Friday, October 5, 2018

Work Experience Design: Interview with Karen Jaw-Madson

Soon after writing The HR Journey from Productivity to Purpose, I came across an article written by work experience design expert Karen Jaw-Madson and realized I'd discovered a kindred spirit.  Several emails and high energy conversations later, I'm very excited to publish a guest post with Karen.

With a fresh perspective on the hot topics of company culture and employee engagement, Karen combines deep insight with a pragmatic approach to creating meaningful work experiences.  Somewhat atypically within a corporate landscape that tends to view culture as something top down, she uses design thinking principles to ensure that employees play a key role in co-creating their own work culture.  

Read what she has to say in this exclusive interview.

1. Why does work experience design matter for HR?

We know from the study of the human mind that people’s memories are coded by way of experiences. It’s how we frame our thinking and remember things. Whether or not it is consciously acknowledged, experience design matters to HR because it matters to people.  Experience must be a cornerstone if we are to ensure the “human” in HR. Those that understand the importance of employee experience have an opportunity to differentiate themselves above others in the war for talent. That’s because intentionally designing experience aligned with company values and culture increases the chances of intended, positive outcomes. Check out an article I recently published in HR Professional magazine, “What HR Should Know About Employee Experience.”

2. Who owns / should own work experience design, if not HR? 

I’m chuckling because of how much we think alike. Over the summer I wrote an article for People + Strategy Journal, “It’s More Than a Job Title: The Role of HR When It Comes to Organizational Culture.” It won’t be released until November, but let me summarize and note that the same goes for work experience design: because culture and the outcomes of work experience design are shared, no one can realistically “own” them—they are communal. That being said, HR has several roles to play, as educator, evangelist, sponsor, and connector. Advisor is not on the list because that would support the misperception of ownership and creates an emotional distance from being an equal partner within the culture.  

3. Can you briefly explain your methodology and how you developed it?

Design of Work Experience (DOWE) percolated for years, but was catalyzed with the introduction of design and design thinking into its development. The other big influences on this work are appreciative inquiry, positive psychology, and values-based leadership. A concept, methodology, and framework rolled into one, DOWE “partners employees with their employers to co-create customized and meaningful work experiences that set the conditions for people and business to thrive.” The model is comprised of four main components: the combination of DESIGN and CHANGE processes enabled by leveraging and building CAPABILITY and ENGAGEMENT throughout.

The process is segmented into 5 phases: UNDERSTAND, CREATE & LEARN, DECIDE, PLAN, and IMPLEMENT. These in turn are organized as a series of iterative learning loops, each with its own specific set of activities that break down complex culture work into digestible, focused, exploration spaces.

Ultimately, the practice of DOWE 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. This can be applied to a variety of opportunity spaces in organizations, from business strategy to the employment life cycle, to interactions, and capability development.

4. How did you end up writing and publishing a book on this topic?

The book was written as a humble contribution to the study of company culture, but born out of a frustration with how often culture is blamed for failures in companies after the fact. We know that many corporate scandals blamed on culture are quite preventable. There’s a lot of content out there around “best practices” and “how we did it,” but I wanted to offer a step-by-step “how to” for intentionally creating culture on the front end that is specific to the intended context—your organization.

5. Do you have any advice for people who want to develop expertise in this area?

In a word, learn. Learning is demonstrated by changed behavior and because of that, it is transformative. You should learn in all 3 ways: experientially, inwardly, and externally—continually and simultaneously. Building culture--particularly with Design of Work Experience (DOWE)--is best learned by doing. The first phase of the process, UNDERSTAND, will identify your organization’s highest priorities, develops an unprecedented level of organizational self-awareness, and requires practitioners to do a lot of self-learning and examination. The CREATE & LEARN phase has a learning loop dedicated to building knowledge and inspiration by hunting and gathering anything that could inform perspective. By seeking external stimulus, we are able to build our “knowledge banks” and incorporate them as new learning. Expertise isn’t built over night, but with persistence and an open mind.

6. What is next for you?

I try to follow the same I advice offer to those I coach. Rather than chasing plans (which sometimes adds rigidity, blinds us to other opportunities, and doesn’t always go our way) I’m aiming for aspirational outcomes: meaningfulness in work, a positive impact, a well-balanced life. If design thinking has taught me anything, it’s that one can always iterate and allow the possibilities to reveal themselves. I have a lot of different projects on the plate, potential partnerships with others, and am always seeking to learn new things. I look forward to discovering where all this leads me. 

Organizational expert Karen Jaw-Madson enjoyed success as a corporate executive before pursuing a ‘portfolio career’ comprised of research, writing, consulting, teaching/speaking, and creative pursuits. As a versatile leader across multiple industries, Karen developed, led, and implemented numerous organizational initiatives around the globe. Today, this East Coast transplant to Silicon Valley (via Ireland and the Midwest) is principal of Co.-Design of Work Experience, where she enables organizations with innovative approaches and customized solutions for intimidating challenges. Focus areas include culture, organizational change, and people strategies. Her book, Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work (Emerald Group Publishing) was released in June, 2018. She has a BA in Ethnic and Cultural Studies from Bryn Mawr College and a MA in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Visit her website at

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