19 June 2012
Gerjan Boer
Gerjan Boer
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UX design and change management (Part 3/10)

Form a powerful coalition

It’s rare that a single person can achieve an enduring change. It takes a group for that. Such a group not only acknowledges that something needs to be done, but they also must act upon that. This group is the “team of change” or (according to Kotter) the powerful coalition. The coalition can be parachuted in from the top, grown from a grassroots initiative, or come from a combination of both. And it can be the UX team as well.

This is the third article in a series on UX design and change management. Previous: Part 2.

The UX team in an organization can be perceived as a powerful coalition. The team has a mission: “Raising the design IQ of an organization.” And it has specific qualities, as Kotter outlines.

Coalition qualities

A powerful coalition, a team of change or a UX team with its ambition for change consists of people with specific characteristics:

  • Power: Are there enough significant individuals on-board to exercise influence?
  • Expertise: Are different disciplines represented with the appropriate knowledge and experience? Especially important are knowledge and experience of the world outside of the company. Such a team is essential to develop a vision.
  • Valid information: Information on internal procedures, essential to break down barriers which prevent people from acting according to the vision, is required.
  • Credibility: Do all team members hold a solid reputation within the company, so they are taken seriously? This is essential to communicate the vision.
  • Contacts: Are the team members adequately connected with all departments of the organization?
  • Leadership: Does the team have inspiring visionaries – people who can outline and communicate a strategy? This is essential for outlining the vision.
  • Management: Does the team also consist of people proficient in planning, budgeting, and organizing? This is essential for creating short-term wins.

This team represents the right people and should perform as a team. They should be professionals with the proper skills, ability to lead, credibility in the organisation and with contacts to handle a specific type of corporate change.” [Kotter]

The core team and its second layer

In a UX team, you often work closely with professionals outside the team. You can extend and strengthen the qualities of your team with these outside qualities. An exercise can be to grade both the qualities of your team and those of others.

UX team setting enSML

When appropriate, you can take action to grow your team qualities, through a change in behavior or a change in team composition and roles. You can organize workshops or training sessions for those with whom you cooperate, to departments and management. You can cooperate with new people or provide feedback to leadership on how they lead. See some examples below.

When people are pressed for time

You often can sense that people have little time available for you. That’s an important signal, probably due to the lack of a sense of urgency (first step). The advice is then to return to step one (“Establish a sense of urgency”) and leave the rest behind. If the most important players do not play the most important roles within the powerful coalition, it mostly means their sense of urgency is too low and their complacency, anger or fear is too high. (…) In that case, forget the team and the teamwork (step 2), forget vision (step 3), forget communication (step 4) and empowerment (step 5). The only subject must be urgency (step 1). [Kotter]

Forming the coalition

As noted above, all steps of the process of change don’t need to be one-off. A coalition can still grow from going through the first three steps multiple times. Sato and Panton describe how they went through establishing a sense of urgency, forming a coalition and forming and communicating a vision could finally get people from different organizational levels on the same page.


A leading coalition leads, which means they have a vision (step 3), can inspire people with their vision (step 4) and empower people to act accordingly (step 5).

Cycle of change

Arnie Lund depicts his approach for cultural change in a “virtuous circle”, comparable with the steps of Kotter. Lund takes sufficient time to develop a vision and strategy with his team (step 3). Leadership means leading and inspiring, and the ongoing delivery of “great design” on strategic projects (step 4). With “equip”, Lund means providing tools and training to act according to the vision (step 5).

Cooperation and team roles

In a leading coalition, all members trust one another and cooperate closely. Cooperation does not emerge by itself, nor does it within the UX team. Cooperation and trust can be stimulated by offsite events, regular meetings at fixed times and locations, using online collaboration tools, etc. These are “operational” activities which are not silver bullets. Teams don’t suddenly collaborate perfectly because they use tool XYZ or because they have had some inspiring offsite meetings.

Team roles

There are also some more psychological means to improve your team performance and create lasting results. For example, an analysis and discussion of the team roles. Are the following typical roles available within your team?

  • Do’ers: Press for results, communicate ambition, take action, and ask for what and when.
  • Thinkers: Analyze progress, identify problems, reflect on solutions, propose resolutions, and ask for how and why.
  • Caretakers: Guard quality, discuss underlying values, and ask for why and who.
  • Connectors: Worry about the team atmosphere, radiate enthusiasm, and ask for who and how.

The use of DISC profiles

An alternative is to undergo training for DISC teams, in which styles of communication and work are discussed and labelled as Dominant, Interactive, Conscientious or Stable. Within UX teams, these DISC profiles can be useful for team building.


The UX champion

Collaboration on the operational and strategic level is not sufficient. Authors agree that a UX champion within the organization is very helpful; a person who can discuss the importance of UX at the boardroom level. Such a champion represents the power dimension of the leading coalition.

Power First – You Can’t Collaborate Your Way to Relevance

Source: Power or Collaboration—What’s Most Valuable to a UX Leader? (Jim Nieters ~ UXmatters 2011)

Lund admits the importance of such a UX champion, but states that it’s even better to have knowledgeable UX people at every level of the organization.

There should be UX people at each level of the business from top to bottom bringing a UX perspective to the table.

He thinks only a very few UX experts are willing to speak the business language of the boardroom. He wonders what will happen when UX experts are promoted to the boardroom level. He provides a few examples of soundbites suitable for C-level conversations, like “improve user efficiency” or “improve user satisfaction”.

A few examples

Paying attention to “things on the edge”

In one of our service design projects, we discovered we could get better results when we focused on the following:

  • Contacts: Make contact, participate in conversations at the water cooler, pay attention to useful redundancy.
  • Leadership: Explain and evangelize over and over again the methods and results of service design.
  • Knowledge: Intensify cooperation with subject matter experts from the client organization. Learn about policies and how people cope with them. And as a result, experts learn what design thinking is.
  • Credibility: Cooperate with seasoned experts and the solutions constructed become more credible for others.
  • Valid information: With probes, collect real information from the operational level and through the experts collect valid information on policies.
  • Management: As a project manager, play an important role in organizing and directing.

Do’ers and thinkers

One of my first projects at Informaat was to manage a UX team for a telecoms company. The company had just merged with several other companies, but the UX team still was divided among two subteams at different locations. One subteam consisted of thinkers and caretakers, whereas the other subteam had mostly do’ers and connectors on-board. Unfortunately, there was a kind of trench warfare going on.

The do’ers thought the thinkers were too slow, whereas the thinkers thought the do’erswere “shooting from the hip”. The actions I took to establish a coalition were:

  1. Explaining to both teams that the other team had qualities they needed as well.
  2. Stimulating the teams to provide direct feedback to the other team and not consider me to be their intermediary.
  3. Organizing the teamwork at a fixed location, at least once or twice a week, as a preparation for their future permanent working location.

Using DISC profiles in a usability test team

The leader of a usability team once said, “I like to think of the stuff my team creates as a by-product of good communication.” The leader focused on optimal communication. She asked each team member to take an online DISC profile test and discussed the results among the team members. As a result, trust emerged, differences were acknowledged, and personal and professional goals became more clear.

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About the author

Gerjan Boer (@gerjanboer) has 15 years experience as a project manager of UX design teams. Working at Informaat, he currently focuses on the value of experience design for change management in organizations. Gerjan has an engineering degree from Delft University of Technology.

Change management (15), Customer experience (74)

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