Book Recommandation: Changemakers: How Leaders Can Design Change in an Insanely Complex World

Why This Book?

As your authors and guides on this journey, we have a deep familiarity and respect for designers and their abilities. We each ran successful, independent design firms in Silicon Valley for over 25 years starting in the 1990s. We led research, development, and execution of design projects for startups, nonprofits, community services, government agencies, academic institutions, and hundreds of large corporations. We also regularly transformed our own practices, shifting from a focus on graphic design to experience design, from press visits to Zoom calls, from printed page to VR environments.

We led change relentlessly for our teams and our clients throughout every decade, always cognizant of its cost and doing our best to make sure that we weren’t leading others off a cliff. We made countless mistakes and learned a lifetime of lessons. We also benefited from others pursuing similar goals in different companies, many of whom shared their experience and wisdom with us as we created this book. We appreciate their generosity and include many of their observations and advice in the chapters ahead.

We no longer lead teams exploring what’s possible or building experiences on the latest technology platforms. Others have assumed those roles, and we actively support and coach them. Our role now is to share what we know, to pass forward what we gained in those 25 plus years of designing change, and hopefully to stimulate a new appreciation of what design can do.

Perhaps the Disney version of progress was naïve, but its opposite is worse. To cling to the past and refuse to change is to invite atrophy and eventually fade from relevance. Smooth progress with no bumps along the way is unlikely, but none can afford to simply shrug their shoulders and accept a future that spins increasingly out of control. The future can’t be a perfect expression of a meticulously calibrated vision. There are too many unforeseeable variables for that type of optimism. But there’s a lot of middle ground between unmanageable chaos and godlike manifestation. It’s that middle space that seems attainable — a balance between the rigid funk of stagnation and the craziness of chaos.

For these reasons and others that we’ll explore in this book, we anticipate that the next approach to change will be design-driven, and its leaders — at all levels and in a wide range of circumstances — will be changemakers.

These changemakers will be people who can view the future of communities, companies, and even countries as a design problem: an opportunity space that can be clearly defined, intentionally studied, and reliably addressed. That’s the goal of this book — to describe the leaders and approaches appropriate for this time and its uniquely complex challenges, and to encourage those who can make change to act in the right way, in the right place, and with the right support.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Kat Holmes
Chapter 1: The Imperfect Future
Chapter 2: Becoming a Changemaker
Chapter 3: Finding a Fit
Chapter 4: Foundations of Success
Chapter 5: Co-Creating Change
Chapter 6: Following a Map
Chapter 7: Shaping the Narrative
Chapter 8: Building Support
Chapter 9: Discover What’s Possible
Chapter 10: Envisioning the Outcome
Chapter 11: Learning What Works
Chapter 12: When Things Go Wrong
Chapter 13: When Things Go Right
Chapter 14: Evolving by Design

Today’s radically complex problems require people to lead with design. Changemakers is an essential playbook for designers and nondesigners who want to drive change at work, at home, and in their communities.

Groundbreaking designers Maria Giudice and Christopher Ireland — armed with insights from some of today’s top minds in business, tech, and social justice — offer a pragmatic, people-centered approach to change.

Chapter 1: The Imperfect Future

When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, the concept of progress was almost universally popular. Few people protested the arrival of new vaccines, faster food, advanced appliances, or more powerful cars. The envisioned future had its own neighborhood in Disneyland and popular television shows imagined even more transformations on the horizon.

In this context, “change” was synonymous with “improved.” New companies were created to commercialize inventions, while older companies focused on what could be enhanced, remodeled, or extended. Ambitious graduates sought emerging fields like computer science and genetic engineering as sure paths to prosperity, and young children pretended to live in a world with flying cars and robot dogs. Underlying all this was a promise — inferred but nonetheless clear: change, and those who led it, would deliver a positive trajectory of technical, social, and organizational advancements that consistently produced benefits and left all longing for more.

Nobody is living on the moon right now, but some of the envisioned advancements arrived as promised. The 21st century started with flip phones, cable TV, and encyclopedias on CD. In barely 20 years, phones morphed into supercomputers with immediate access to near infinite knowledge. Billions of people rose up from extreme poverty, and medical advances improved life on every continent. World leaders communicate on Twitter for anyone to follow and women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks finally have a modicum of power.

