Bringing design thinking to change management

Louise Gouard

Remote working calls for an innovative and human-centric approach to implementing change

Covid has kickstarted a remote working revolution, paving the way for improved employee satisfaction, higher retention rates and lower operational costs. But there are also significant challenges involved in managing a decentralised workforce, particularly for the change management professionals who need to engage stakeholders and implement change programmes in a virtual environment.

This calls for an innovative approach, which is why we have incorporated design thinking principles to help deliver impactful, human-centred change, remotely. Design thinking is an iterative and flexible methodology, focused on collaboration between designers and users, with an emphasis on bringing ideas to life based on how users think, feel and behave. The aim is to understand the challenges the user faces and to redefine those problems to craft solutions that can then be prototyped and tested.

The process consists of five, clearly defined stages: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test. By reaching into the designer’s toolkit, we can explore the different elements of each phase and how it can best be applied to change management.

Getting started

Before diving into the toolkit, however, it is important to understand who it is that is going to be affected by the change. This can be done with a simple stakeholder canvas, addressing those internal users that will be directly impacted; other internal users that may be tangentially affected and externally impacted users, such as customers.

Once the stakeholder canvas is complete, it is time to start working through the stages of the design thinking process.

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  • Empathise

  • This stage is about gaining empathy and understanding the challenges users might be facing, putting to one side any assumptions, and immersing yourself in their world instead. The goal of this phase is to collect information about the stakeholders, through interviews, informal conversations and structured meetings. Try to understand how they work, how they feel, what is happening around them and what will be different as a result of the change initiative. At Palladium we love to use an empathy map and user personas to guide this phase. You can download our change empathy map here.

  • Define

  • The goal of the define phase is to summarise the findings from the empathy stage and clearly articulate the problem you are trying to solve. In other words, it provides a clear-cut objective to work towards. This can be achieved by developing a simple matrix capturing the current situation, desired future situation and the change gap in between, on one axis, and then the type of change that the initiative is going to deliver, for example, system change, process change or cultural change, on the other. At the end of the define stage, you will have built a clearly articulated problem statement, which identifies the gap between the current state and desired state, or between the problem and the goal.

  • Ideate

  • This is the stage is where the magic happens! This stage is about generating creative options for the change experience that will resonate with the stakeholders. A little creative thinking can help, especially when delivering an initiative remotely. Start to develop the ideal journey based on the information gathered about the users. Take into account the different stages of the change you are implementing. At Palladium, for example, we have been creating care packages for users and have defined different communication and training plans based on the different employee personas identified. We have also created engaging and interactive workshops to introduce the change to the stakeholders using various exercises and activities.

  • Prototype

  • The goal of the prototype phase is to review the findings from the ideation phase and select the best ideas. There are lots of tools available to help prioritise. Some of the ideas identified might be too extravagant or difficult to implement, or simply not what the users actually need. With a prioritised selection of ideas, however, you can work on prototyping the end-to-end change journey and the key elements that surround the change management programme, for example, communication and training. A simple whiteboard is effective for capturing the user journey, bringing it to life with photographs. Remember there may be different journeys for different personas.

  • Test

  • Depending on the change experience crafted, testing may require a few assets. Examples include branding around the initiative, training material, a care package or communication messaging. The assets will allow testing of the change ideas and implementing of the change experience. It can be helpful to start with a pilot group of users or trialling different experiences with different stakeholder groups. For change initiatives, the test period can extend over several months. During this period, keep track of progress and monitor how each initiative is received by the stakeholders. The design thinking methodology is an iterative process and it may be necessary to revisit earlier stages to adapt the approach based on test findings.

    Over the testing period, refine the approach based on the feedback from the impacted users. A perfect approach is difficult to achieve, but it is possible to get closer to the ideal experience through trial and error. The key difference using design thinking techniques as opposed to traditional change management methods is the emphasis placed on the needs, feelings and emotions of impacted users. Emotions are powerful during organisational change. They can spread and shape the emotions of other people. By focusing on the human impact for stakeholders it will help mitigate the delivery risks and identify issues that might otherwise be missed.


    Palladium is a digital and technology due diligence provider and digital transformation partner to Private Equity firms and their portfolios across Europe and the US. Palladium was named by Real Deals as 2020 Specialist Advisor of the Year at The Private Equity Awards.

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