ELOC Helps Senior Executives Stay Ahead of the Curve

ELOC Helps Senior Executives Stay Ahead of the Curve


ELOC student writing on sticky notes on the wallDesign thinking tools are particularly well suited for senior leaders who want to tackle today’s rapidly fluctuating and often ambiguous challenges, experts said during the webinar, Redesigning Organizational Structures and Practices. 

The event, hosted by Northwestern University’s Executive Learning and Organizational Change (ELOC) program, brought together scholars and ELOC instructors to discuss why and how executive leaders should redesign their companies to address equity in the workplace, COVID-19, and other pressing issues that are transforming organizations.

The conversation was moderated by Kimberly Scott, assistant professor and director of the Master’s in Learning and Organizational Change program at Northwestern. Panelists included MSLOC alumna Maggie Lewis, a member of the leadership team at the digital consultancy Palantir.net; Jeff Merrell, associate director of the MSLOC program; Ryan Smerek, associate professor of learning and organizational change; and Brad Smith, co-founder of Inflection Point Leadership and an organization design and effectiveness consultant.

The speakers tackled a broad range of questions, giving participants a taste of three different certificate courses offered in the ELOC program: Designing Effective Organizations, Leading Change Through Design and Co-Creating Change.

Designed to be flexible, efficient, and immediately useful for executives and senior managers who have limited time for formal learning, the short ELOC courses bring together experts in the interdisciplinary fields of organizational change, talent management, human capital strategy, leadership development, learning, organizational design, executive and leadership coaching, and strategic planning.

In each of the following three courses, students bring in timely challenges they’re working on at their current jobs or companies.

  • Designing Effective Organizations (Sept. 22 – Oct. 14, 2021), taught remotely by Smith and Bruce McBratney, a consultant, executive coach and educator with broad industry experience introduces students to the methods and tools needed to help redesign an organization.
  • Leading Change Through Design (Jan. 5 - Feb. 2, 2022) taught remotely by Smerek and Lewis, opens the door into design thinking, a method that helps companies generate new ideas to tackle complicated problems and drive innovation.
  • Co-Creating Change (April 25 – May 5, 2022) addresses how leaders can learn to shift, change, and adapt to lead during rapidly changing times and environments. This course is cotaught by Merrell and MSLOC alumna Teresa Torres, a product discovery coach at Product Talk. The course begins with a remote session on April 25 and meets in person on May 2 and 3. A final remote session will be on May 5.

During the webinar, the experts talked about everything from the importance of recognizing and acknowledging the role of emotions in design – not just the people in the room but the people designers are designing for–to the use of tools such as journey mapping and prototyping.  

“Companies are already in a bit in a crisis mode, so to some degree, the heavy lifting has already been done,” Smerek said. “We have a chance to create improvements without the challenge of overcoming the status quo. Because the status quo is already really disrupted.”

Excerpts of the conversation follow:

Q: What is design thinking in the context of organizational change and how can it help with current challenges?

Ryan Smerek: Design thinking involves some kind of discovery or an understanding of what's going on. We tend to have a narrow frame; we think everyone else is experiencing what we are. The exploratory discovering phase can help you get out there and see what's going on. You may have an initial hunch of the problem and key challenges employees are facing. Discovery helps you test those assumptions. If you're feeling kind of stuck, and you don't know where to go next, or you want to take a new innovative route, this discovery or exploratory learning can help you get unstuck and see the challenges.

Q: How can leaders shift the ways they think and behave to really adapt in these environments?

A: Jeff Merrell: It’s about having the attitude that we’re designing with, not designing for. One of the fundamental parts is to figure out how to bring those voices and those experiences in and actually engage them in the creation process of the solution, not just asking, ‘did we solve the problem for you?’ after designing a version of how you think it should operate. You need to pay attention to the people you’re bringing in and recognize that you need to engage all of those different communities that have been marginalized. That idea of “designing with” is central to everything.

Q: Name some tools used in the design thinking process.

A: Maggie Lewis: Journey mapping is a way to visualize the process you need to take to reach a goal. We used to use markers and Post-it notes; now we use Jamboard and spread sheets. It’s a way of empathizing with the user to truly understand what they're going through. Journey mapping allows you to look at the actions of users, and the role that emotion and motivation plays. It also looks at the points of pain and their questions and then develop design interventions along the way. Because we're not coming in with a preconceived notion. we're iterating and evolving as we move along.

Q: What core design challenges crop up when redesigning organizational structures and policies to create a more equitable workforce?

A: Brad Smith:  The biggest shift I've seen is that much more thought is being given to the implications of an organizational design decision on the experience of those that will be directly impacted by those decisions. Most organizational designs are based on about 15 percent science, 25 percent art, and 60 percent emotion. A redesign starts with some data, a look at the current state and maybe some model or framework that you use to determine the needs going forward. Recently, I've seen a shift that's more like 30/40/30. Emotions come up again, but it's not the emotion of the whims of the top leaders. It's about incorporating the emotional response of the people who are going to be impacted by the design.

Tips and resources mentioned:

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 8/25/21