Design of Work Experience: How to Create a Winning Company Culture

  • Culture your culture

Karen Jaw-Madson provides a framework—Design of Work Experience—for culture change based on human-centered design principles

Your Workplace Culture Matters. Here’s why:

It’s easy to copy ideas, technology, creativity, and innovation, but what gives a company its most potent competitive advantage is its culture. “It can either help achieve the full potential you have in your people, or it can contribute to the failure of your business,” asserts Karen Jaw-Madson, in her brand-new book, Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work. She says, “Culture needs improvement, desperately, but few leaders know how to manage cultures with proficiency.”

I have known Karen Jaw-Madson since we teamed up in a MOOC course on creativity a few years ago. At the time she was an HR executive for a major corporation, and now she consults at the intersection of human-centred design, innovation, and organizational development —our favourite topics of conversation. When she gave me her manuscript I devoured it, because she addresses the questions many executives grapple with, such as: How do you co-create solutions and differentiating experiences that are customized, relevant, and profoundly impactful, all while building employee engagement, learning agility, and capability?

Here’s our conversation:

What have you learned in your career that led you to Design of Work Experience (DOWE)?

I was fortunate to have a great education and a career that gave me so much real-life application. My exposure to design became the catalyst that brought together all my learning and led to the development of DOWE. That was when I had the opportunity to assemble and lead a one-of-a-kind team at a large multinational corporation. Our mission was to develop a global talent management strategy with a new approach.

Inspired by the recent implementation of a design program, we were asked to experiment with a consumer product development process and apply it to talent.  What gave it impact can be attributed to the strategy’s relevance to the organization for which it was created. That’s because it was custom-made for this particular context.

I have learned just how critical co-design and engagement are to truly make a difference. My exposure to design became the catalyst that brought together all my learning and led to the development of DOWE. Other influences include appreciative inquiry, change management, values-based leadership, and positive psychology.

DOWE born out of a frustration with how often we raise culture as a huge factor in the success or failure of companies after the fact, and yet there was no step-by-step “how-to” for intentionally creating culture on the front end. Design of Work Experience (DOWE) pulls together what’s required to meet this unmet need. DOWE  takes a deep understanding of an organization’s unique context to mindfully and intentionally co-design an aspirational future with the needs of both the business and people in mind. It yields an in-depth understanding of the current state, a design for the future state, and a roadmap with action plans for how to get there.

What does the process look like?

The four main components are the combination of DESIGN and CHANGE processes enabled by leveraging and building CAPABILITY and ENGAGEMENT of people throughout. This is complex work that needs to be explored indigestible, focused, parts. While I don’t want these to be oversimplified, I hope they are at least memorable. When you dig deeper, you will see the next level of the process is segmented into 5 phases: UNDERSTAND, CREATE & LEARN, DECIDE, PLAN, and IMPLEMENT. All the phases are organized as a series of iterative learning loops, each with its own specific set of activities.

Why are you so opposed to “best practices” when it comes to culture?

One huge pitfall comes from assuming a best practice will be successful no matter the circumstance. Best practices (or combination of best practices) must be tailored for an organization’s specific context to maximize full effect and minimize the chances of failure.

What are some of the pitfalls of design thinking and what can you do to overcome them? 

The avoidance of pitfalls in design thinking boils down to getting out of our own way, especially when it comes to assumptions and mental blocks: pre-defined answers, biases, filters, insecurity, unfamiliarity, anxiety, agendas, and so on. These manifest in our unwillingness to be open to new and different possibilities. The “cure” comes from mindfully clearing away these barriers, starting from scratch, and going through the steps with the trust that the outcomes will eventually be revealed. It is, after all, a discovery process.

What advice do you have for turning resisters into co-creators?

If resisters aren’t willing to change their minds any efforts to change them would be pointless. My advice: don’t tell them, show them. Involve them. Incorporate their perspectives in terms of informing the solution.

Can you share a DOWE success story?

When it comes to DOWE, it’s all about creating our own success stories based on our own contexts, not emulating others. This is why there are no specific case studies in the book, and why the answer was “no” when us newbies in the first wave of design project teams asked for sample documents.

That being said, if DOWE is used as intended, the story sounds like this:

  1. An organization decides that their challenges require different interventions and they are willing to try new approaches to find them.
  2. DOWE is selected as a possibility and a team is appointed to lead the organization through the inaugural initiative.
  3. From beginning to end, everyone had opportunities to contribute and get involved to varying degrees.
  4. Executives worked alongside their employees through co-creation and together they designed and implemented strategies and experiences that were meaningful, impactful, tailor-made for their own context.
  5. A new culture came to life, and people and business thrived.

This was a new beginning.

Culture your culture

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An earlier version of this post appeared in my column at

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About the Author:

As founder of Creativity Work, I help executives and their teams develop creativity, innovation, and leadership skills via arts-based learning and design thinking.(As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases on blog posts)
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