Human-Centred Design and Collective Impact at Chrysalis

By Naomi Mahaffy

What does social innovation look like in an organization? Here’s one example we can learn from.

When she was an ABSI Fellow three years ago, Aleeya Velji visited Chrysalis Society in Edmonton and wrote a blog post about the organization’s early experiments with using a human-centred design approach and collective impact model. At that time, Chrysalis staff were doing a 6-month pilot project to see how human-centred design might improve their ability to co-create more impactful services and solutions with their clients. Along with other organizations and businesses, Chrysalis was also in the early stages creating the Pan-Disability Connection (PDC), a collective impact approach to address systemic barriers to employment for persons with disabilities.

In the three years since that blog post, Chrysalis has been re-evaluating and improving upon their innovation tools and processes. I sat down with Shauna McCallum, manager of innovation at Chrysalis and partnership broker for the PDC, to hear what they’ve learned and how their approaches have evolved.

About Chrysalis Society

Chrysalis Society offers personalized services to help people with disabilities develop life and vocational skills, find employment, and realize a better quality of life. It began in 1968 as a project of the University of Alberta, which gave adults with developmental disabilities the opportunity to be meaningfully employed in the production of manufactured goods. Chrysalis now exists as two separate but closely-connected entities: the nonprofit Chrysalis Society, and the social enterprise Chrysalis Woods and Plastics.

Human Centred Design at Chrysalis Society

Today, Chrysalis Society believes that HCD is the best way to understand clients’ intended outcomes and work with them to create personalized and impactful solutions. As of May 2018, Chrysalis is working towards the ambitious goal of having all of its 290+ clients go through the HCD process within the next three years. By late 2019, all Chrysalis staff will have learned HCD through a training program adapted from IDEO’s online course (a great resource for anyone interested in HCD).

The guiding question driving HCD at Chrysalis is: “How might we facilitate social support for people to discover, develop and use their talents to become the best version of themselves?” HCD is led by small staff teams with an intentionally diverse mix of talents and roles, including one HCD specialist and at least one front-line staff member. Each team goes through an eight-week HCD process with up to five individual clients (this is a more intensive and condensed approach compared to the six-month process Chrysalis prototyped in 2015). Three teams go through the process at the same time, serving a total of 13-15 clients within an eight-week period.

Here’s what the process looks like:

Image © 2012 IDEO LLC:

Phase 1 & 2: Discovery and Interpretation (three weeks): Chrysalis staff work to deeply understand each client. They interview the individuals and their support networks (family, friends, teachers, colleagues, and others). They observe them in their home environment, at work, and doing things they love. They analyze and interpret what they’re learning about each individual’s strengths, talents, abilities, goals, and needs.

Phase 3: Ideation (two weeks): The team presents a summary of what they learned about each individual. They brainstorm a huge list of potential solutions and opportunities to improve the individual’s quality of life, then work together to filter the most practical and innovative ideas. The ideas that the team lands upon are shared with the individual’s family, who provide valuable feedback and additional suggestions before the team proceeds into prototyping.

Phase 4: Prototyping and Implementing (three weeks): In this phase, the team, individual, and support network find ways to bring their best ideas to life. Depending on the individual’s talents, interests, and goals, these ideas may centre around personal growth, improved relationships, employment, or meaningful community engagement. Together, the staff, client, and support network identify the steps required to implement their best solutions, measure what’s working, and make changes over time to help the client achieve better outcomes.

What has Chrysalis learned through its use of HCD?

  1. The right people need to be in the room at the right times. When Chrysalis first started implementing HCD, their front-line staff were brought in at the very end of the process. These staff didn’t have much ownership over the ideas they were expected to implement, because they hadn’t participated in the important early phases of deeply understanding the client and brainstorming solutions. Now, front-line staff participate in the entire process and are much more excited to bring their ideas to life.

  2. Leadership matters. Chrysalis was interested in and experimenting with HCD for several years, but wasn’t able to scale up the approach until key leaders (a new CEO, VP and new board members) stepped in and pushed an agenda of client-centred innovation.

