Sunday 15 September 2019



by Leonie Mitaxa

When I meet people at parties and social events and tell them I work as change management consultant, I’m often met with an expression of mild horror.

“Ohhh! That sounds unpleasant,” says my new friend. “After all, people hate change, right? People are resistant to change.”

I don’t believe this for a moment.

If ‘people hated change’ as the rhetoric goes, nobody would ever marry, move house, travel, divorce, quit their jobs or procreate.

In each example above – all major life changes – we have some degree of agency in making the decision. Which leads me to the theory that people don’t hate change; we simply hate change being imposed on us. And unfortunately, imposed change is often the case when it comes to change within organisations.

A Tale of Two Change Journeys

Let’s compare the following two change journeys of former clients of mine.

These two organisations wished to transition their workplaces from traditional, allocated workspace models to modern, flexible, activity based working models.

The first organisation took a common top-down approach to the change. They sent their executive team of four on a three day retreat to discuss the problems with their current workforce. Over three days of talking and lots of writing on whiteboards, they came up with the best solutions. They then came back and mandated to their employees in a formal town hall meeting (with very impressive and complicated presentation slides) exactly what they wanted to see from their staff in the future. Done! How easy was that?

The second organisation took a human-centred design approach to their change. From the very beginning, they engaged a broad representative sample of staff from across their organisation and took them on a co-design journey. 

Together they explored features of space, technology and culture that their employees believed would enable them to do their best work every day. This group then co-designed a workplace that would support the aspirations of employees. They continued to invite employees to participate in the creation of this workplace through focus groups, workshops, voting for their favourite features and continual feedback loops. 

Figure 1: Lead change, don't enforce it

Can you guess which approach was more successful in winning over the hearts and minds of staff? We know instinctively that it was the second, but most likely have more lived experiences similar to the first. 

Designing Change: a Human-Centred Approach

Almost all organisational change initiatives have an impact on its humans. And humans are weird: we are weird, scared, vulnerable, frustrated, sweet, kind, complicated, and a whole host of other things. To be effective agents for change, we can’t avoid this reality, even if doing so makes the planning phase easier.

In The Design of Business (2009), Roger Martin presents the Knowledge Funnel. He suggests that using the knowledge funnel when working in areas with a lot of unknowns (mysteries) allows organisations to develop strategies for understanding and solving those unknowns (heuristics). With deeper understanding they can develop responses (algorithms) to address those challenges effectively.

The Knowledge Funnel beautifully illustrates an effective approach to bringing about real, sustained change through human-centred design.

Figure 2: Roger Martin's Knowledge Funnel

The top section illustrates the apparent mess and chaos (or mystery) we encounter when we start exploring the fears, hopes and concerns of the humans impacted by the change we’re seeking to implement.

As we continue exploring those hopes and concerns, we progress into the middle section, heuristic, where we start to identify patterns and themes emerging from the chaos.

This stage challenges assumptions that we may have held in the beginning. It’s where insights emerge, leading to innovative solutions that are often missed in a top-down approach to planning change. These solutions can then be implemented smoothly in the final section, algorithm.

The end result of this approach is often simpler, more elegant, and more effective than a small group of executives might come up with on their own, as it identifies and addresses the real issues, not the most apparent ones.

Turning the knowledge funnel on its side illustrates that if we spend more time and energy upfront exploring the problems and challenging our assumptions, we can empower employees by bringing them along on the change journey. 

Figure 3: Change via movements get the mess and chaos over upfront, making for a smooth implementation of an effective, co-created solution

Such an approach takes humility and courage on behalf of an organisation’s leaders, but giving some ownership of the change to employees generates change via movements, rather than via mandates. Happily, it also makes for a much smoother implementation.

(It should be noted that this is not a linear, end-to-end process. It is important to continually loop back to the first stage of the funnel, seeking more mysteries to challenge one’s assumptions and ensure we are identifying and framing the right problems to solve.)

Turning the funnel on its other side illustrates what happens when we predefine problems and rush into solution mode. We make assumptions in our rush to solve the most apparent problem, and invest (sometimes heavily) in solutions that become messy and chaotic when implemented. Our solutions run into that “change resistance” by the poor humans impacted by our misguided decisions. 

Figure 4: Change via mandates run smoothly in the beginning, and get messy and chaotic during the implementation stage – when our assumptions are revealed as a solution to a problem that may not exist.

Inspiring your Change Ambassadors – the Power of Co-creation

In recent years, companies like Blockbuster Video and Borders, as well as players in the music and taxi industries overtaken by the likes of Apple, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon and Uber. While it’s often technology blamed for these disruptions, what really kills the existing market players is that they ignore the needs and desires of their customers. They make assumptions that their customers will continue to be loyal out of habit, while other players move in and serve their customers in more meaningful, relevant ways.

Change is the same. Organisational leaders who ignore the needs and desires of their employees when seeking to implement change risk losing them to the dreaded change resistance. Co-creating change with those impacted makes the resulting change more meaningful and relevant to them.

William Confalonieri talks about the power of co-creation in his 2009 article Walking a Mile in Your Customer’s Moccasins:(it) provides a valuable perspective from the market, validating the demand and improving the quality of the final design, reducing time and cost in the process. During the design process, enthusiastic participants can also become strong brand ambassadors from the beginning, having been involved in the creation.”

As humans, we tend to support and become emotionally attached to what we help create. We’re natural ambassadors for our own creations.

While some organisational leaders attempt to sell carefully crafted key messages of why a change being imposed is good for employees, leaders who take a human-centred, co-creation approach achieve a much better end result, plus much greater support from the humans in their employ.

By engaging broadly and genuinely with more employees from the outset, you’ll inspire a collective force of passionate, proactive ambassadors for your change initiative.

Why? Because it will also be their change initiative. 


Summary of Chapter 8

  • Change is much easier to implement when we bring those impacted along with us on the change journey.
  • Invest time and energy upfront to meaningfully engage with employees - you will understand how to best meet their needs.
  • Inspiring employees to bring about change via movements (not mandates) is more effective and sustainable.

About the Contributor

Leonie Mitaxa is a human centred design practitioner and transformation consultant.

She is passionate about supporting organisations to innovate and leverage space, technology and culture to achieve their aspirations and bring out the best in their people.

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