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Prototyping an Organization to Improve the Way of Working

Can you use evidence-based practices to test, validate & improve the way of working in an organization. Jo Martens from Nascom talked about prototyping your organization at the Dare Festival Antwerp 2014. He presented how they use experiments with evidence to do organizational change.

Nascom was doing well by serving the needs of their customers. In 2009 Nascom imported organisational designs and traditional HR practices like management by objectives, function descriptions, yearly evaluations without taking into account the nature of the beast, being a creative technology agency. In 2012 they did a management buy in, and kicked out most of the things that were introduced since 2009 as it had become clear that they didn’t work for Nascom.

An evidence based approach for organizational change can help to distinguish truth from falsehood. Prototyping is a way to test your assumptions. But how can you prototype an organization? Jo mentioned three things that you can do:

  • Create culture – doing little big things over and over again. Culture is why you do things, which is more important that what to do (methods) or how to do it (tools).
  • Create experiments – try things to learn what works and what doesn’t. In an experiment you define what you expect to achieve from doing something, so that you can validate the result.
  • Create habits – once proven valid, habits or rituals make it stick. Willpower is a limited resource and too many options, too many choices can become a burden. You need to balance experiments and habits.

InfoQ interviewed Jo about prototyping organizations and using it to introduce self-organized agile teams and asked him to share experiences of employees with prototyping.

InfoQ: What made you come up with the idea to prototype organizations?

Jo: To us, it makes total sense to apply this to our organisation. We see it, quite literally, as work-in-progress and are open to re-evaluate,redirect and adjust it when necessary. A prototype is part of our professional language as service designers or software engineers, it feels familiar. Just like Google services are in a perpetual state of beta, we are also constantly evolving and this way our customers are co-designing our organisation. As a result we have hard times showing ‘the’ organisation chart but in many tenders it’s still part of the corporate governance sanity check.

InfoQ: You mentioned design thinking for organizations as an alternative to classic planning thinking, using mental models as a kind of prototype to look at an organization. You also stated that ”Mental are essential tools allowing us to navigate through life”. Can you explain this?

Jo: From our human-centered design background we know that how you interact with a technology is a function of your mental model of that technology. The same is true for your interaction with an organisation. Your mental picture determines how you interact. If we look at a company as a complex adaptive system or even as a ‘living system’ we have to take into account it’s history and it’s lifeline with some major events that shaped the company and live on in stories and behavioural patterns. It made us realise we needed to look at our organisation more as a prototype so we would be able to reinvent it almost continuously. Since words create worlds, and form creates function, we like the prototype approach and it fits with our culture and the nature of our work.

InfoQ: If an organization wants to introduce self-organized teams, e.g. for agile software development, can prototyping help them to do it?

Jo: Prototyping is a mindset, an attitude. To boost this attitude you need to build trust within the team and with the customer. For us that actually starts right here, with our own people. We try to create an environment of trust and psychological safety. When people feel secure and at ease within their working space, it automatically boosts the entrepreneurial atmosphere. People will be more likely to step out of their comfort zone and willing to try new things. And that is exactly what you need to innovate your way of working. The will to face the unknowns and tackle them as they come. We really encourage our people to speak up, be daring, take risks and learn.

The trick there is to be bold enough to admit your mistakes. That’s something we all have to learn, the cognitive and emotional biases are numerous. But even more importantly, we must also recognize all the positive things we’ve accomplished to keep everything balanced. In fact, that’s why we’re not such big fans of the popular mantra ‘fail fast, fail often, fail cheap’. In our experience its negative focus harbours the risk of biasing a complete team, and creating a downward spiral instead of an uplifting experience. Because running a prototype experiment is always about learning. And when did learning become failing?

InfoQ: Can you share some experiences from employees working in organizations that have tried a prototyping approach?

Jo: We’ve introduced quite a lot of experiments, some of them seem to work for all of us, some of them only for a few or not at all. We have done some experiential learning exercises like warp speed to get insights in the nature of innovation or the Marshmallow challenge to learn about prototyping itself. We’ve done visits to the Rubenshuis and analysed Rubens’ paintings to learn how to make a distinction between seeing facts, feeling emotions and constructing a story. We have gone analog and even more visual with a sales kanban, information radiators, blackboards with sticky figures (that didn’t work), …Within a few weeks we will participate in a research project from University of Maastricht where the whole team (and the customer!) will wear sociometers to study how team dynamics and team creativity trigger innovation in our service co-creation. We’re also prototyping an open salary formula to see if it’s feasible.

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