Prototyping new work

Applying the prototyping approach to the design of collaboration and working models.
New work is not only about slick new tools and better benefits for demanding GenY team members. It's also about how we get things done and how we work in the organizations that are essentially places of co-creation. Prototyping, as it is well-established in strategic product development and service design, is a great tool to quickly implement small changes in organizations’ working cultures and thereby testing beliefs, assumptions and ideologies against what works in reality.

Traditional working models (“predict & control”, waterfall project management) become less and less effective – with increasing complexity in a digitalized world we need approaches that allow “in sight-sailing”. Agile methods like SCRUM, Kanban, or hackathons aim to become more responsive and to produce better results more quickly. But agile working still contrasts the culture of many organizations, where teams have long discussions before developing and testing concrete ideas, and perfection counts more than progress. When it comes to changing organizations and working models themselves, change tends to be portrayed and communicated as something abstract and distant, as if hatched by (top) management and then to be turned operational by teams. In reality, change happens all the time and we – every member of the organization – recreate working models and culture on a daily basis.

Prototyping can be a promising way to better reflect this reality. In strategic product development and service design, prototyping is known for its invaluable contribution to pragmatically approach innovation. It can be a great lever to quickly start creating small changes and therefore testing beliefs, assumptions and ideologies against what works in reality. Applying prototyping to the design of collaboration and working models ("new work") is especially interesting because organizational cultures are made of these very beliefs and assumptions that cause people to feel threatened by change; may it be leaders losing perceived or actual power or team members fearing job losses, extra stress or other factors.

How does it work in practice?

Insights generation

As in any other strategic design project, service design starts with insights on implicit and explicit user needs – in this case the needs of the organization’s members. Finding out what works well and what doesn't in workflows, self-efficacy and sense of purpose gives an indication of where the issues and opportunities lie. Methods like cultural probes or qualitative interviews work well in product and service design. And although we may not be used to reflecting on our daily work in this way, but doing so already brings clarity to a complex question.


Ideating potential solutions with a group of highly involved stakeholders can be a bit tricky compared to strategic product and service design. On the one hand, people usually have a history with the organizations they work for. They tend to assume what works and what doesn’t, including political thoughts and ideology of which workplace changes are possible and what could be rewarded or sanctioned. On the other hand, the potential solutions can fundamentally change their own daily life and that of their colleagues – positively and negatively. Therefore, the ideation process can encounter resistance and raise fears within the organization.

At this stage, the designer role functions as the empathy giver and instills inspiration to go further, to move beyond boxes that we might restrict ourselves to. At the same time, the designer is challenged to frame the opportunity fields and solution areas in ways that are practical – there may be a tendency to “want it all” and to change “the entire organization”. Therefore, a minimal knowledge of systems thinking/theory and a willingness to commit to small areas for progress/change is helpful. All this has to be conducted in a transparent and sensitive way to ensure that all potentially affected members of the organization have a clear understanding of the process and fears are minimized.

By the end of the ideation step, participants of the design process, maybe for the first time, will have a sense that the future is not only more desirable than the current reality but it can also be framed in a tangible way. Since participants are involved in the very change process, becoming co-creators of the organization, their enrollment is likely.


In the implementation step, teams need real prototyping support in offering tools, methods and ideas on how to move forward. Whereas we may have some knowledge about asking for insights and are used to brainstorming in some way, prototyping may be the stage where real designer/engineering know-how is helpful. Moving away from perfection and 100% solution-thinking to something that engages the rest of the organization in giving feedback, testing for whether it’s fit for purpose in real life, makes the difference between wishful thinking and making progress.

If teams fully understand, they will alter their perception about how much we can change the way we get work done and interact to do so, what effort is required (less than we assume) and how interaction with the solution and the (other) users in itself already makes a difference to culture and collaboration models. Key in the prototyping phase is the commitment to implementation and thinking of solutions as part of a whole ecosystem that makes the organization functional and desirable to work in.