Culture change is complex, and its paths aren't always clear. At Sea Change, we found a process called "design thinking" to be the best way to develop thoughtful and effective culture change strategies. Read below for an overview of design thinking; if you'd like to learn more, CoreAlign taught us a lot about design and can offer further trainings and resources to support you.
What Is Design Thinking?
Design thinking is a way of solving problems that focuses on human needs, invites creative thinking, and helps you quickly learn what works and what doesn't. There are various ways to approach design thinking, but we like the phases that Stanford's Design School uses:
1. Empathize: Understand the problem
2. Define: Define the problem
3. Ideate: Generate ideas for solutions
4. Prototype: Try out rough versions of those solutions
5. Test: Evaluate the best solutions
Below, you'll find resources for each of these phases. One important thing to note: these phases are easiest to learn as a linear process (like we've laid them out below), but design thinking is rarely linear. You'll often find yourself stopping at one phase and going back to another. For example, if none of your solutions work, you might go back and define your problem more succinctly; or you could reach the prototype stage then realize you need to go back and empathize differently.
Phase 1: Empathize
This phase is all about understanding the problem you're trying to solve. In this stage, you'll immerse yourself in the problem: talk to experts on the topic, work with people affected by the problem (they're also the experts!), get to know available resources on the topic, and generally try to learn the problem's ins and outs.
As a rule, this phase is most effective for culture change if you're not just working for people affected by the problem, but with them - that is, you include them as part of your team and/or leadership. Learn more about effective partnership in our Working Together section.
"Empathy Mapping" is a great tool for this stage. Empathy mapping is a design-thinking exercise that can help you better understand your problem and audience. At Sea Change, we used it to help clarify the motivations, environments, and knowledge of those we were trying to impact. HERE is a free empathy mapping template we used in multiple workshops that you can copy and share with others, and HERE is a longer guide to empathy mapping.
Phase Two: Define
In this phase, you'll use what you learned through empathizing to define your problem. To define your problem, you'll narrow in on who your audience/user is, what their needs are, and insights about what motivates that need. The d.School has an exercise called "POV Madlibs" that that will help you get started on problem definitions; you can also use the situation-impact framing that we share in the Planning Tools section of this site
Phase Three: Ideate
Ideation is all about generating as many ideas as you can to address the problem you defined in phase two. For this stage, anything that gets you thinking and coming up with solutions is great--your goal is to think outside the box and get away from stale ideas. Brainstorming or Brainwriting are always good ways to jump in; we recommend doing a combination of out-loud and written brainstorming to play to the different strengths of your ideators (for example, quieter people may ideate better when not shouting over other people, while extroverts may creatively thrive in that environment). One strategy we love is the "Wild Idea Competition," where you split into teams and each team competes to develop the wildest, most off-the-wall solution to a problem. The point of Wild Ideas is to cast off restraints and practicality and lean into creativity. Often, your wildest ideas will yield something useful for the real world.
Once you've generated your wealth of ideas, it's time to prioritize. There are many ways to do this: voting, debate, discussion, or categorizing ideas into groups based on what's most achievable, exciting, or out-there. We find it helpful to develop some criteria together to guide your prioritization, so the ideas you select to move forward are grounded in your values. For the Culture Change Strategy Group, for example, we collectively developed a set of criteria that groups used to prioritze their brainstormed strategies. The ultimate goal of prioritization is to pick a few ideas you'll move into phase four, prototyping.
Phase Four: Prototype
Once you've narrowed down to a few ideas, it's time to protype. Prototypes are back-of-the envelope versions of culture change strategies that you take out into the world and get feedback on. The key with prototyping is to stick with "good enough is good enough" and not get too caught up in making a perfect version of your idea. Write up, act out, or draw your plans and bring them to your audience for feedback. Here are some things to avoid in prototyping, from the Interaction Design Institute.
Phase Five: Test
Once you have a few prototypes, you’ll want to test your designs: you want to know early on whether your project will actually have the desired outcomes. Design testing will help you do that. Here’s an overview of how you might approach design testing. You can learn more strategies for testing on our Evaluation page.
Additional Resources For Design Thinking:
CoreAlign offers innovation trainings based in design thinking to help leaders in the reproductive health, rights and justice movement learn skills, tools, and practice as a community.
IDEO is an organization that is seen as the gold standard in helping people use and understand design. Their design courses are an invaluable (and often free!) resource for culture change innovators.
The Interaction Design Foundation has an accessible, clear summary of design thinking, and goes into much more depth about how to approach design than most other sites.
We used design thinking in our Untold Stories Project for reducing reproductive stigma to develop a way to make the project more fun and accessible to younger audiences. We wrote a blog post about our experience with design thinking, which you can access here.
Here’s a quick and accessible overview of the design thinking process:
IDEO is the gold standard in helping people use and understand design. Their design courses are an invaluable (often free!) resource:
Here’s an example of how we designed and prototyped an intervention aimed at reducing reproductive stigma:
Before you go live, you’ll want to test your design. You want to know before you sink too much time or money whether your project will actually have the desired outcomes. Design testing will help you do that. Here’s an overview of how you might approach that: