Design Concepts wins GOOD DESIGN Award for its work on Pelvalon's Eclipse System

Navigating the new

May 17, 2016

Late last year, our leadership team at Design Concepts announced the long-in-the-making decision to relocate our Madison workplace from our current suburban office park to the rapidly developing East Washington corridor of downtown Madison. 

It’s a decision that puts us physically in the center of what’s happening in technology and innovation in Madison while also giving us the opportunity to re-envision how we want to work, team and tell our story in the future.

While it’s a decision that makes sense for our business, our teams and our brand, like with any big workplace change the announcement was not met with universal enthusiasm. That’s the thing. Newness brings a high degree of uncertainty, complexity and variability. When you make the decision to embark upon a new path there are often still more questions than answers. So how do you navigate that path in a way that supports everyone involved through the uncertain and unknown?

As an innovation firm, we know a little something about navigating unknown territories — whether it be new processes or tools, products or competitive landscapes. When entering any new territory, it’s important to start paying extremely close attention to communication. Don’t just assume the communication is happening and your message is heard. Instead, take an intentional, carefully mapped approach. Because just like design, communication can be used as a tool to manage complexity.

As we gear up for our move next year, we’ve developed five best practices for navigating the new through a thoughtfully designed, open and collaborative communication process:

1. Co-create the path 


This shouldn’t be any surprise, but selling doesn’t work well when there are competing needs and emotions are running high. Working together to create the solution allows the team to align on what matters most. The ideal outcome is a communication plan that mixes one-way with two-way communication and larger events with the smaller, more frequent touch points. The resulting communication plan has a rhythm, almost like a sheet of music.

Example: For our new workplace, we solicited targeted feedback on the things that we could actually act upon, like furniture layouts, brand patterning and privacy screens, and nominated key individuals to act as representatives for their departments. The representatives act as a funnel of information for the change team, keeping their ears on the ground and making sure every voice is being heard.

2. Develop a platform for sharing stories

Any change takes time and with time there are multiple decisions, updates, schedules and events to share. For any team working through long-term change, it’s worth the time to invest in a platform for sharing these stories.

Example: For our new workplace, we created a quick-and-easy website on SquareSpace.com to give our teams a go-to place for not only referencing information, but also giving feedback. To make it memorable, we gave the site the cute code name Operation Butter, drawing on the dairy history of our new workplace location.

When you make the decision to embark upon a new path there are often still more questions than answers.

3. Prototype to learn

When in doubt about a decision to try something new, prototype it. Even when it’s imperfect, prototypes help teams anticipate some of the considerations and issues that might be around the bend. Think of prototyping as an immersive communication tool. Don’t forget to be specific about what you’re testing, why you’re considering it, and where the prototype is falling short versus the reality of the experience.

Example: When faced with the decision of whether or not to set up hoteling (or shared) workstations in our new office, our team quickly prototyped a bench-style seating arrangement and opened up the experiment to any employee that wanted to try living without a permanent individual workstation. While there were obvious shortcomings with the hoteling prototype — we had to use existing, smaller work surfaces and couldn’t replicate the holistic experience (we weren’t able to build out adjacent resources like quiet rooms, storage and teaming spaces that would make the hoteling experience really sing). But we were able to quickly uncover some questions, like how do we signal focus or tell someone where we’re working for the day?

4. Build empathy

Trade-offs are an inherent part of any decision-making process. As designers, we use multiple tools to document and communicate these trade-offs throughout the innovation process. Regardless of the decision-making tool you use, the most important thing is to routinely get all of the stakeholders in the same room to discuss the trade-offs and build empathy for competing needs.

Example: One of our favorite features of the new workplace is a space nicknamed the Tree house. It’s an intimate space with a kitchen, casual furniture, chalkboard graffiti walls, a ping pong table and access to grills for our internal team's Grill Wednesdays.

In early design conversations, the team thought the Tree house would also be a great space to welcome our clients for informal break-out sessions. However, as the design progressed we realized that regularly hosting our clients in this space would risk the interruption of daily rituals and activities that are a significant part of our team culture. If we had to check if the space was in use by a client before we could take part in a spontaneous ping pong match, the activities would become less natural. We realized that our culture was too important of a trade-off. As an alternative, the team negotiated access to a shared penthouse space with views to the state capitol for the occasional client break-out session.

5. Finally, make it fun

It almost goes without saying that it is so important to build excitement, momentum and positivity around every change. Celebrate the hard work people are doing to make change happen and inspire others to join in. Keep in mind, however, that not everyone thinks the decision to change is fun. Some people would prefer status quo or a different idea altogether. Be sensitive to the range of emotions that accompany change and give people the time and the channels to work through the change at their own pace.

Example: It’s both a blessing and a curse that the design, building and moving process for our new workplace will span the next year. We have the luxury to plan ahead and get the needed feedback before decisions are made. On the other hand, we know that to keep the excitement and positive outlook between now and move-in day will take effort. We’re planning events like purge parties to help clear our storage archives, and will introduce a little healthy competition for whoever can find the oldest prototype in our storage area. As the construction progresses, we will work with our contractors and architectural team to offer construction tours paired with design renderings to help people envision the change before it happens.

Interested in other ways you can design your communication approach to manage complexity? Our team highly recommends picking up Kim Erwin’s book Communicating the New: Methods to Shape and Accelerate Innovation.