Human-centered transformation: the promise — and… | Gagen MacDonald

Insights & Events / Blog

Human-centered transformation: the promise — and challenge — of delivering it

Jun 13, 2022

Today’s business leaders are taking the people side of transformation more seriously. It’s one thing, however, to use the term; it’s another to truly invite employees into the process of building a better workplace.

  1. From strategy-driven to people-centered transformation

For all the questions leaders have grappled with the last two years, one has remained constant: How do we survive the turbulent times ahead?

More every day, businesses are looking to talent as the answer. Today’s businesses recognize that tapping into the power and knowledge of employees will be essential for both future success and for figuring out how the organization should change to get there.

The evidence that people and culture are a worthy investment has been clear for decades. What’s changed in the last two years, however, is that no one can avoid it anymore.

And so, right now, hundreds of senior-level Growth, Transformation and Culture executives sit in newly appointed C-suite roles. They may have big budgets, but they have even bigger questions to answer as we tiptoe into a post-pandemic age: How can they align business goals and increasingly complex digital needs with a culture that truly works for everyone aboard? How can they shift beliefs, cultivate genuine buy-in and counter change fatigue as they ask people to embrace change at unprecedented speeds? How can leaders stay connected to employees working at different times and from different places across the world?

Amid all these questions, human-centered transformation has emerged as a center-stage topic of the business world. The discipline puts the voice of employees at the center of how an organization goes about changing, and countless leaders are embracing it as they attempt to tap into the power of people.

Consulting firms, always quick to capture new opportunities, have hurriedly introduced new offerings devoted to human-centered transformation. Even firms historically focused on operational, logistical work are rapidly building out their innovation, internal communication, design-thinking and employee experience teams.

For Gagen MacDonald, this is an exciting time, and one that reinforces our core perspective. We’ve focused on human-centered transformation and the people dimension of change since our inception 25 years ago. We’ve always believed that transformation and culture must stay intertwined for either to work. Today, it’s encouraging to see so many influential businesses connecting these threads, and striving to acknowledge, care for and collaborate with the people at the center of their change efforts.

  1. Human-centered design for the human side of business

The rise of the human side of transformation as a formal discipline owes a lot to human-centered design championed by folks like IDEO. Human-centered design, according to Harvard Business School, is “a problem-solving technique that puts real people at the center of the development process, enabling you to create products and services that resonate and are tailored to your audience’s needs.” The approach is grounded in the idea that products and solutions are a lot more effective when they’re grounded in rigorous empathy.

In the mid-nineties, Oral-B asked IDEO to develop a new kid’s toothbrush. Rather than replicate what was already on the market—a slim, shorter version of an adult-sized toothbrush—IDEO went directly to the source; they watched children brush their teeth.
They realized in the process that kids were having a hard time holding the skinnier toothbrushes their parents used because they didn’t have the same dexterity or motor skills. What children needed were toothbrushes with a big, fat, squishy grip that was easier for them to hold onto.

This simple example captures the approach that led to Fitbit, Uber, AirBnB and many of this century’s most impactful inventions. Instead of focusing on features, functionality or theoretical use, companies focused on real, observed pain points. They purposefully built their products around the goal of improving people’s lives by addressing those pain points.

Human-centered transformation takes this into the space of culture and the workplace. Employees become your customers; their experience becomes the product you’re seeking to create. The human needs of your people — what motivates them, what gives them purpose, what gives them pride in their work — become the most critical inputs you can source.

At Gagen, we’re using this approach to guide multiple active transformation projects.

One client is a financial services company shedding office space so its employees can primarily work remote. As it does, its leaders are searching for practical ways that technology can be applied to strengthen collaboration, productivity and professional fulfillment among the company's workforce. We helped the client develop richer and more in-depth employee personas factoring in essential variables, including behavior alignment and employee energy. These personas and the research that went into them have become core to shaping and activating measurable people-first experiences.

Another client, a major retailer, is building a stand-out talent brand and employee value proposition amid an ocean of competitors. We’re leading a process to frame and develop a more compelling talent brand framework for them — one that includes human-based factors and creates a more magnetic, “can’t imagine working anywhere else” connection for current and future employees.

In both engagements, we’re deploying human-centric experience design frameworks to glean employee inputs and build empathetic solutions around their needs.

  1. Walking the talk on the promise of people

Of course, it’s one thing to focus on people's experiences and another to effectively improve them. Much like we’ve seen with the backlash to “green-washing” and “purpose-washing,” companies that talk the talk but fail to walk the walk of human-centered transformation risk exacerbating the problems they’re hoping to solve.

Which raises the question: What makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful human-centered transformations?

In large part, it comes down to active listening.

Companies are big, complex, emotionally charged organisms, and the prospect of transforming one can feel overwhelming. Successful transformation requires leaders who truly seek to learn from employees — who believe that their perspectives are valuable not just for determining the best solution, but for identifying the true problems. Astute leaders recognize that all employees, regardless of where they are in the business, have valuable knowledge to offer from their experiences, and that their success is paramount to the business’s success at large.

Listening, however, is not just about inviting input. It’s about proving you value that input by taking action on it.

In our view, the execution hinges on The Three Things that Change Everything™. To rally large, complex groups of people around a common effort, you need a compelling story, committed leaders and an intentional roadmap.

A Compelling Story

Many companies have messages they lean on to ensure consistency; too few consistently tell a story that transcends their roster of products and speaks to their capacity to become something new. To inspire transformation, you need a story that speaks to your company’s higher purpose, and sparks employees’ imagination and commitment. A strong enough story can counter the brain’s hard-wired tendency to resist change, unlocking the perspective, the resilience and the empathy we need to see change as an opportunity.

Committed Leaders

While a compelling story is imperative, if it lives only in executives’ minds, it is doomed to die there too. Stories come to life when leaders throughout an organization set day-to-day priorities and take ownership of what happens next. Too often, frontline leaders feel disconnected from their company’s story because they are passive recipients in its creation… just another audience. To gain commitment, leaders must be part of the story’s creation. They must be given an opportunity to challenge and shape it before they fully embrace it. Leaders who are fully bought-in not only become zealous advocates for change, but cooperative partners in trading resources and sacrificing pet projects in the name of shared success. While this can slow down the process of strategy development in the short term, the buy-in eventually pays off by speeding up execution.

An Intentional Roadmap

Transformation is frequently thwarted by clutter. People sustain momentum when they know where to channel it. They lose it — often replaced by change fatigue — when they’re pulled in too many directions. Successful companies transform by staying extremely aware of this as they plot and sequence change initiatives. They make hard choices about what to focus and what not to focus on, too.

Executed in tandem with sincere, fastidious listening, these Three Things will catalyze change, and position your business to walk the talk of human-centered transformation.

For a deeper dive on The Three Things that Change Everything™, explore our whitepaper on the topic.

/ May 25, 2022

Employer-employee dynamics have changed, but they’re still supposed to be a two-way street.

Previous Post
/ Jun 25, 2022

Resilience Workshops

Next Post