How to Design Optimal Work Environments

This six step guest article from Roger Osorio applies innovation, design thinking and lean startup approaches to designing high-performing work environments in organizations. 

Optimal working conditions, like many other things in life, depend on the individual needs, team needs, objectives, and resources available. Thinking there is one tool, one way, one method, to solve all problems leaves powerful opportunities for success on the table and lowers effectiveness down to the lowest common denominator.

Since it usually all depends, that means it is critical we take the time to understand the…

  • individuals
  • teams
  • objectives
  • organizations

…that we are serving when we take on the challenge of designing and implementing solutions to achieve optimal working conditions.

How we think about our challenges directs our ideas and approaches for solving a problem. When scaling is the goal, our minds fast forward to serving all people with our solutions. While there is nothing wrong with a bold vision, it is critical we show some results, even small ones. In order to do this, we need to think small at first. Small assumptions, small experiments, small implementations, small impact.

Whom we decide to serve can also direct our ideas and approaches for solving a problem. One simple way to begin making this decision is by segmenting your audience. When you segment the market, you have the opportunity to intentionally select one group of people, start small, and fully address their problems before moving on to the next or scaling that particular solution.

As you embark on designing and implementing solutions that contribute to an optimal work environment, consider applying the following process.


Segment the Audience

There are several ways you can segment your audience. Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor, suggests segmenting by the “jobs” people or teams are attempting to perform. Ultimately, solutions help people do jobs more effectively, so focus on jobs as the primary method of segmentation. Here are examples of some jobs people or teams try to complete in a company:

  • Learn new skills
  • Complete heads-down work (state of flow)
  • Meet with individuals (one-on-ones)
  • Meet with groups of people (meetings of 3+)
  • Schedule and complete group working sessions
  • Rest, reset, break
  • Eat
  • Network (internally & externally)
  • Obtain feedback
  • Get promoted
  • Contribute to the organization’s success
  • Understand how their work contributes to success

The list can go on and on. When we segment our audience this way, we can begin addressing specific and clearly-defined situations that can be solved more effectively and thoroughly.

To begin this segmentation exercise, list as many “jobs” as you can, and then decide what segment you will serve first. Within the segment you choose, start with people or teams that have this job in common and then further filter this group down to those you can access easily. Keep the group small. Don’t go for the kill (i.e. take on too many) on your first attempt, because if you miss, it will cost you a great deal. Take several experimental jabs at your problem first.


Study the Segment Experience

With a job segment and group of people selected, go talk to people in your target groups so that you can investigate this journey they undergo to complete the job in question. For instance, learn about everything related to how people in your organization go about learning. You mission here is to obsess over this problem because then and only then will you be positioned to identify and deliver the most innovative and effective solutions. Consider the following steps:

  • Observe how individuals and teams engage in the job you are studying. In the case of learning, you might observe people attending a company class or people at a company training event. You could also ask a few people to complete a specific task related to finding learning opportunities and watch them look for this. All the while, you are taking notes on their experiences, processes, successes, and pain points.
  • After learning from observation, you can begin talking to people about their experiences in learning and development; listen carefully for pain points. In these conversations, ask mostly open-ended questions (i.e. who, what, when, where, why, and how). When you hear a pain point, note it, and when the time is appropriate, repeat it to them to be sure you understood clearly and ask follow-up questions.
  • Ask questions about their most successful experiences in learning and development so that you can understand the good that already exists. This will provide you with an existing foundation to build from – no sense in reinventing the wheel.
  • Ask questions about their least successful, most painful, and failed attempts at learning and development. These questions will illuminate the pain points, ineffective processes, and possible misunderstandings. There always stands the possibility that pain point is nothing more than a misunderstanding in the current processes that could easily be resolved with minimal effort.
  • Finally, ask them if there are any last thoughts or comments. Usually, after an effective interview, related ideas may have surfaced that would be of value to capture.


Brainstorm Solutions

Review your research. Regroup with your team and review the problems discovered during these sessions. Wherever possible, categorize them and identify themes. Should you find themes within one segment, you have the opportunity to prioritize the most significant themes first. Then, as you engage in other segments, you might find similar themes across segments. This is evidence of an opportunity to scale a solution beyond a single segment. This scaling opportunity is not the same as scaling for larger audiences, that will come later.

