Organizational Healing By Design

Whether it is our organizations, teams or ourselves we need to heal. What’s made this such a complicated challenge is that we must do this as individuals and groups. We also must do this by having shared and unique experiences. This is the design challenge for our age.

There’s little need to point out our collective need to heal. People are getting weird and the cumulative effects are greater conflict, less mental health, and a profound sense of grief, loss, and fear. Everyone is not OK and not in the same way.

Speaking of healing in organizations is complicated, challenging work. We don’t have great language for it and too often our aspirations for wellbeing fail to match our actions. For example, it’s easier to talk about a culture than it is to create one. Yet, we can do it, by design.

When I write of design I mean taking our intentions and making them real and delivering the value we want from the effort. Let’s look at how we might design for organizational healing.

Work Shift vs Return to Work

The phrase ‘return to work‘ suggests that what people are going back to is the same thing as they left. There is little evidence that this is the case and that has added to worker anxiety. Few of us will return to work. What we will encounter instead is a shift from working one way to another. That shift might take place in our homes, our offices, or some combination or hybrid, but it will not be a return to what we had before.

How might we design for this shift in a manner that supports healing? Firstly, let’s consider the stages that are present in a design process drawing on the Helix model for guidance.

The Design Helix Framework (Cense)

Let’s begin by undertaking the kind of discovery (research) and noticing that is required to assess our situation. This involves looking at the trends and patterns we see in work and wellbeing, across a variety of categories (such as we see in frameworks like STEEP-V). This involves looking at where things are going as well as where things have been and are. For example, the prevailing thinking in the future of work is tied very much to future visions, yet many of these neglect the healing, recovery, and rehabilitation needs of people — individuals and organizations alike.

This is why language matters and why the concept of return to work is so problematic.

Sensemaking and Healing: Fit For Purpose

The sensemaking process is what will provide us with guidance in moving forward. This is part of the journey where we lay out what we’ve found from our inquiry and put it into human terms. This is where we can ask questions about how useful it is to act in particular ways. We can determine what kind of needs do we have that work contributes toward. When we ask these questions we also confront what the purpose of our work is (and whether work is fit for purpose).

The idea of Fit For Purpose is about ensuring that what we build fits what we need from something. How often is this not the case? Consider the idea of ‘work to live‘ versus ‘live to work‘. If our work is to help us live a good as part of that life, what might it look like? What might our jobs and roles look like? What might our organizations look like? Could we make them beautiful?

Good sensemaking also ensures that we are designing for what matters, not using our designs as an escape. We want to design for wellbeing, not avoidance of ill-health.

Design for Wellbeing

If we are serious about wellbeing, the discovery and sensemaking process will have generated a lot of discussion. Few organizations are optimized for wellbeing. Many organizations are optimized for productivity at the expense of wellbeing. In some cases – tech is one example — the entire sector has issues with prioritizing productivity over wellbeing.

Designing for wellbeing requires us to look at roles, functions, and systems of work. It requires we align the incentives that drive the organization with those that support the people in that organization. This process also means we may need to consider designing in phases and stages, not wholesale redesigns. Rather than design for a 5-year plan it may be wiser to design for 6- or 12-month increments. This — in a time of a pandemic — may also be simply prudent.

The prototype development, fit process, evaluation and tinkering will require care in planning, implementing and assessment. Healing requires that we build and maintain trust. If our organization wasn’t built with healing in mind it’s likely to require care and effort to figure out how to do it well. My healing won’t subscribe to a time clock; neither should yours.

I can build trust when I make my efforts and intentions visible. A good, transparent evaluation plan can help us to learn and make change visible. When I see what others feel, I am more likely to relate to others. Seeing others’ discomfort, struggle, and needs also can help us empathize better. A tool like Owtcome’s Active Empathy template can help us to see others’ needs and design for them.

Seeing The Unseen

Most organizations have never been through the kind of collective trauma that requires an approach to healing. For those that have, there is a recognition that it takes time. Trauma-informed workplaces are quite rare. Just as understanding grief takes time, so does healing. Healing is active, persistent, but not linear.

This is a special design challenge: we need to create something we’ve probably never seen before. At the same time, we’ve all had to heal from something. We know how to do this — even if just partly. What is different is that we are doing this kind of work at the level of the organization.

In the case of organizational healing our evaluations will focus on wellbeing rather than exclusively performance. Yet, what might happen is that we find that when we design for healing we might actually achieve both.

(** note this is written at a time when we don’t know if, when, or how the COVID-19 pandemic will end and what it will look like)

Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash, Katie Moum on Unsplash and JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash.

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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