In part one of this two-part series, I describe agile software development, design thinking and minimum viable product (MVP), including some of the challenges teams encounter when adopting these methods. In this follow-up article, I’ll share the steps I take to introduce new concepts and methods on teams to avoid some of the obstacles I’ve seen and experienced in the past.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this: You’ve just attended a webinar or training, learned a new method, process or concept, and it feels like a lightbulb just went off in your head. You might be thinking, “If only we tried design thinking, we’d be in a much better place!”
I’m a firm believer that change can happen bottom-up, so this has been me multiple times. I’m usually known on my teams as “the person who comes back from a conference and enthusiastically proposes we try the latest new best practice.” My optimism and curiosity are relentless — some have even compared me to Leslie Knope (which is probably the biggest compliment you could give to someone in public service).
I’ve had some things stick, like creating a design system, doing team retros and using new project management software; some that have partially stuck, like story mapping and stand ups; and others that have just miserably failed. Sorry, DesignOps. The organization just wasn’t ready for you yet… (If you’re curious about some of the methods I’ve mentioned here, like design systems, team retros, story mapping, or DesignOps, check out the resources available on digital.gov. Additionally, the Lab at OPM is a great place to start if you’re interested in human-centered design.)
Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about introducing new concepts and methods to teams. Before I jump into the steps I take, I want to emphasize that change is hard and takes time. Even in tech and startups, where an innovation culture is embraced, it takes a lot of inertia to move from the way things have been done to something completely new. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try, but I hope this gives you perspective to help set the right expectations around the change. I’ve found the steps below to be successful whenever I’m proposing new ways of working:
1. Stop and take a step back.
I often want to jump headfirst into a new process, but that has never worked. I’ve learned that the more effective route is to see this as a journey where a process is matured and adopted over time. Before suggesting anything, ask yourself the following questions:
- What does success look like?
- Does it mean that everyone adopts what you’re proposing? Is it more incremental?
- What’s the outcome you’re hoping for?
I’m able to articulate the theory of change I have from the new idea and come up with a list of questions and unknowns I have. This activity helps me recognize that change can take a long time so there may be some short-term wins I can do in the meantime.
2. Get a sense of the team, department and/or organization.
I said this in the first part of the series and I’ll say it again here:
It is important to adapt any methods to the culture and environment of the organization where you’re introducing them.
Whether you’re starting your first project or hundredth, begin by understanding where the organization has been. This can help you navigate how best to introduce something new. Determine things like:
- How are decisions made?
- Who are key stakeholders?
- What are their motivations?
- Which of them are going to support a new way of thinking?
- Who might be more resistant?
I like to do this by having stakeholder interviews. Even though I may have worked alongside some of these folks, it’s different when you’re asking them directly about their work and goals. It’s also helpful because you might have an idea about how X method would help improve a process, but it’s important to understand how others view it as well.
From this activity, I like to create ways to visualize the information I’ve uncovered and share them with my team. These are usually in the form of organization charts, timelines or service maps. Creating assets like this also helps ensure that everyone’s understanding is aligned. It’s easy to describe a process and talk abstractly about it, but when it’s on paper, you can really get concrete feedback and alignment.
3. Start small, but start somewhere.
The quote I like to keep in mind when I’m at this step is, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.” Sometimes I have this all-or-nothing mindset and I have to remind myself that incremental change is what’s needed.
I’ll start by laying out the problem statement, usually during a staff meeting: “I notice we run into [insert issue here]. Has anyone else encountered that?” The conversation starts to move, especially if I’ve captured insights correctly from the previous step. And then I’ll say, “What if we tried [insert solution] for a week or two?” Proposing something with a shorter time horizon makes it easier for folks to adopt and try. During the trial period, I’m diligent and keep an eye out for when the solution does help fix the issue. It may be that your team has taken on a lot of work and you propose talking to users to help prioritize the backlog. If the issue comes up again, refer back to what you found from the solution and reaffirm the actions the team took. This helps others see the value in the solution.
If all goes well and the team is starting to adopt the method, concept or process, I document it! I’ll create a process diagram, table or appropriate artifact to describe the solution and start to socialize it. This helps to cement the practice on the team.
Hopefully, these three steps lead to larger adoption of the new way of working you’ve proposed. When more and more people are on board, some other outputs I’ve created are tooling to help support the new way of working and a metrics dashboard to track outcomes based on those changes. This will help the practice become a norm and help the team and organization institute it as a part of the culture.
Jenn Noinaj is a social impact strategist, researcher, and designer passionate about using design to solve society’s most pressing challenges. She’s currently leading the Public Interest Technology Field Building portfolio at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation where she works on creating solutions to make the public interest technology field more inclusive. Prior to this role, she worked in the federal government at the US Digital Service where she partnered with various agencies to transform digital services across government, building capacity in technology and design and championing a user-centric culture. You can find more about her on her website and can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.