Brainstorm with your team. Begin brainstorming solutions with your team around these validated pain points. For this activity, find a room with a white board, list your validated pain point themes and then, using one post-it per idea, stick up as many ideas as possible by each theme. It does not mean one solution cannot be scaled to another theme, this is just for the sake of keeping things as organized as possible.

Brainstorm with your clients. Repeat the same exercise with your clients. Invite them to a session and ask them to list their ideas, one per post-it, near the appropriate theme. By engaging the customer in the solution-building process, you will not only validate the ideas you came up with as aligned with clients’, but you will also stand the best possibility of having implemented solutions being met with the most support.

Select ideas for experimentation. With several ideas listed per theme, now comes the task of selecting which ones to experiment with. In order to reduce the list, first look for overlapping ideas and consolidate them. Next, look for product/market fit, that is, look for which solutions most closely fit the problem; look for ideas that meet no more, no less than (to a few degrees) the problem theme it is addressing. Some ideas will be too much firepower for a particular problem and others may not be enough to effectively address the scope of the problem. Find the right fit.


Experimenting and Measuring

Design a prototype. Now that you have a few customer-approved solutions in hand, begin designing low-cost experiments (i.e. minimal viable products) to test. This is the simplest and roughest prototype you can get away with and still deliver minimally acceptable value to the client. In other words, this is the absolute least someone would pay for.

Select your experimental group. Select a group of clients and work closely with them to set up and conduct the experiment. Find your baseline data, this will often come from your studies on the segment experience plus some analytics on the data you gathered. This is your control data. However, you can also select a blind control group that you will measure against after the experiment. Any group of people engaging in the “job” that were not part of your experiment will satisfy this control experiment. Always favor those you have easy access to. Blind studies are best because it reduces the risk of them being lead in any way. Before you conclude this step, decide on the metrics you will measure, qualitative or quantitative. You may not be able to measure everything, so do your best to track as much of the result as possible. This part will get easier as you find that other experiments may be measured by the same metrics. Thus the first few will be more challenging.

Measuring results. Once your experiments are set up, begin measuring the results. In order to make quick decisions, know what you are looking for, that is, decide what range qualifies as success, worthy of discussing, and simply ineffective. This will allow you to make quick decisions and move on to the next steps where you either pivot (i.e. adjust your approach) or persevere (continue down the current solution path).


Pivot or Persevere

Equipped with results from your experiments, you can now begin to review these results, decide which experiments were the most impactful, and invite your clients to review your conclusions with you. Your clients will help validate the data you captured as well as provide qualitative feedback you may not have been able to capture with metrics. In addition, including your clients in this process will help build support for the first phase of this implementation. As each successful implementation concludes, the team can commence subsequent implementations. However, as the audience grows, there will be a new challenge to address – scaling to large audiences.


Scaling

This is where large companies do best and they must because scaling is a necessity! Equipped with valuable lessons, validation, results, case studies, success stories, and most importantly, satisfied customers, you will have the best evidence in hand to make the strongest case possible for funding the larger phases of implementation.

Do keep in mind, scaling does not just mean duplicating this effort to go from 10 satisfied clients (teams) to 100 new teams. Scaling is a unique challenge of its own, made easier by having strong evidence and support for the particular solution you are attempting to scale. You are now going to encounter new clients, in different geographies, with different cultures, people, languages, ways of working, businesses, etc. These broader differences will present new challenges to your solution and the manner in which you apply them. A one-size-fits-all implementation strategy will likely not work. It will be necessary to segment your larger roll-out audience by categories that affect implementation. For instance, if your solution requires specific systems, start with those groups that already have access to and experience using those systems.

Essentially, when you are ready to scale, repeat this process, with scaling set as the new challenge.


About the Author:

Roger Osorio HeadshotAs a leader, coach, speaker, and educator, Roger Osorio cares deeply and is passionate about unlocking potential in and empowering people, teams, and organizations.  By day, Roger is a program leader at IBM where he guides and empowers people and teams to be leaner in how they take any idea or effort from concept to creation.  By night, Roger organizes and facilitates Startup Weekend events – a weekend long event where people learn to take business ideas from concept to creation – all around the world.  When he is not doing either, Roger coaches math students to help them overcome their challenges in learning the topic.  Roger Osorio has B.S. degrees in Finance and International business, an M.S. in Psychology, and an M.B.A.

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