  3. Using HCD requires a shift in the organization’s culture and talent. Chrysalis has become a fun, energetic, and creative place to work. Hiring decisions are made to ensure that staff have the broad range of talents required to be empathetic, think creatively, and translate ideas into action. Ongoing support has been needed to help staff adapt to new ways of working together, including the use of online collaboration tools.

  4. HCD works. Chrysalis has seen a dramatic increase in the engagement levels of their clients, and has many positive stories of improvements in their clients’ lives.


Michael’s Story

Michael (Mike) Weir was part of the first HCD cycle in May 2018. The team quickly learned that Mike was a very talented athlete and observed him to be a leader for other members on his Special Olympics track and field team. Mike’s a huge Edmonton Oilers fan and spoke often about Rogers Place. The HCD team tapped into their networks and were able to offer free tickets to the Oilers game for Mike and his residential staff. This was a quick and do-able goal that was generated through the Ideation Phase.

The team also recognized that Mike could benefit from taking an internet safety training course. One of the HCD Specialists is now trained to facilitate this at Chrysalis, and Mike had the opportunity to attend in September of 2018.

Mike is also now employed as of August 2018. :)

Mike has become an advocate for HCD. Just recently, he visited Chrysalis to thank Katie Nixon and Lucy Deacon, his HCD Specialist and his Chrysalis support worker. During his visit, Mike voiced that he keeps telling his friend (who declined Chrysalis services and HCD in May) that he should have attended the meetings. Mike uses his personal story to encourage others to get involved.

Collective Impact: The Pan-Disability Connection

While HCD allows Chrysalis to provide highly personalized supports for individuals, it doesn’t go far in addressing the systemic barriers people with disabilities face in our society. Individual organizations—even those with highly impactful programs and services—cannot single-handedly address the root causes of complex social issues. Collective Impact is a multi-stakeholder approach in which organizations come together around a common goal, create a shared measurement system, and commit time and resources to ongoing coordination and communication. Chrysalis acts as the backbone organization in the Pan-Disability Connection (PDC), which describes itself as a “collective impact initiative led by ten organizations in Edmonton, working together to identify and eliminate systemic barriers to employment for persons with disabilities.”

The PDC steering committee includes self-advocates, community partners, employers, and service providers. While Shauna currently acts as the coordinator and partnership broker, the PDC hopes to eventually be sustainable without a paid coordinator position. In addition to the steering committee, the PDC includes a working group in which job developers from various businesses can collaborate and learn from each other. Another working group helps to organize outreach and activities for DEAM (disability employment awareness month, proclaimed on October 1 by the provincial government this year). They organize and promote events such as cash mobs to reward businesses that exemplify inclusive hiring practices. Next year they will host an inclusive job fair.

What has Chrysalis Learned about Collective Impact?

  1. Trust matters. It takes hard work and ongoing dialogue to help organizations move from competition to true collaboration.

  2. The right people have to be in the room. As with many collaborative groups, the PDC has experienced breakdowns in communication when staff who attend meetings don’t have decision making authority, or when key decision makers aren’t present to help move agendas forward.

  3. Learning from other similar partnerships is incredibly valuable. A breaking point for the PDC was when they created relationships with other organizations throughout the province, such as the Calgary Employment First Network (CEFN). They created a partnership and collaboration group on Basecamp, through which they can share resources, ideas, and information. Organizations from Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Red Deer are members of this provincial group.


The strategic use of two tools of social innovation (human-centred design and collective impact) allows Chrysalis to be deeply personal and systemic at the same time. Through the HCD process, Chrysalis staff get to know the unique talents, quirks, and ambitions of their clients, and can co-create more impactful services and solutions. With the collective impact approach, Chrysalis is able to work alongside other agencies and employers to create change at a greater scale than they could alone.

Do you have a story of social innovation to share with the ABSI Connect Community? Contact us.