A design orientation, made tangible by a set of design sensibilities, is a potent way to do organisational change. It can achieve a better result for the organisation who wants benefits realised, and for individuals going through the experience of changing.

[Note: This is the first in a series of design-themed posts by Questo.]


A design orientation is in the Questo DNA. This means design sensibilities to influence choices and action, and the methods utilised to explore and address complex challenges.

We work in the organisational change and learning contexts, so we utilise our design repertoire on change and learning challenges. Our design repertoire for these contexts starts with design sensibilities. But before I get into that, I’ll expand more on the notion of Design. Design covers a wide territory and I might be talking about it in a way that is new to you. Let me offer some foundational explanations to help contextualise the upcoming section in Design Sensibilities.

A design philosophy

Organisational Change Management context is not typically known for utilising design as a paradigm for getting useful outcomes. We believe it’s a more relevant way for approaching matters where people are a central consideration. One philosophy of design, is human-centric design. In a time of increasing mechanistic solutions and approaches that imply a stance that humans are pieces of an organisational machine, we promote human-centric thinking and actions.

To be Human-centric doesn’t simply mean to recognise Humans are involved in a situation. It means a stance on how you perceive the nature of ‘being human’ in what you are doing and changing. It’s about working with the complex and ‘messy’ reality of the human condition and many different aspects of what it means to be Human. (I’ll introduce a framework in a later post about The Human Factor).

Design with the flavour of human-centred design – with principles and heuristics appropriate for interactions and experiences – is an ideal way to approach organisational change. That is both change of the organisation (or a property of the organisation); and change in an organisational context.

What is Design?

To design is to create or materialise something from thought and to translate thought, to an outcome that is fit-for-purpose. To do this the designer considers context (who, what, where, when, why), and intentionally makes choices based on that context.

Many people make, build, develop or create things without designing them. Here’s an example you can probably relate to:

When asked to write a Recommendation for someone, do you simply start writing? With a designer mindset, the next step after being asked to accept this task, is to get more information:

  • What purpose will the recommendation serve? (e.g. help get a job; attract new business; introduce you to a new person)
  • Who is the intended audience for the recommendation? (e.g. fans, potential employers, potential clients)
  • Where will the recommendation be published or presented? (i.e. context – verbal, online)
  • Any criteria to constrain or influence design choice? (i.e. word length or tone)

In design, context information is essential to guide choices that enable you to make, build, develop or create something that is fit-for-purpose and has utility, not just something that exists. I was once ‘accused’ of asking a lot of questions before providing someone with a response to their challenge. That was my designer orientation showing up.

You may have heard of Design Thinking, and you are wondering where that fits in the picture. I’ll talk about that in a future post in this series. For now I will say that Design Thinking is an umbrella of perspectives on Design, whereas above I’ve been talking more generically about Design.

A set of Design Sensibilities

This post focuses on Design Sensibilities as a set of disposition and abilities essential for design-oriented work.

Often people seek to learn the tools and methods to use when doing design work, however these are not enough on their own. To have a design orientation is to appreciate and cultivate these sensibilities.

At Questo, we believe there are nine essential design sensibilities for doing Organisational Change (OC) design work. This is what our organisational design DNA looks like.

I’ll explain a little more about each Design Sensibility introduced in the image above.

Curious – Ask questions even when there is nobody around to answer them, when you weren’t directed or prompted to do so. Opening your eyes, ears and mind to new things and to perceive old things in a new way. Seeking a deeper knowledge about what is going on and why things are so. In OC work, this shows up as looking and listening before creating and executing any plans for engagement.

Generative – It’s not enough to simply have ideas and thoughts. Turn those thoughts into something real and visible that others can interact with in our world. Be a maker. Things you make are not expected to always work, however be fluent in translating thought to something material. In OC work, this can look like providing material objects that can be touched and used in engagement activity.

Imaginative – Open the mind to what could be, beyond what currently exists with no censorship about whether it is feasible or desirable. Also to use powers of imagination to consider what else might be going on in a situation, when you don’t actually know. Best to use the power of imagination from a compassionate stance to spur curiosity, learning and shape a kinder world. In OC work, this can show up as stories of future desirable behaviour that invite individuals to imagine themselves acting differently than present. It might also show up as using imagination to explore what impacts the change might have that can be mitigated or amplified to enable progress.

Empathetic – Step into another person’s perspective and learn what is useful to fit a design to another’s beliefs and experiences more closely. Be in service to another not self – It’s not about me. Need to insulate yourself from the raw emotion that can come from deeply listening. And to be capable of withholding judgement and not denigrating another person’s choices or narratives. In OC work, this can look like connecting messages and information to the people they are targeted, oriented to their perspective not that of the author or speaker.

