Design Thinking: A Dynamic Addition to the HR Function
By Natalie Nixon, Ph.D., Principal at Figure 8 Thinking, LLC and Editor of Strategic Design Thinking: Innovation in Products, Services, Experiences and Beyond

A person posing for the camera  Description generated with very high confidenceMany companies realize that employee engagement is key to retaining talent and crowd-sourcing innovation from inside their companies.  Yet unpacking a process to do this, tied to incentives, can leave HR teams floundering and drowning in nonspecific and inauthentic attempts that are not sustainable and don’t resonate with employees. 

One way to up the ante in employee engagement is to explore and then apply design-thinking processes. Design thinking fosters and promotes co-creation and collaboration to identify better work processes.  Design thinking is a human-centered problem-solving process.  It borrows from the ways designers frame challenges and solve problems for tangible objects (e.g., garments, furniture and buildings) and applies those methods to design the intangible: services, processes and experiences.

In recent years, design thinking has become more popularly known and yet still utilized in the United States. Companies that have been in the forefront of integrating design thinking to build strategy include the consultancy IDEO as well as Fidelity Bank, IBM, FedEx and the insurance firm USAA. The field of design thinking was helped along when in September 2015, the Harvard Business Review dedicated that entire issue to design thinking.  Even the major management consultancy firms such as McKinsey, Deloitte and Accenture have acquired creative strategy firms. They understand that they need more than a focus on operational efficiencies and a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis to deliver value. These examples are evidence of design thinking’s ability to make an impact across sectors: insurance, finance, logistics, technology and more.

Here are three areas where design thinking can influence and make an impact on human resource strategy.

1. Decision-Making

One of the first principles of design thinking is empathy. With a prioritized focus on people and their needs, versus a focus on institutional legacy (i.e., “This is the way we have always done things…”) everything else dials back from that stance. When empathic approaches are core to the ways employees work, from handling client complaints to building new financial models, empathic-driven organizations are game changers. We can point to the now infamous story of a Zappos customer service agent who stayed on the phone for over 24 hours to satisfy a customer need. Zappos lives out its brand promise that it doesn’t sell shoes, it sells happiness! 

When empathy is at the core of decision-making, the ability to view a situation from another person’s perspective also leads to building more inclusive decision-making and strategy development. An empathic stance leads to more empathic leadership and acknowledging that leadership can be emergent from within the nooks and crannies of an organization — not only from the C-suite. The Ritz Carlton is an example of such an organization: “We are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen” is its motto. The Ritz Carlton has built systems and structures to allow for leadership and decision-making to come from some of the most remote areas embedded in the organization. 

2. Organizational Culture

Two other principles of design thinking are prototyping and story. 

Prototypes are rough-draft, ugly mock ups of a concept. We might be more familiar with prototypes in architecture (a model for a skyscraper made of toothpicks) or fashion (an elaborate gown made from plain muslin fabric in its first iteration), but you can also prototype a new service or experience. Prototyping is wise to do, before millions of dollars have been invested into a new initiative. What if your team spent efforts at the early stages of developing a new dashboard or a new training app by collecting feedback and testing the idea in small iterative stages from real and intended users and customers? This approach is a sure-fire way to develop buy-in and ownership. Prototypes do not have to be expensive and elaborate. In fact, the more rough-hewn they are, the more likely you are to receive better clarifying questions that will help you to improve upon the concept. Eventually this affects culture because you will build a culture of experimentation. 

Stories are a nascent and readily available way for firms to promote the good work of their employees —  not just the work-related success stories, but also sharing and celebrating the personal stories of colleagues. We spend an inordinate amount of time at work, and while we show up as whole human beings, probably only 20 percent of all of our dimensions get tapped. WeWork, for example, understands this fact. It has built a range of ways to celebrate the multifaceted aspects of its members as people. It even hosts a summer camp for them!

3. Benchmarking

Often organizations benchmark policies and procedures from within their own sector. For example, HR teams, may not go far beyond policies laid out by an industry-specific association such as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) to identify performance assessment. But what if firms also tried lateral thinking a design thinking principle that forces us to connect the dots between seemingly disparate areas? That is to say, build new reference points. Ask instead, “What would Google do? What about the fashion industry? How about a dance company?” How far beyond your current limits can you stretch for inspiration and learning to spark innovation? We call these external reference points “mentor brands.” Identifying mentor brands is an excellent way to approach benchmarking.

I encourage you to start with an open mind in your exploratory stage of design thinking. Perhaps begin with a consultant who can guide and facilitate your team through the process with a focus on a specific challenge. Keep in mind that design thinking is deceptively simple because it is very intuitive. The real adoption of design thinking can be complex and requires time-on-task to know which tools to apply in which circumstances. Begin with the open mindset of focusing on the process, not the solution, and build to learn.




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