Adopt a Wicked Mindset to Organizational Transformation

February 9, 2021 Focus area: Digital Transformation

A successful organizational transformation starts with understanding what we are trying to solve and why. As a transformation consultant I am trained to question assumptions before presenting solutions. From my experience I can state that I almost never solve the problem I am initially asked to solve. Often it is very challenging for an organization to determine the underlying cause for their problems. My responsibility is to find the right problem to advise the right solution.

In general, people tend to try solving problems that appear similar to previously solved problems, using the same methods even though simpler or more optimal solutions may exist. This is part of how the human brain works. It follows familiar patterns, thereby reducing cognitive load. However, organizational transformation does not allow one-size-fits-all solutions. We must understand the unique context of the organization, the people and interactions. Transforming organizations is ultimately transforming relationships among people. I argue that the success of organizational transformation lies in the power of great design.

ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE IS A WICKED PROBLEM

Organizational change is inherently subjective to concepts such as emotions, needs, motivations and behavior. This makes organizational change a complex, multi-dimensional problem. Horst Rittel (1960), a Design Theorist, named complex and multi-dimensional problems ‘Wicked Problems’.1 Organizational transformation therefore calls for a collaborative approach, being open to adapt to changes, incorporating feedback and being able to test and validate the organizational change and outcome.

Wicked problems require system thinking. System thinking is the ability to take a broad perspective that revolves around understanding systems, patterns and how components of system(s) interconnect with each other. As consultants we know how to tie the organizational components together. We need to engage the client in this way of thinking too.

COMBINE SYSTEM THINKING, DESIGN THINKING AND AGILE METHODOLOGY

Design thinking is an iterative process to systematically understand, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and identify solutions in a collaborative way. The design thinking process distinguishes five subsequent stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. Whereas it could be understood as a linear process, it is not. It is a continuous cycle that allows to execute, iteratively test, validate hypotheses, and adapt based upon gathered insights. As organizational challenges usually have non-linear solutions it is important to allow yourself to constantly question the problem, assumption and possible implications of the solution.

In particular now, in these times of working remotely, it is even more important to find creative ways to collaborate and engage the client. Design thinking promotes collaboration with the user, in this case the organization. This is essential in developing a fitting solution to the user’s context. I converted the test card from Strategyzer – well known for their business model canvas tool – into experiment cards in order for the organization to iteratively validate their organizational ‘need for change hypotheses’. I positioned the client as the expert and myself as the facilitator in the design process. By doing so I made the organization feel responsible for their own solution. This is powerful for obtaining buy-in and commitment to adopting change.

We ran several sprints conducting experiments. Using an agile methodology allowed to incorporate feedback from previous iterations and engage with the relevant stakeholders in a collaborative way.

A WICKED MINDSET

I propose a wicked mindset to solving wicked problems. This mindset is required to combine system thinking, design thinking and agile methodology. To illustrate this wicked mindset, I share my approach from a previous assignment for a BlinkLane-client in the transportation sector. I started with creating a good understanding of the organizational needs by conducting interviews. I made assumptions explicit in order to validate them together with the client. Applying system thinking throughout this process of understanding and defining the problem statement enabled me to take a broad perspective on the overall organizational system. Together with the client we formed a multi-disciplinary team. This collaborative approach promotes best knowledge transfer and learning. I used Transformation Journey Mapping – based on the Design Thinking tool ‘Customer Journey Mapping’ – to visualize together with the client the impact of the transformation within the organization. This also allowed us to anticipate on next steps and to engage the right people at the right time. The journey is refined along the way based on insights derived from iteratively testing of the transformation design. Additionally, transformation journey mapping is even more powerful in combination with defining personas. Personas promote taking a people perspective on change by understanding their situation, needs and behavior. As previously stated, transforming organizations is ultimately transforming relationships among people.

PRACTICE AND DEVELOP YOUR WICKED MINDSET

Organizational transformation is a wicked problem that requires a collaborative non-linear problem-solving approach to facilitate the process of questioning problems, assumptions and implications. Adopting a wicked mindset enables you to collaborate, understand, define, test and validate hypotheses. Being open to feedback to refine along the way is key in this continuous process cycle. I encourage you to adopt a wicked mindset and practice with the discussed methodologies. The discussed methodologies and tools are extremely practical, and certain insights into the techniques will only be evident once you experience them.

I strongly believe that I can improve the experience of the people I’m working with through the power of great design. I am very interested in Design thinking, love to practice, grow my design skills and capability, and gain a lot of experience. I am open for any feedback, thoughts, ideas, good practices and to learn from others.

Reference

1 Buchanan, R. (1992), Wicked Problems in Design Thinking