Design of Work Experience: A Different Way of Customizing the Culture

You may be thinking, “Another culture model? Who needs another tool?” Given all that’s out there, the skepticism is well-founded. This one, however, fills a much-needed gap when it comes to culture-building. Design of Work Experience (DOWE) is a concept, framework, and methodology that provides the step-by-step needed to create, implement, and sustain culture customized to its unique, intended context — your organization.

The following excerpt from the newly released book, Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work discusses the unmet needs when it comes to culture in organizations and provides a high level overview of Design of Work Experience.

Leave your mental models at the door, because this is not your typical business book. The absence of case studies is intended to discourage the temptation of mimicry. Quotes are rendered anonymous to ensure a focus on the quality of what was said over who said it. The text is written to guide you while you are developing this capability experientially. We are living in the age where we must do things differently to get different results.

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Redefining the concept of work

Most people think about work experience as achievements you put on your resume. There’s also the type of work experience that has to do with “what it’s like to work there,” the kind that has the potential to either enrich or harm the quality of your life. It’s in every employer’s best interest to create the good kinds of experiences — the ones that increase job satisfaction, employee engagement, and company performance.

Whether your organization is in startup mode or long-established, you’ve got to figure out how to manage your culture and its related experiences — not only for the many benefits it brings, but to avoid the dreaded or else. You only need to read the headlines to know how often dysfunctional cultures are blamed for corporate scandals and other disasters. Threats aside, there is a huge opportunity gap between where company cultures are today and our aspirations for them. A 2015 survey from Columbia Business School and Duke University found that out of almost 2,000 CEOs and CFOs, 90% said corporate culture was important, but only 15% felt that their culture was where it needed to be. The follow-up question might ask, “What is being done?”

As if doing business wasn’t challenging enough, employing people means figuring out how to best utilize, develop, and manage diverse talent in ever changing circumstances. And it’s here – “the future of work” – the one where the boundaries of our collective understanding are being disrupted every day. The concept of work is being redefined. The war for talent rages on. The emergence of the freelancer in the “gig economy” muddles what is internal/external to the company. The lines between nonprofit (or public) and for-profit (or private) are softening. A socially minded business calls itself “not only for profit”, while another regards their product testers (who are also customers) part of the company and their community.

How people work is changing as well. The 9-5 schedule is becoming less and less relevant. Many are working on different timetables, longer and shorter, regular and irregular. Co-working centers are now in most major metropolitan cities, from San Francisco to New York. These are the physical workspaces that are shared among multiple startups, small businesses, and solopreneurships to encourage networking or even partnerships. Virtual work arrangements, online team collaboration, and videoconferencing are commonplace. Technology has enabled different ways of working, from the cloud to software as a service to communication tools to productivity applications and beyond.

How knowledge is transmitted and received is also changing. Large, blue chip companies are regularly reaching out externally, using open innovation forums to invite outsiders to co-design new solutions. Other organizations give away proprietary information to encourage advancement or societal change, like the social networking platform that designated some of its software infrastructure as open source. Other tech companies have followed suit. A mining company became a well known innovation case study after it publicly shared all its confidential geological data and invited participants to help them literally find gold. In the end, the company netted $3B out of a $575K investment in prize money.

Companies are trying out different working paradigms. They buy other businesses, not for products and services, but for their talent. It’s known as acqui-hiring. Others bring back previous employees they call “boomerang hires” because they left the company and return with even more experience. #FutureofWork is mentioned on social media many times per week, which means people are buzzing about it. All this indicates that work isn’t going to change, it already has. With these developments happening at the same time with greater frequency, it may seem like a bunch of moving targets for employers who must juggle talent and culture internally and the future of work externally. How will your organization respond?

When best practices aren’t

Let’s start with what not to do: misuse best practices. When confronting challenges, organizations choose solutions that may have worked elsewhere, but find they only superficially address or temporarily relieve symptoms as Peter Senge writes in The Fifth Discipline. It’s a form of hacking — making do, quick and dirty. Emulating best practices is easy; just spend money on trendy amenities, programs, or technology even if they’re disconnected from strategy, purpose, or the people they are intended to help. They may set precedents or costs they can’t sustain because they lack what’s been called a “market-proof culture”.

Best-in-class products and practices may sometimes mask or divert attention from the true nature of the very problems they are attempting to fix. For example, a company decided to install an expensive timekeeping system instead of confronting employees who were abusing policies. UX Designer and author of The Best Interface is No Interface, Golden Krishna, would equate this to “slapping an interface on it.” When implemented wholesale, best practices come with mixed results. Instead of being right for everybody, they’re a little wrong for most.

Many best practices do, of course, have some validity. The problem is in how they’re used. One solution is applied to one problem in isolation. There’s a failure to consider the impact of the practice on the whole and to integrate actions. They don’t dig beyond the surface to the fundamental needs or root causes. These actions inadvertently cause new problems and might not address the old problems either.

Then there’s the tendency to emphasize “practice” over resolution: a decision is made. Once it’s carried out, the problem is considered solved. The focus then shifts away from the initial problem and more toward the tactics of implementation.

Best practices are great when used appropriately but not when they are counted on as standalone, one-size-fits-all solutions. Besides, how does differentiation happen if everyone is doing the same thing? How about we call for some creativity in our workplace practices?

Design the work experience

DOWE (pronounced [‘dü ‘wē]) partners employees with their employers to create customized and meaningful work experiences that set the conditions for people and business to thrive.

There’s the concept of DOWE and then there’s the process of DOWE. At the macro level, the DOWE process organizes and structures this complex work into four major components: The combination of Design and Change enabled by Capability and Engagement is like many design processes across industries – there’s the exploration, understanding, designing, and executing. It’s followed up with a change management process: the diagnosis, planning, execution, and evaluation.

Design and change make a great combination. Without change, what comes out of design may never be fully realized. It operationalizes the new experience and makes it happen. At the same time, design gives substance to change, making it meaningful and profound. Change – like culture – is constant, so it’s a matter of whether you manage it purposefully or let change manage you. On their own, they both fall short. Together, they achieve exponentially more than what’s been done before. All organizations practicing DOWE must manage a degree of change, for there is inevitably some distance between where you are and where you want to go.

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Capability allows the organization to capitalize on its strengths and develop the skills and abilities needed to achieve a designed outcome.

Engagement on a widespread basis — top-down, bottom-up, back-and-forth, and in-between — breaks down silos and barriers, replacing them with an integrated community of committed people driving change and performing. Under these main components, DOWE is organized as a series of iterative learning loops, each with its own specific set of activities that reflect the nonlinear, but progressive nature of the process. Ultimately, the model yields an in-depth understanding of the current state, a design for the future state, and a roadmap with action plans for how to get there.

The transition, or “handoff” (so to speak) from Design and change occurs during the Plan phase, which is described in the book.

The process concludes with the “sustain” learning loop, which continues until the context changes and a new round of DOWE is necessary. When that happens, the organization’s starting point will be that much more advanced as a result of the previous work.

DOWE creates opportunities for organizations to thoughtfully consider strategic questions before settling on answers. It tempers the urge to quickly identify solutions and immediately execute without full understanding of the context and without planning that takes into account how it’s received. Alignment is created between a business and its people by co-creation, drawing boundaries and setting expectations together while providing much needed clarity. Most importantly, DOWE keeps the focus in the right place: on people and getting them inspired.

Karen Jaw-Madson

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. Visit her website at www.designofworkexperience.com.