Applying design thinking to culture change and employee experience – Interview with Karen Jaw-Madson


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DOWE Process
DOWE Process

Today’s interview is with Karen Jaw-Madson, Principal of Co.-Design of Work Experience and author of a new book: Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work. Karen joins me today to talk about the book, applying design thinking to the culture change process, the DOWE framework and what leaders and organisations should be doing to create a more innovative culture at work.

This interview follows on from my recent interview – Delivering a personalized customer experience the Zappos Way – Interview with Alex Genov of Zappos – and is number 274 in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things, providing valuable insights, helping businesses innovate and delivering great service and experience to both their customers and their employees.

Here’s the highlights of my interview with Karen:

  • Karen recently published a new book: Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work.
  • The book was created out of a frustration…..we talk so much about culture and blame culture, primarily, for failures in businesses after the fact.
  • There is no step by step guide for how to intentionally create a positive culture, despite the fact that there is a plenty of evidence showing what a great business asset or liability culture can be.
  • You either manage culture or allow it to manage you.
  • However, we often don’t think about it until something goes wrong.
  • Many organisations are able to create great and positive environments but are unable to sustain them.
  • Organisations need to consider setting the conditions for or, at least, providing the framework by which a company can sustain and evolve good cultures.
  • Karen’s DOWE framework has design thinking at it’s heart.
  • This is because design thinking is both inter-disciplinary and democratic and, as such, gets more people involved in a cultural design and development process than would normally happen.
  • The DOWE framework is comprised of 5 phases (detail from Karen’s website):
    • 1. UNDERSTAND – which contains three learning loops: People & Context, Insights, and Criteria.
      • Activities in People & Context include: aligning purpose and scope, identifying early assumptions and key questions, planning and implementing user research.
      • The Insights learning loop begins with assuming different mindsets before developing insights from raw data collected during user research. As a result, thinking is reframed and drives the development of the provocative proposition. Learning is further catalyzed through the creation of visuals.
      • Criteria takes what was learned from user research and insights to establish the most critical requirements in two sets: from the organizational point of view and the employee point of view. This becomes the decision-making tool later on in the DOWE process.
    • 2. CREATE & LEARN – which contains three learning loops: Explore, Brainstorm and Play.
      • This phase applies what’s been learned “into the creative design process and combines it with generated ideas through play and experimentation” in co-creation with others.
      • In Explore, the design team “builds knowledge and inspiration by learning from everything and everywhere, hunting and gathering anything that could inform their perspective…it goes beyond doing primary and secondary research – it seeks stimulus to synthesize concepts and ideas.”
      • In Brainstorm, facilitation guides people to “work together to generate options, ideas, or offerings that could solve for critical needs and define or enhance a work experience.”
      • The CREATE & LEARN phase concludes with Play, where the team experiments with ideas to see how they relate to one another, how they work or how they might be modified to work.
    • 3. DECIDE – which contains two learning loops: Prototype and Select.
      • The DOWE process converges with the DECIDE phase, which is comprised of the Prototype and Select learning loops.
      • Prototype is another form of exploration that further refines ideas and gathers intelligence toward bringing the team closer to decisions.
      • Select brings the development of the Strategy and Design Blueprint to full fruition when the team chooses what best meets 3 constraints: what is viable, what is possible, and what satisfies the previously established criteria.
    • 4. PLAN – which contains one learning loop: Plan.
      • PLAN prepares the organization for the change that inevitably accompanies the implementation of the Blueprint to 1. ensure that change reaches sufficient depth and breadth across the organization while maintaining connectivity/reinforcement across all content, actions, and activity, and 2. cover what will be done and how during IMPLEMENT.
      • The DOWE process walks the design team through 8 iterations of planning to form the Roadmap and Action Plans.
    • 5. IMPLEMENT – which contains three learning loops: Manage, Measure, and Sustain.
      • In this last phase of the DOWE process, the Strategy and Design Blueprint is brought to life with the implementation of the Roadmap and Action Plans through the learning loops of Manage, Measure, and Sustain.
      • Manage goes beyond carrying out plans, it manages meaning in the creation of a new reality at the individual, team, and organization levels.
      • Measure serves to “gauge progress toward key milestones and enable timely adjustments” as well as “provides data and content for communication and contributes to the change narrative.” “Both a process and an outcome,”
      • Sustain drives continued momentum and ensures that changes stick for as long as they’re needed.
  • The design thinking approach allows an organization to integrate and iterate progressively and intentionally.
  • In one way it’s like a form of organizational mindfulness.
  • We think we know our culture but we rarely understand the complexities behind it.
  • Culture is not just about what’s said but it’s also about what’s lived and what’s observed.
  • To achieve real and sustainable culture change, those pieces need to be integrated because they sometimes conflict with one another.
  • The intent of the framework is make a good experience an extraordinary one.
  • This sort of process allows the organisation to explore the dominant logic and assumptions that exist with an organization.
  • The whole reason why design is paired with change management is because you can’t have a great design if you don’t have change management.
  • We frame things as experiences. That’s how we organize our memories. That’s how we’re coded. That’s why culture needs to be a learning experience.
  • However, the success of this type of work is dependent on leaders. So, if leaders want to ready themselves for this type of change/exploration then they should start by working on themselves….making themselves more open to doing things differently.
  • Our worlds are formed by the questions we ask.
  • Grab a copy of Karen’s new book: Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work.

About Karen

Karen Jaw-MadsonKaren Jaw-Madson is Principal of Co.-Design of Work Experience, an independent consultancy that collaborates with organizations to design and develop solutions where both people and business thrive. She is also author of a new book: Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work.

Organizational expert Karen Jaw-Madson enjoyed success as a corporate executive before pursuing a ‘portfolio career’ comprised of research, writing, consulting, teaching/speaking, and creative pursuits. As a versatile leader across multiple industries, Karen developed, led, and implemented numerous organizational initiatives around the globe. Today, this East Coast transplant to Silicon Valley (via Ireland and the Midwest) is principal of Co.-Design of Work Experience, where she enables organizations with innovative approaches and customized solutions for intimidating challenges. Focus areas include culture, organizational change, and people strategies. She has a BA in Ethnic and Cultural Studies from Bryn Mawr College and a MA in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University.

Check out her website at, pick up a copy of her new book: Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work, say Hi to her on Twitter @KarenJaw and connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


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