HR Design Thinking

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Design Thinking is mature enough for more and more people knowing and using it, but also new enough for it to be useful to start by providing a definition.  Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO, said to be one of the most innovative design companies in the world) defines Design Thinking as “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity”. It is also described sometimes as an innovation methodology/technique or a problem-solving approach.

According to Brown, there are 3 phases in Design Thinking, that are described as follows: “inspiration,” for the circumstances (be they a problem, an opportunity, or both) that motivate the search for solutions; “ideation,” for the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas that may lead to solutions; and “implementation,” for the charting of a path to market. Projects will loop back through these spaces—particularly the first two— more than once as ideas are refined and new directions taken”.

One of the key characteristics of Design Thinking is that it is an empathic human-centric approach. This means that the person (eg. the customer, the user, the employee) is at the core of the inspiration-ideation-implementation loops mentioned. This is also why empathy is a critical success factor in Design Thinking. And now comes the question I have been asking myself for a while now… if it all starts with observing and understanding the preferences and drivers of human beings in order to come up ideas and proposals that make them more satisfied… how is it possible that Design Thinking is so rarely used in the Human Resources Management field?!

Indeed, I strongly believe Design Thinking is going to become a major trend and approach in HR in the very close future. Therefore, better understanding HR Design Thinking, its power and its implications is crucial for HR professionals. I am not saying HR Design is not at all applied in HRM (I will actually provide some examples below), but I think it is really underused taking into account its potential to fully reshape the HR function.

First of all, what exactly is HR Design Thinking? According to Deloitte University Press (see references), applying Design Thinking to HR means “to focus on the employee’s personal experience and to create processes centered upon the worker. (…) new solutions and tools that directly contribute to employee satisfaction, productivity, and enjoyment”. In other words, it is all about “designing a productive and meaningful employee experience through solutions that are compelling, enjoyable, and simple”. To do so, according to the author, HR professionals need to start working in questions like “What does a great employee experience look like from end to end?.

In practice, and following IDEO’s philosophy, HR design thinking can take the form of rapid prototyping workshops powered by collective intelligence aiming to boost subjects in HRM by putting back the employee experience at the center. More concretely, it involves aspects like identifying innovation or improvement needs, brainstorming and idea generation, building-up concrete tangible prototypes and finally testing and improving them through series of feedback and new prototypes. Brown advises to “seek outside help”, which in this case would mean to involve non-HR professionals, such as managers, experts or even students. Another advice is to “try early and often”, what highlights the fact that failure is also a key element in Design Thinking. Indeed, some of the learning and improvements you will achieve during this process are only possible by trying and experimenting things, failing, learning from it, trying again, failing better, further learning, etc. That is why one of IDEO’s mottos is “fail often to succeed sooner”. In that same direction, I personally like very much the sentence “sometimes you win, sometimes… you learn!”. This aspect has a strong implication in the corporate culture of a given company: you will never manage to be innovative unless you encourage experimentation and grant the right to fail. This also explains my opening quote: Thomas Edison did not fail at inventing the light bulb… he just found 10,000 ways that did not work until he came up with the one that did work…

Let me share a few examples of HR Design Thinking that can be found on the market. Let’s start with the field of Learning and with a company in the telecommunications industry facing a very high turnover of the sales agents in their retail stores. Upon arrival, these employees were asked to learn in little time a very large amount of information about the company’s products and services, what explains that 2/3 of them left within their first 60 days. As a traditional training program was not seen as an adapted solution, the company decided to leverage on Design Thinking to adopt a brand new approach to training. They started by observing and studying the sales agents in their stores (identified as representative “personas”). This allowed the company to build a “journey map” which highlighted the key learning needs of each sales agent over their first months in that position. Based on this, the company proposed an app which made the agent’s life much easier. To start with, the could begin discovering the company and its offer even before joining. Once in the company, this app gave them access to internal development resources such as social networks, coaching and videos which supported their progression in a personalised way, also adapting it to their specific stage in the learning journey. Thanks to this stimulating Design Thinking approach, the company improved both the turnover and the satisfaction of their sales staff, but also the business results of their stores and very likely the image of the HR function as a key Business Partner for the company. The essence of this short case study by Bersin  (2016) is summarised in this central idea: “shifting from instructional design to experience design”. According to Deloitte, other companies such Deckers Brands and Nestlé also leveraged on Design Thinking to propose highly experiential and engaging learning programs. Looking backwards, the case of the telecom company follows -without a surprise- the “HR innovation cycle” I shared some time ago: opportunities identification -> HR innovation design and implementation -> HR added value and recognition.

Mars, Inc. also leveraged on Design Thinking to renew some HRM subjects such as talent attraction and C&B according to an interesting MOOC on Design Thinking proposed by the University of Virginia. Deloitte proposes other examples such as Adobe applying Design Thinking to performance management, Zappos to redesigning the candidate experience and DuPont to leveraging on digital tools to improve employee experience. As we can see, Design Thinking can help rethink, boost and reshape any HRM field, what highlights its huge potential for HR professionals. Beyond HR, a book called “design your life” just released by Stanford professors invites you to apply Design Thinking even to your full life…

On top of being a strong collective intelligence booster and a powerful team building exercise, facilitating innovation workshops is something fascinating I have the chance to have done for a while now. So, did I manage to convince you that Design Thinking can be a new and powerful way to rethink Human Resource Management in your organization by becoming more employee-centric? If yes, how ready is your organization to think a bit out of the box and embrace HR Design Thinking? Deloitte shares three interesting figures: 79% of the Executives consider Design Thinking is important; the readier a company is to embrace Design Thinking, the faster it will grow, and finally, the most value-adding HR teams are almost five times more likely to be using Design Thinking than their peers. Food for thought…

References:

“Design Thinking”, Tim Brown (HBR, June 2008)

Global Human Capital Trends 2016 – The new organization: Different by design, Deloitte University Press, 2016

“Using Design Thinking to Embed Learning in Our Jobs”, Josh Bersin  (HBR, July 2016)

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