level special topics course focused on the work of consulting. It has been very influential for me ever since.

One of the key elements of consultancy that I learned was the deliberate control of agency, that is the sense of self-differentiation and authority. A lack of agency leads to a sense of being helpless or dependent on another, but as a consultant I was learning that my job was to develop a sense of agency in my clients so that they would retain a sense of ownership and power over their own work, and while I was at it I would demonstrate for them better ways of thinking, creating information, and sharing it with others (think classical rhetoric) so that they too would learn it.

I did this largely through using non-verbal reinforcement of my client’s agency and open-ended questions intended to get them thinking in more ways and deeper ways that led them to produce better work.

Key here was that I was unable to tell them what to work on communicating. Rather I was only able to walk with them through a method or framework of idea development and ways of thinking about authorship, audiences, and rhetorical patterns.

This approach melds nicely with design thinking, because one of the first admissions is that we may not really understand the problem yet, but that we do have frameworks to uncover it and discover its nuances.

So, sources for thinking about asking better questions?

  • QBQ! The Question Behind the Question by John Miller
  • Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal
  • Mental Models by Indi Young
  • Sections of Observing the User Experience by Kuniavsky, et al.

We should have a number of these books in the CE library in the Commons.

There is a basic concept here that says that a question is more powerful than an answer, because an answer tends to shut down thoughtfulness and understanding whereas a question stimulates it.

Asking better questions is an element in the power of a generative dialectic, and the practice also feeds better design thinking and decision making. Reciprocally, those frameworks inform the sorts of questions we should ask.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The trick in this statement is in reestablishing who the actor is. My actions are one thing, but when I can get a whole group of people to engage in a shared action, we can begin to shape their perspectives.

First we shape our tools, thereafter our tools shape us.

A leader can shape the activities of people, and in many cases the real desired effect is not the immediate result of the activity, but in the shaping of the people who do it. Without changes in activity and thinking, no incidence of effort is able to be transformed into a sustainable pattern of effort.

This is how new actions lead to new thinking, which together change the culture. Timothy Loo, a corporate UX consultant, shared the soundbite at the UX Strat 2013 conference, “culture eats strategy for lunch,” and he’s right. So the work of a designer is to change culture by changing people’s behaviors and then thinking.

As Loo said, “Culture tells us how to behave when we can’t turn to formal directives, agreements or sets of rules for guidance.” So, culture fills in the grey area that we usually operate within.

We must facilitate group activities repeatedly and employ frameworks of understanding and developing value so that the people who are doing the work have a sense of ownership, agency, and growth. Then they will sustain the change because that way of thinking has become part of their new identities. “Amazing: We did it all by ourselves!”

This is why we do usability studies as groups, why we do design reviews as groups, why we do Agile ceremonies as groups, and so on.

If we want to change the culture of an organization, we should identify what activities we do together and facilitate new activities that can be added to or can replace existing activities so that we will further shape our perspectives, values, and culture in specific, desirable ways.


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