This is progress by any definition, and much of it was on display in that long-ago Disney exhibit, but its trajectory has not been smooth, and its benefits are countered by unanticipated outcomes. Tech behemoths barely out of their adolescence connect the world beyond physical barriers, but also distribute a daily tsunami of misinformation and lies. People worry that their phones track them, their smart homes spy on them, and their personal data is being sold to the highest bidders. Employers are likely to reorganize every other year, and employee skill sets need constant upgrading because a replacement can come from anywhere at any time for almost any reason and may not even be human.

Change now happens so pervasively, so exponentially fast, and with such erratic impact that it is as likely to cause stress as it is to bring delight. Ask a cross section of people how they feel about change and this tension becomes evident. From those who lead change, you’ll hear that it’s inspiring and frustrating, satisfying and nerve-wracking. From those being changed, you’ll hear that it’s needed and threatening, beneficial and frightening. Unquestioning support has disappeared, along with the assumption of a positive trajectory.

But change is needed — perhaps even more and faster. It’s needed for existential problems like managing climate change and morally important issues like administering social justice. Organizations need change in order to stay relevant and competitive. Institutions and communities need change to help shift them to new priorities and to embrace new tools. Governments need change to help them meet a range of challenges from economic security to environmental sustainability and more. Change is needed at all levels and in many diverse circumstances. It’s needed now and in the future. Most importantly, it’s needed in a way that creates more benefits than damage.

What’s in the Way?

The 1960s’ vision of progress as a smooth flow of relentlessly positive innovation was certainly a fairytale. It focused too keenly on optimistic outcomes and ignored challenging realities. But it is worth asking why change that’s imagined and desired by so many people rarely happens as envisioned. Why do innovations disrupt and distort social norms instead of fitting seamlessly into everyone’s lives? Why are business, community, and political leaders blind to obstacles that result in unintended consequences? Why are high-level goals like peace, inclusivity, and an enhanced experience of life considered out of reach?

These are deep and difficult questions to answer. Somewhere a grad student is developing robust arguments and reams of evidence supporting a well-rounded theory of how progress inevitably descends into chaos. That analysis will be enlightening, but in the meantime three obvious suspects make positive and desired transitions difficult to achieve: a fragmented world, intractable problems, and outdated approaches to making change.

A Fragmented World

When significant cultural or technological transitions take place, they often produce messy, conflict-ridden divides. Consequential advancements, like the advent of printing, electricity, or computerization, deliver significant benefits but also cause disorder and resistance as they impact people’s lives. Some people learn of and adapt to a change early while others remain unaware of what’s happening or actively resist adapting. As a result, the world fractures into different segments where some people have advantages that others don’t have, and some fear problems that others don’t see.

It’s hard to imagine an era more fragmented than this one. News, books, and media have splintered into a mosaic of perspectives that all reflect a different version of truth. A constrained set of respected thought leaders has been replaced by an army of influencers, and shared experiences are increasingly rare. At least five generations of adults compete for relevance and authority in organizational hierarchies, on moral issues, and through lifestyle choices. New definitions of gender vie for acceptance, and new recognitions of sexual preference confound traditional expectations. On a more foundational level, some world cultures are living in the 21st century, while others are barely out of the 10th. In some countries, women are regarded as equals; in others, they are equated with pets. On some roads, people drive Teslas; on others, they ride donkeys.

Fragmentation like this inevitably leads to tribal inclinations. People who think or act similarly band together and try to ignore those who are different from them. But while the formation of a tribe or sect may calm tensions, it creates an almost impermeable barrier to problem-solving because it’s impossible to gain consensus. The chasm between world views is too wide to cross.

Intractable Problems

This increasingly fragmented world is also awash in problems that resist straightforward resolution. They are suitably labeled as “wicked,” “untamed,” or most recently “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.) Where the cause of a traditional problem can be isolated and analyzed, a complex problem is linked to multiple other systems, each of which contributes new inputs and intricacies. Often, the true source of a wicked problem is hidden or misunderstood, and cause and effect are extremely difficult to identify or model. A solution may require imaginative leaps and several iterations to get right.

As technology bleeds into every aspect of life and interconnects people, their thoughts, and their things, straightforward problems become multidimensional and increasingly daunting. Solutions need to address not only the stated problem, but also its context, its connected parts, and its potential ramifications. Often in these convoluted situations the only course of action is a “best guess.”

Building suspension bridges and erecting skyscrapers were feats of in­credible engineering in their time, but the underlying rules of physics as they applied to construction were reasonably well-known. Compare those instances to the current development of artificial intelligence, which is being implemented before it is fully understood, or the challenge of climate change, which is exceeding the extent of scientific knowledge.

