Instead of constantly trying to adapt to change...
Why not change to being adaptive?

The Participative Design Approach

Frank Heckman

Participative Design is a methodology for work (re) design developed by the Australian social scientists Fred and Merrelyn Emery and has proven its effectiveness in many countries around the world.

Participative design enables organizations to redesign themselves fast and cost effectively through the involvement of the people whose work is changing. The vehicle to do the redesign is called the Participative Design Workshop (PDW). With clearly understood design principles and simple tools to analyze their situation, natural work groups can redesign themselves in three days. An entire organization should not take longer than a few weeks.

The outcome is a highly flexible, adaptive organization, structured around multi-skilled, self-managed groups, with the capacity to learn itself into solutions continuously.

Participative Design makes common sense

Managers today are asked to turn their organizations around on a dime; to make them more flexible and adaptive, competitive and profitable in a rapidly changing world. If you are faced with the challenge of redesigning your workplace and are struggling with issues around time, cost and the commitment of employees, PD has much to offer.

Most work redesign strategies today impose expert solutions on the organization and often take months just to do the data gathering and diagnostics. A select team of internal and external experts extract data, detailing every measure of input, output, business processes, the reporting relationships and social conditions.

Design principle 1

Design principle 1 produces a bureaucratic organization where responsibility for coordination and control are located one level above where the work is being done.

Design Principle 2

Design Principle 2 produces a democratic organization in which people are skilled in a wide variety of social and technical tasks and functions. The structure will take the form of a self--managing team that is responsible for the control and coordination of its own work.

Of course, the people who already know all that are the people that work there! Moreover, they already have ideas, and in many cases strong views, as to how their work sections can be changed for the betterment of themselves, their peers, and the enterprise as a whole. By pooling their initiatives for change, they themselves can redesign their workplace. Having people participate in the design of their own work establishes that every person, from the president to the front-line employee, can be a researcher, learner, teacher and resource. A clear, conceptual understanding of the basic structure of work and what motivates people to put their best foot forward is all you need for this "do-it-yourself" work redesign method.

What motivates people to do excellent work?

More than thirty years of social science research around the world on what motivates people in their work, has identified a number of important requirements for productive activity. When work conditions are favorable and meet these requirements, productivity, quality and people's well-being soar. Involving both tasks and social climate, the core requirements are:

1. Adequate elbow room for decision making. The sense that people can influence their own work and that, with the exception of specific circumstances, they don't have to ask permission for everything. Enough elbow room to feel empowered but not so much that they just do not know what to do.

2. Opportunity to learn continually on the job. Such learning is possible when people can set goals that are reasonable challenges for them and get timely feedback on results.

3. An optimum level of variety. Through the avoidance of boredom and fatigue, people can gain the best advantages from settling into a satisfying and effective rhythm of work.

4. Mutual support and respect. Conditions where people can and do get help and respect from their co-workers.

5. Meaningfulness. A sense of one's own work meaningfully contributing to society. Also, to have knowledge of the whole product or service. Many jobs lack meaningfulness, because workers see only such a small part of the final product that meaning is denied to them.

6. A desirable future. Put simply, not a dead-end job, but one with a career path which will allow personal growth and increase in skills.

The solution lies in the structure of work

The obvious question is: "How can we meet today's business objectives and integrate the core requirements for productive activity into our work setting?" The answer is the Participative Design approach. Radically different from any other (re) design methods, PD traces problems around productivity, quality and motivation straight to the core of organizational structure. It distinguishes two design principles which have far-reaching consequences as to:

Design principle one (DP1): redundancy of parts

For organizations to respond adequately to market demand, they need to behave flexibly and adaptively. This behavior is only possible through a degree of redundancy. One long-held belief, and a basic way of building this into our work, is by adding redundant parts. Each part becomes replaceable; as one part fails, another takes over.

An example is the traditional assembly line, where a worker is limited to a segmented piece of work, and can be easily replaced by another worker (replaceable part) who needs little, if any, training to do the simple tasks.

Through its focus on tasks, the traditional organization is made up of narrowly skilled, replaceable people whose work is closely controlled and coordinated by supervisors one step above the work.

By the nature of its structure, a DP1 organization defeats some or all of the core requirements for productive activity.

Design Principle Two (DP2): redundancy of functions

By adding extra functions to each operating part, employees broaden their roles outside of sheer job classifications. Being skilled in a wide variety of social and technical tasks, it is now much easier to respond adequately, and flexibly to demands placed on the system. So, in contrast to Design Principle 1, each person can perform multiple functions and tasks. An example is the self-managing group in which people learn many functions that can be applied when needed.

Self-managed teams can operate on a variety of levels. They can operate as a team, running a unit as a small business; as a cross-functional project team with participation of customers and suppliers, or as a collaborative venture with other companies.

Self-managed teams are typically responsible for:


Perhaps the most important gain that Participative Design brings is that the process of learning becomes as important as the final organizational solution. Said differently: instead of constantly trying to adapt to change, PD changes the organization to being adaptive.

Copyright © 1995 Frank Heckman, Frank Heckman Associates
Frank Heckman, Frank Heckman Associates
51 Jail Alley
Mineral Point, WI 51565