Being the person challenging the status quo

In any work we do as designers or leaders of design teams, we tend to create some form of change. This is of course the nature of design, design is a process of creating new realities for others to experience.

This means we need to be fluent in the language and nature of change. Of course change management is its own well developed and comprehensive discipline, so this article is not about teaching you about change theory. I’ve included a couple of references at the bottom that I think are good ‘human-centred’ perspectives of change. Interestingly, they are both based on the influential model created by Dr Elizabeth Kübler-Ross from her book, "On death and dying" (1976). The nature of her exploration was, of course, intimately human centred.

What I want to talk about, of course, is what it takes to be the person who is leading some form of change. This does not need to be organisational or nation level transformation, although what I share with you is applicable at all scales.  Ultimately change happens at the individual level.

I think the most important thing to remember is that the change is not about you. I know this might sound a little obvious. I have seen people take the resistance to change very personally and then they run out of steam and stop showing up.

It may be true you are the source of change, the instigator of it, but the reactions people have, the resistance you might feel or the criticism you may receive is not actually about you personally. Change is a very individual thing.  People react in many different ways at many different intensities. Your job is to be the most resourceful version of yourself when stewarding people through the change.


People will react to the challenge to the status quo

As people realise that something is about to change, they will react. Some will be welcoming of it, but most will be resistant. This resistance is usually about fear, fear of the unknown, they are worried about what this might mean for their ‘normal’.

So your role in this is to remain in communication, they will need information from you about what’s happening and where we are heading and why. It is your responsibility to know how to communicate in a connected way. Remember the framework in my book (page 137) this will help you form a connected narrative around purpose for change, the outcomes we are all in service of, the approach we are taking and the plan that’s going to get us there.

It is also important to speak about their reality not yours. What does this change mean for them. This is what they really want to know. You can talk about what this change enables on a greater scale after you’ve addressed what it means for them directly.


People will begin to feel the impact of the change and this can be scary.

There is a phase in the change cycle where people accept that change is happening but they don’t yet know how to be or do anything differently. It is important for you to enable the expressions of the fear, in appropriate ways of course. This fear may manifest as anger, as procrastination, as denial or simply as defiance. Your role is to continue to have empathy for those you are asking to alter something about their own personal status quo.

At this point, continuing to have empathy and listening, really listening (use the listening channels on p.98 of my book) to what is going on for those people affected by the change is essential. At a small scale you can do this directly, at a larger scale this needs to be designed into the change program. The experience we want to enable for those moving through change is one where they feel heard, understood and their concerns have been taken into consideration.

If you don’t allow for this to emerge and be expressed, it manifests later in the organisational culture as resentment and toxicity.


Once people start to experience the reality of the change, fear gives way to acceptance.

As the change is understood, and people gain clarity about the impact the change will have on them personally, they will start to accept this new reality and begin to gingerly explore the new ‘normal’.

This exploration stage is crucial and you must give this space. To excitedly push at this point and ask too much of your team can cause them to regress back into fear. Do not expect that your team is going to productive at this point. It is important  to factor all this in to your thinking and planning for introduction of the new reality.

People take time to adapt, and it is during this phase your team is adapting to something new. Have patience, support their progress and create opportunities for them to experience the success of the new way of working early.

And celebrate the wins. We often forget to do this because we move our focus onto the next thing. It’s important to establish a track record of success so people believe that it is possible to change, and change for the good.


Integrating the new reality.

One aspect we often forget to deliberately design is the integration of the new reality into the rest of the organisation/community. This is especially true, for example, when one part of the organisation may introduce a new method of delivery, while the other parts of the organisation (procurement or finance) are still running the way they always have. This creates a disconnect in the mindset and pace of work and increases the time we need to spend in the difficult stage of change, in fear.

Deliberately considering how this change is going to integrate in with everything it interfaces will is essential to ensure it embeds within each individual.

As the person leading the change keep your human centred lens on, make sure you don’t take your hands off the wheel thinking your job is done.

This is the new status quo. We are constantly in a cycle of change and knowing this and accepting this can be the a powerful reframing of what it means to design, and to lead.


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