Similarly, conquering smallpox and decoding DNA required amazing ingenuity and perseverance, but the pioneers who led these pursuits had a singular goal and could count on a relatively receptive population. Compare those accomplishments with the more recent need to create a Covid vaccine. To experts, the difficulty was scientific and specific in nature: find a means of protecting humans from a deadly virus. They did it in record time, employing novel technology and admirable collaboration, but that didn’t solve the problem. Additional complications branched out from the original. Some were predictable, such as how to reach people in remote areas or how to make the vaccine affordable to poorer countries. Some were not predictable, such as how to convince celebrities that the vaccine wouldn’t reduce male virility or that horse paste was not a viable alternative.

There are wicked problems galore right now in all countries, among all communities, and at all levels of organizations. Governments consider whether they should pursue democracy, socialism, or authoritarianism, and whether cryptocurrency should become the foundation of all transactions. Activists debate whether populations should be compensated for past discrimination and whether women’s rights are negotiable. Organizations struggle to decide if work should be done remotely, how to manage diversity, and whether to take sides in political disputes. These and countless more problems vex advocates of change because their root causes are dimensional, their connections are widespread, and their solutions are convoluted. Any remedies will have upsides and downsides. They will have people in favor and people opposed. Even carefully plotted solutions will produce unanticipated consequences.

Outdated Approaches to Change

Contrary to what some people think, significant or systemic change doesn’t just happen in the course of normal life. Minor change can occur quickly and relatively easily if a need is urgent enough or an opportunity rich enough. But more notable change requires extensive effort, substantial resources, and highly capable leadership. In business, it follows a process or a specific approach endorsed by change management specialists who frame the way an organization defines and implements any desired transformation. Interestingly, these approaches tend to reflect the function or specialty that businesses valued most at that time.

For example, when Disneyland showcased progress in the 1960s, the approach to change endorsed by most executives mirrored a mid-­century emphasis on manufacturing: change was carefully planned and precisely executed in an assembly line fashion. To modify anything meant to “freeze” the current state, make the revision, and then “unfreeze” it. Leaders were similar to military commanders. Whatever top executives decided, everyone else had to follow.

When companies shifted from manufacturing to service offerings in the 1980s, finance became the dominant function. Change was newly branded as “re-engineering,” and was sought as a way to improve capital allocation and increase per-share value. Leaders were strategic visionaries. Top executives still made most decisions, but employees wanted to follow them so as to not get left behind.

Corporate and social attitudes toward change management morphed again in the 1990s, as the web spread beyond Silicon Valley. Echoing the attributes of startup culture, companies were birthed in garages, and products were created overnight. Change became innovation — a concept that promised to renovate tired companies into transformative juggernauts capable of keeping up with the dizzying pace of technological growth and global competition. Leaders were inventive renegades who moved fast and broke things. Everyone else hoped they could be like them.

The process of making change evolves

Each of these different approaches to making change depended on the tools and mental models common to corporations and their dominant business function at the time. Each new proposal developed different philosophies and theories of how to help people adjust and how to ensure that the envisioned outcomes turned out as planned. As a new method gained popularity, it escaped corporate confines and influenced all change initiatives, including those of communities, nonprofits, and governments. For a while each had some success. But notably, each approach began to lose its dominance and relevance as the times, the tools, and the techniques changed.

That’s happening now and it’s adding to the conflict and confusion of a fragmented world with intractable problems. Most organizations and communities continue to push change in a siloed, top-down manner, ignoring the social, educational, and technological shifts that have made people more independent and less willing to blindly follow leaders. Outdated approaches to change remain rigid and rule-bound, despite technology that enables expansive connectivity and fluid communication. While popular culture and younger generations emphasize the importance of empathy and inclusion, entities fail to consider how improvements for some might worsen situations for others. They rush experimentation, turning invention into a contest where the biggest and boldest initiative wins, regardless of what is lost in the race.

The misalignment between the desire for change and the inability to deliver it successfully leaves individuals struggling to understand their role and responsibility in the process. Empowered and overinformed by the web, cell phones, and social media, many people lack any training on how to use these gifts effectively. In an effort to contribute, they spread their thoughts like seeds, casting ideas and complaints broadly across networks, hoping to land on fertile soil. Others give up and retreat. They consign the future to forces beyond their control, crediting a deity, science, historical precedent, or random luck. With no role to play, their only responsibility is to warn or critique and hope for more favorable trends.

