Innovative People Practices

Transforming HR with Design Thinking

When I tell people that I use Design Thinking to help organizations create innovative people practices, I typically get one of two reactions: 'what is design thinking' or 'that makes total sense, but how does that work?' Here's my answer to both of these questions.

Design Thinking, an approach originally pioneered by industrial and user-interface designers, has since evolved as a way of solving wicked problems.

A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. -Wikipedia Entry

It emphasizes:

  1. Starting with a deep, and empathetic understanding of the needs of users and stakeholders;
  2. Embracing constraints, pushing our creative boundaries, and rapid iteration;
  3. Co-creating with our audiences in a way that fundamentally shifts operating models.

Why is this so relevant to HR?

Applied to HR and Talent, design thinking shifts the focus from isolated programs to designing employee experiences that: are “compelling, enjoyable, and simple”; challenge assumptions and drive innovation; prevent transposing best-practices which may not be well-suited to that specific audience.

What does it enable us to do?

Allows us to truly put people first

Every HR department I know is committed to making employees feel heard and valued. And I have been the person who has struggled to translate this into action in the face of limited resources, silo'ed structures, and just the sheer volume of operational work.

"self-identified high-performing companies are 3-4 times more likely than their competitors to be applying design thinking to their people practices." - Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 2016

Most HR departments have business partners or generalists embedded with business units. I like to think of them as the trauma surgeons. They are fantastic at triage, and moving quickly to keep pace with the recruiting needs of managers while balancing a near constant stream of comp, benefits, and compliance issues. It frustrates them that they can never quite get to the strategic items on their to-do lists and that they spend so much time on 'problems' that the time they spend on ‘excellence’ ends up last on the list.

On the other end of the spectrum are HR specialists and org effectiveness staff. They have insights and ideas on how to move business forward but typically can't find the sponsors who have the level of urgency, bandwidth, and foresight needed.

In some ways it's no different than business — sales people say 'we need this', ops people say 'we can't do it', and strategy people say 'hey, we should be doing this whole other thing'. For the businesses who have embraced design, it has changed this dynamic. By mapping their customer journeys and making that the bedrock of service delivery, design can break down silos and align people around two simple ideas:

  • Are we solving for what our customers need, not just what they say they want but what would truly meet their goals?
  • And does it align with our purpose and values?

And it can do the same for HR departments. Instead of 'you complain, and we struggle to solve it', it changes the model to 'we listen and then we co-create prototypes that will get us closer to the solution'.  

It localizes the scientific process

I have an Industrial/Organizational psychology background and a firm belief in evidence based approaches. In practice, our quest for statistical significance has pushed the scientific method out of the mainstream to the echelons of academia. Sure it's great to have the right sample that allows you to generalize your results broadly, but the method itself can be applied as effectively to individual experimentation. In fact, watch this video to see how this designer and PM creates hypotheses and then rapidly and cheaply tests them to validate a business model.

This is the power of applying design to creating talent solutions. It allows us to approach every challenge as researchers and scientists, but with two twists:

  • We don't limit ourselves to surveys and benchmarks when we research, instead we takes pains to actually walk in the shoes of our employees and managers and viscerally understand the challenge from their point-of-view.
  • We don't take eons to analyze things and come up with the perfect answer. Instead we quickly test and iterate on potential solutions.

Alleviates the 'overwhelm' crisis

In 2011 Booz & Company conducted what they call a Coherence Survey of more than 1800 executives, and fully 64% of them said they felt pulled in too many directions and were unable to focus on strategy. By the looks of it the problem has only gotten worse. In 2014 the Deloitte University Press did an article on how the constantly connected workforce is exhausting employees, and for all the digital access people still struggle to find information they need and businesses struggle to convert the 'always on' nature of their talent into productivity.

HR can help by leading a shift from compliance to choice architecture; from here's everything you can read to here's what your peers found helpful; and focusing on simplifying the employee experience.

Applies coaching to problem solving

In their article, The Irrational Side of Change Management authors Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller (McKinsey Quarterly, April 2009) summarize research and insights related to why change efforts fail:

 ...when we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome (almost by a factor of five to one). Conventional approaches to change management underestimate this impact. The rational thinker sees it as a waste of time to let others discover for themselves what he or she already knows—why not just tell them and be done with it? Unfortunately this approach steals from others the energy needed to drive change that comes through a sense of ownership of the answer. (p. 103)

The leaders as coaches movement applies this idea to individual and team change. Instead of providing answers, leaders provide a safe-space, structure, insightful questions, and deep listening to get people to generate and own solutions for themselves. I think Design Thinking is to problem solving, what coaching is to behavior change. And that is a beautiful thing. When we co-create with the people we are designing for, test and iterate, and are willing to start with questions instead of assumptions — we don't need a change management expert to come in at the end and pretty things up for rollout.

I have seen the energy the approach brings to both business teams and HR departments, and the potential it has for making rapid movement and breakthroughs. This pivot isn't about Design Thinking alone. It's also about systems thinking, purpose driven leadership, behavioral research, analytics, technology. Ultimately it’s about creating cultures that can nurture and deliver innovation.

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