Why Design Thinking is not another methodology, but the mindset you need to re-invent change management.

One gloomy day of the lockdown, I decided to reread a book that had changed my life. Nine years ago, it had caught my eye when I was searching for the “fundamental ways for a mindset change.” It was around the time of my first exposure to the Design Thinking mindset.

“The Road Less Travelled” is a classic work on spiritual growth and the meaning of life. It was written in 1978 by Scott Peck, a world-renowned psychiatrist. I decided to buy the hardcover version for my library after reading the electronic version for the third time. It is in front of me now.

The “discipline” module is about life, but amazingly enough, it applies to change, as well. As if the meaning of life and change are interconnected. Let me begin the Design Thinking journey with you, which will change the mindset of our discipline for the new era, opening with Peck’s sentences:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth. One of the greatest truths, because once we truly see the truth, we transcend it. Once we utterly understand and accept it, it is no longer difficult because once we accepted it, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

This truth about life applies to change, too. I believe if we understand and accept the fact that change is difficult, messy, and fast-paced, we can transcend it, and master the art of leading change. Change is never easy, nor straightforward, yet we assign blame to our organizations, or else the sponsors and decision-makers, or any other stakeholders when it doesn’t go as planned. I know about these frustrations and complaints because I have done my share!

A Mindset Change

Change is hard, complex, and fast. The pandemic showed us all that the old ways of thinking won’t work. Do we want to stick to our old ways of thinking and keep getting frustrated, or create new ways? Do we want to re-invent workplaces or not? A mindset is a fundamental tool we require to solve problems. Without the right mindset, we can solve nothing! With a proper mindset and perspective, we can solve many complex human and organizational issues.

Changes evoke in us many uncomfortable and painful feelings and emotions. Often, it takes a new mindset to make sense of them and to transform through them either individually or collectively within organizational cultures to achieve positive change.

Well, here is when Design Thinking comes to play. The tendency to avoid changing our mindset in the change management discipline, and the emotional suffering inherent in it, is understandable. We change practitioners suffer from change fatigue! We are frustrated with all the theories, approaches, models, methodologies, and commercial twists of those approaches. Yet, I believe we do not need a method change; we need a mindset change to achieve the results we need.

What is Design Thinking?

Simply put, Design Thinking is a problem-solving approach. It is strategic in the sense that it helps you see the fundamental requirements and gives you a broad and deep perspective of the past, present, and future. It is practical in the sense that it has many tools that enable you to discover and act on what you have learned. As the name says, Design Thinking is thinking like a designer and adapting the process a designer uses to design: observation, analysis, ideation, creative and critical thinking, sketching and drawing, communicating, prototyping and testing.

Design Thinking is the mindset change needed to improve our ability to successfully manage change because it enables us to interrogate and address dynamic and “wicked” problems.

Transformational change is a wicked problem. According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, a wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons:

  • Incomplete or contradictory knowledge,
  • The large number of people and opinions involved,
  • The significant economic burden,
  • The interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.

In fact, we do not know what the problem is and where we should begin in wicked problems. The problem is complex by nature, versus tame problems with unknown values. The characteristics of tame or traditional problems:

  • Well-defined problem
  • Data is available
  • Algorithm solution

No matter which methodology we use, we cannot solve wicked problems with a linear tame problem-solving mindset. We cannot treat a change as a controllable project, as if we have data for all the unknown values, and we know all the connections. How often have we done this and become frustrated when the templates don’t lead us to success?

Let’s take a closer look at our current state. 

Where We Are Now

I conducted six months of research including more than fifty interviews with change management practitioners. Here are our top challenges, although to me, they are different angles of the same story:

  • Lack of buy-in from leadership (not having engaged sponsors).
  • Lack of clarity on the role and expectations of change practitioners.
  • Insufficient trust and power to influence.
  • Misaligned stakeholder agenda and priorities.
  • Late arrival and being expected to do miracles!

Last but absolutely not the least:

  • Lack of engagement from impacted employees (As if people are supposed to engage in such a painful process!)

Thinking like a designer will not eliminate all our challenges. However, accepting and acknowledging our challenges and taking a fresh look at them will definitely help. Let us see what our future state looks like when/if we change our mindset.

In next week’s article, we will look at where we need to be and provide an introduction to how Design Thinking can get us there.