Little improvement is possible if leaders and the teams that support them continue to promote change haphazardly and impulsively as though everything is a startup. Nor is there any benefit attained when people assume they have no power to alter course and resign themselves to whatever happens. In a fragmented world struggling with complex challenges, the current approaches to making change have largely stopped working.

What’s Next?

The transitional era fragmenting the world has only begun. People everywhere are still digesting the impacts of the internet, and it’s about to be served up artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and a whole new version of the web. Climate change, the needs of emerging populations, global conflicts, and the god-like powers of gene-editing will provide a steady stream of new complexities. These conditions are impossible to ignore or to modify, but how change is implemented is a choice and there’s some early evidence of how it might be evolving.

Startup culture is still popular, and innovation is still a potent buzzword, but respect for authoritative, top-down approaches is losing favor to laterally connected, distributed collaborations. Wealthy tech gurus are still idolized, but so are humbler, values-driven leaders who spur collective action. Strategy documents are shrinking to the size of posters, and detailed plans are being diminished by an explosion of experimentation. These developments, along with the actions of some early movers, hint at the future of changemaking.

Chef José Andrés noted the patterns of poor disaster relief response amid an abundance of underutilized food resources. He tried to work within existing hierarchical structures, but quickly realized that the problems were often due to the regulations and bureaucracies that enforced them. As an alternative, he founded World Central Kitchen, and led an ad hoc community of chefs and food providers to rapidly focus resources exactly where needed without hierarchies, strategic plans, or ROI concerns. He continues to iterate, learning from failures or flaws.

Black Lives Matter united a like-minded, but highly diverse population of activists, with no headquarters, no central planning, and no official leader. Noting that nothing had changed despite decades of promises, they identified the problem of invisibility and found ways to gain attention. Using social media, they united powerful coalitions of people who shared the same experiences and frustrations. Their collective action has prompted more change in response to systemic racism than traditional organizations pursuing that identical goal for over a hundred years.

Web3 is being developed by a devoted crowd of entrepreneurs, engineers, and community leaders working together to shape the future of the internet. Ridiculed by some as naïve and delusional, they are steadily building a distributed, iterative assemblage of networks with the potential to disrupt and reorder nearly everything. The loose collection of believers building this space have noted people’s growing desire for transparency, distributed ownership, and authentication. They share an appreciation for the problems that technology has created and seek to address them by working collaboratively in different roles and with different approaches, iterating as they go. The ecosystem they are building is nascent, but its potential has attracted some of the brightest minds of this generation and earned massive venture investment.

None of these organizations are perfect in the expression of their vision or execution, but each is making change in a new and significant way that’s worth unpacking. Each of these examples suggests a new approach to organizational or community change that suits the time and fits the evolutionary trajectory of corporate change management. These are approaches that don’t slow change down but ensure a higher quality outcome. They leverage newly connected communities and help people channel their passion and ability. These approaches pursue methodologies that encourage a deeper appreciation of people and their perspectives. They embrace processes that pay attention to potential downsides. They offer an improved approach to change that uses the tools and technology needed to build an inclusive future that works for more than just those in charge.

These real-time instances of how to make change in today’s world are further bolstered by early insights from Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka, an organization that helped define the social entrepreneur movement. His thoughts captured the value of these recent examples and spurred our thinking about what this new approach to change might demand in terms of leadership and process. Drayton described modern changemakers as those who would no longer treat problems as if they were fixed in time, but rather seek solutions suitable to evolving and complex circumstances. In 2006, he defined this new breed of change leaders as

People who can see the patterns around them, identify the problems in any situation, figure out ways to solve the problem, organize fluid teams, lead collective action, and then continually adapt as situations change.

He called these people “changemakers,” an apt title for those capable of building a more desirable future amid an increasingly complex and irrational world. But while the title is new, the description is familiar. It is a close approximation of how good design leaders think and behave, whether they are changing a graphic, a platform, or an institution.

Designing Change

“Design” is an ambitiously flexible word. It can mean a dozen different things as a noun and another dozen as a verb. It refers to both a process and its end result. To design can include doing, making, having, seeing, or formulating. A design can be a thing, a place, an interface, or an experience. It can be done by businesses, households, schoolchildren, even nature.

In this context, where it is central to change, it means to develop a future state or condition in concert with those affected by it.

