Leading Complex Change


How transformation design can help you make a bigger impact in your organization and in the world.

White arrows point in many directions on the ground

What it means to be a leader is changing, and the new definition reaches beyond the typical ‘leader as boss’ or ‘leader as director.’ Our world is calling out for leaders who consistently question the status quo and work to bridge people, disciplines, and systems to create a better future. This new leader is a changemaker—and solving important problems is how they make a difference.1

To be effective, changemakers must utilize modern methods, skills, and tools to clarify complex issues, span divides, challenges assumptions, establish new visions, redesign outdated or ineffective systems and processes, or even change entire paradigms.

Enter Transformation Design

Transformation design is a human-centered, interdisciplinary change process that focuses on creating desirable and sustainable transformations. This process can be applied to both behavior and form and may involve individuals, organizations, and entire systems.1

At its core, transformation design is an iterative process where design principles are applied to large and complex systems. Because it uses design methods in new domains and focuses on radical change, not just incremental change, the results are often considered a fundamental shift in ‘how things are done.’

A Multidisciplinary Approach

Transformation Design initially emerged from—and encompasses—user-centered design disciplines, including experience design, service design, and participatory design. Additionally, it has roots in concept design, information design, industrial design, architecture, graphic design, systems design, and interactive design.

Like its predecessors, transformation design also incorporates non-design disciplines, including the cognitive sciences: psychology and perceptual psychology, linguistics, haptics, information architecture, ethnography, storytelling, and heuristics.2

The Principles of Transformation Design

The transformation design process employs several key pillars which mirror many design-thinking process practices and user-centered design strategies. When used together, these principles ensure that the solution benefits all stakeholders, the correct problem is addressed, and the changes are meaningful and sustainable.

The main pillars of transformation design:

  • Define the core problem and solutions: Making change for change’s sake is not a smart way forward. To make meaningful change, we must identify real problems and create real solutions.
  • Collaborate between disciplines: Acquiring multiple perspectives and ideas is critical to discovering more robust and inclusive solutions.
  • Employ participatory design techniques: Who are you serving? Who will the change impact? If you don’t include the change’s beneficiaries in your change-making process, you might miss the mark entirely.
  • Build a sustainable solution: If change is going to last and make a difference, sustainability (not dependency) must be a central focus.
  • Design novel solutions: Entertain creative ways to address complex issues. Some of the most effective and prolific changemakers are the ones who look beyond traditional approaches to problem-solving.
  • Create fundamental change: Transformation design goes beyond simple tweaks to address problems. The intention is to rethink entire systems, processes, and behaviors.1

Organizational Transformation

Within an organization, change is best understood in terms of degrees. Researchers have identified two levels of change: first-order (minor adjustments happening within a system) and second-order (qualitative changes to the system itself).3

Organizations looking to become transformative must first address their processes and culture. If an organization is not set up to support the critical activities of transformation design, the first change may need to be a paradigm shift within the organization itself. This often entails a second-order change.

We also understand systemic change through the following four levels: core processes, culture, mission, and paradigm. A system-wide transformation occurs on all four levels but must start at the foundation and build from ‘the ground up’ to ensure that the higher levels are supported by the strong foundations of those closer to the core. After all, it would be challenging to shift into a new paradigm if the organization’s core processes, culture, and mission support an old one.


visualization of transformation design

An example of a qualitative, system-wide transformation is a public service provider moving from a top-down delivery model toward an enabling, co-creative, and active citizenship model using two transformation strategies: inside-out and outside-in.

  • Inside-out includes working within the organization to instill a human-centered culture and address internal processes.
  • Outside-in means working with communities and stakeholders outside the organization to imagine new systems and models.

Both strategies are critical to address the needs of both the organization and the service users. This allows the organization to work both ends toward the middle to create a cohesive participatory system where true transformation can occur.3


Whether in your organization or your personal life, initiating and implementing change can be challenging—especially in ambiguous and fluctuating circumstances. The framework, perspectives, and tools used in transformation design can be helpful for changemakers looking to make sense of where they are now, what they want to change, and how to make that change happen—in even the most complex environments.


  1. https://www.forumone.com/insights/blog/transformation-design-can-help-yo...
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transformation_design
  3. http://www.ijdesign.org/index.php/IJDesign/article/view/940/344

Go Deeper

Take a deep-dive into this topic and gain expert, working knowledge by joining us for the program that inspired it!

The Berkeley Changemaker is an inclusive leadership training founded on UC Berkeley's core values, like questioning the status quo and serving others, and its longstanding union with innovation. Throughout the three-day in-person program, you will discover how to be a changemaker for a positive impact, regardless of your industry, as well as lead with purpose. Faculty Director, Alex Budak, will guide you through the importance of visionary leadership, how to find your purpose, and how each impact your ability to effectively lead change.