Visualise – Use drawings or rich verbal descriptions that conjure up images to convey an idea or concept. Not about drawing ability; it’s about communicating with richness and imagination to inspire and engage others. It also helps with your own thinking processes, to think in pictures not just words. (check out this TED Talk ‘How drawing helps you think‘) A way to tap into a more creative exploration of something. In OC works, this shows up in fresh ways to convey information to stakeholders, and a fresh way to capture and share knowledge in group sessions.

Utilitarian – Create things that are useful and can be used. Usefulness is in the ‘eye of the beholder’ or rather ‘the hands of the user’ – when something is fit-for-purpose. Know who has the purpose, what their purpose is and the criteria that determines something is a good fit. Design is not art, design is about utility – though well-designed things can be aesthetically pleasing as well as functionally-satisfying. In OC work, this can show up in the quality of the instructions or processes written for people to follow in adopting changes.

Experimental – Try out an idea or test a hypothesis for the purpose of learning more about it. Willing to give things a go that are unproven. Able to plan, conduct, analyse and advance knowledge in the format of an experiment. Think like a beginner or novice to question assumptions of what you believe to be so. Curious about the world; has a default sense of wonder. In OC work, this can look like multiple simultaneously-conducted substantively-different engagement activities to explore what has the most effect. It’s more work and seems messier than traditional communication/engagement plans – but the objective is experimenting to learn something new.

Optimistic – Believe that things can be different, that things can become better, that change is possible and your actions can make it so. Having and using agency in changing the future. In OC work, this shows up in the language that is modeled and embraced for people involved in the change. It is a choice to take a hope-creating perspective in what is said and done.

Collaborative – Work with others in a way that shares values and value is shared. More than a coordinated or co-operative effort. Tapping into the knowledge of multiple disciplines and frameworks that might stimulate creative tension and require assumptions to be exposed and examined. In OC work, this shows up as involving people affected by the change, in meaningful ways to shape the change outcomes and the changing process.

When looking for effective collaborators and potential partners in our work, these sensibilities – more than any specific skill – are what we seek and value. Many of the non-client activities we do in our business are to intentionally cultivate and enrich these sensibilities.

Let’s go back to the Writing a Recommendation example. What might this activity look like if the Design Sensibilities above were applied?

Curious – Asking questions: What angles does the person I am writing the Recommendation for desire as the focus for my words? Who is the audience for this Recommendation? What words would get the attention and interest of the audience? What other Recommendations have gotten my attention in the past, anything from these I could apply here? What could be a totally fresh way to compose and publish a recommendation?

Generative – Putting pen to paper! Don’t just think about it – create something. At first this could simply be writing a bunch of words or phrases that have meaning. Then playing with the sequence of phrases to create a narrative.

Imaginative – Using imagination to come up with new words that might do better at capturing attention or interest. Not just writing the expected stuff.

Empathetic – Putting myself in the place of the audience. What if they only have 30 seconds to spot and read this recommendation – what would be a good impression they could walk away with about the person I am recommending?

Visualise – Rather than simply using words. Why don’t I create a storyboard for a micro story as a starting point? (Story: This person came into my workscape, they did something valuable, something was changed for the better, we celebrated the difference made.)  From here I might create the prose version of the recommendation, in such a way that it ‘paints’ the picture of the storyboard.

Utilitarian – Ensure the recommendation is actually useful in terms of helping the person get a new job or client or promotion. Don’t write a puff piece – include substance as if this Recommendation was the deal-breaker in making the difference.

Experimental – Do something with the questions that came up in being curious. Compose a few versions of the Recommendation. Mix the media (e.g. use pictures from a magazine) of the different versions. Be playful with the possibilities without censorship. Try out the various versions with different audiences and learn what gets a positive reaction.

Optimistic – Put on an attitude of optimism: That I might write the best Recommendation possible for this person. That the Recommendation might hit the mark. That each version of Recommendations I experiment with can lead to a better version. That I don’t question my ability to write a valuable Recommendation.

Collaborative – Ask the person whom I am recommending for to provide information that can help me with composing the words.

How was that? Hopefully you’re going to look at Recommendation Writing in a whole new light now!


What situations are you dealing with, where you can see that the application of Design Sensibilities could bring about a fresh and productive conversation?


Helen Palmer is Founder and Principal Change Agent at Questo. Like Winnie the Pooh, she sometimes ‘sits and thinks’ … and imagines how people can make a better workscape for others and themselves. She likes to share those thoughts with the possibility that they inspire and initiate meaningful change in workscapes everywhere.

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