This is a mindset and capability increasingly adopted by large organizations seeking to survive and thrive in a rapidly evolving world. While manufacturing, finance, and innovative zeal still matter to organizations, the function currently taking center stage is design. Apple, the world’s most valuable company, began touting the value of design in the 1990s. For a while, it was the only technology firm courageous enough to bet its business on this claim. But when cell phones, social media, and the cloud began connecting everyone, the world’s attention shifted from a singular focus on technological features to one that included the user’s experience of technology. It was not enough for phones and apps to work; they also had to be desirable and intuitive. That required design.

As digital connections wrapped the world, the corporate move to design-driven innovation gained urgency. IBM conveyed legitimacy by hiring thousands of designers as part of reorienting its business. Facebook and Google flooded their campuses with UX and UI designers. Nearly every large consulting firm bought a design firm to augment its offerings, and companies everywhere hired at least one designer — if only to say they were design-driven. This transition continues to benefit every design school graduate and many who have converted from other fields, and it shows no signs of slowing.

Elevating design from a task to a strategy shifts perspective. Problems become opportunities and customers or stakeholders become important contributors in the search for viable solutions. Experimentation, captured in renderings, comps, hypotheses, and trial balloons, mitigates risk. Iteration delivers refinement and failure offers guidance. Imagination rises to the same lofty height as analysis, and intuition is no longer just guesswork. The strategic use of design respects the context, constraints, and requirements of business but marries them with the abstraction and openness of creativity. Most importantly, it recognizes that authoritative directives are more a hindrance than a help, and that the most innovative solutions arise from diverse collaborations, not singular dictates.

A Modern Mindset

Design provokes and responds to change. No one hires a design team with the goal of keeping everything the same. Designs enter the fray when a problem needs to be solved or something needs to be improved. Good designers become adept at identifying benefits in change. They can imagine a better way to communicate, a simpler means of creating engagement, or a different function that addresses a hidden problem. As a result, they are more comfortable with change as a continual flow in their life. Each new client, new tool, new material, or new perspective represents the possibility of positive change.

Design is famously useful in addressing issues that are ill-defined, unknown, or insanely complex. Perhaps because designers are trained to see every challenge as a problem that can be solved, they’ve developed tools, techniques, and processes that help them uncover insights, experiment and prototype, and deliver clear, valued results, regardless of the context. They push to look beyond what’s expected or what’s been done before, connecting to novel approaches and ideas.

In addition to embracing change and thriving on tough problems, design is collaborative. Few designers work alone. They have clients, customers, or colleagues. Depending on the assignment, they engage with engineers, authors, suppliers, coders, color experts, and more. Equally important, designers expect and accept feedback on their work. They include the input of others in their creative process. While some designers may prefer to dominate collaborations or work alone, that’s a remnant of the past that is rapidly becoming the exception. Most are comfortable as contributors, taking the lead when their expertise is most relevant and following others when it’s not.

Lastly, but of equal importance, design is “human-focused,” meaning it is squarely focused on the behaviors, beliefs, and motivations of real people. Decades before neuroscience confirmed the importance of understanding people’s mental and emotional states to connect and communicate better with them, designers were interviewing, surveying, and observing people in all aspects of their lives. They do this because a design only succeeds if people adopt it.

Given these attributes, it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that design’s power and prowess can be extended from making products, services, and experiences to making change in an era struggling with fragmented perspectives and complex problems. Treating the future as a design space is a viable approach. Using the processes common to design is an appropriate choice. Employing the tools and techniques that designers value allows new perspectives and enables more creative solutions.

Designing the future doesn’t mean swapping out MBAs for MFAs or shifting from learning statistics to learning to draw. It means adopting a practical, beneficial framework that encourages and incorporates diverse input and creative output. It means embracing change as a constant and directing it toward a carefully considered purpose, weighted to benefit the people most impacted.


The future needs help.

Fast-paced and chaotic change has divided the world. Partly this is due to the messiness and fragmentation common to transitional eras, the increasing complexity of problems and challenges, and outdated approaches to making change.

A new approach to change is emerging.

To progress in a more inclusive and less damaging way, the traditional approach of top-down change needs to be replaced by an approach that is based on a deeper understanding of people and problems, which tries to anticipate and adapt to potential downsides, and encourages cooperation and partnership.

Design — in its broadest definition — fits this need.

Design provokes and responds to change, is famously useful in addressing issues that are ill-defined or insanely complex, and is almost always collaborative. It empowers human-focused solutions and is increasingly accepted as the preferred approach to innovation.