How to start with Design Thinking in HR

design thinking
Illustration: Studio Fee Overbeeke

Design Thinking is a people-oriented, prototype-driven process for innovation

Organisations like Apple, Coca-Cola, IBM, Nike, Proctor & Gamble and many more not only use Design Thinking, but they also start to show significant results. These companies outperformed their peers in the last decade with 211%, measured by the Design Value Index (assessment by Design Management Institute). Other similar studies show similar results.

Design Thinking is a people-oriented, prototype-driven process for innovation. It is a useful approach to get to understand and solve complex challenges where the classic methodologies fall short. We still trust the pure analytical techniques, that only add small improvements to the status quo, too much. It just isn’t enough anymore.

To innovate we need approaches like design thinking, with a focus on finding the right problem to solve, in combination with striving for a deep understanding of the user with the goal to create better solutions.

It is all about the development of a deep empathy for the ‘user’ and the creation of solutions that fulfill their needs instead of a focus on internal processes, or technology for the sake of technology.

The good results of the above-mentioned companies stimulate many more companies to build their competency of Design Thinking in order to become innovation and change ready.

Design Thinking is not just for product development

Up till now Design Thinking has been mainly applied to the development of new products, services and business models. Nevertheless, Design thinking can be used across various areas to solve wicked problems, like in the design of organisational processes and structures, in the collaboration of teams, in training and development, etc.

It often starts in departments where product development takes place or as an independent and multidisciplinary initiative to come up with new products and services. More and more these companies realise that the ideas and methods of Design Thinking can be used far broader purposes in organisations. That is why Design Thinking is expanding throughout organisations, across departments.

Design thinking is especially useful in HR

Why? Because Design Thinking focuses on problems that are complex by nature and on problems that affect people. It helps to bring the ‘Human’ back into HR.

Companies like Linkedin, Citrix, Nestlé and Cisco have already successfully implemented Design Thinking in HR and the purpose can be different.

Design Thinking to help HR reinvent itself

Design Thinking brings a philosophy and toolkit into HR that can help to make a change, by offering methodologies to reinvent each and every aspect of work.

And above all, it ensures that HR transforms from a traditional process- oriented model (where systems are constructed around standard processes), to a people-oriented model in which tailormade solutions for employees become possible.

It is about thinking of new ways to develop learning, to create content, to manage change, to enhance involvement, to integrate or to develop technology or even to reinvent the entire role of HR.

Nestlé for example uses Design Thinking to develop very intuitive, experimental learning programs. These programs in the end are very stimulating and touting.

Cisco organised an ‘HR Breakathon’ with the slogan: “In 24 hours HR will never be the same”. The purpose was the creation of a sharper HR department in which silo’s, time-zones and cultural obstacles cease to exist. That way innovative HR solutions can get the space they need.

Design Thinking to focus on Employee Experience

It is a high priority for HR-professionals to heighten the employee engagement. Design Thinking offers all kind of tools to create inspiring workplaces, new roles, user-friendly IT systems and other ways of cooperation in which the employee is at the center. The aim is to improve engagement, creativity and productivity. Empathy is a basic requirement for this.

Questions addressed are for example: how can older and younger colleagues learn from each other, how can we accelerate recruitment, how can we reduce staff turnover in the first six months, how can we retain talent, how to design a fair salary system etc.

LinkedIn, for example, organised a 6 week program with  1000 participants from Linkedin but also Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley companies. Main focus was to find solutions for specific issues around low employee engagement.

Design Thinking to help HR feed company-wide innovation 

Many organizations struggle with innovation. These are exactly the companies that can benefit the most from stimulating a Design Thinking culture across departments.

Successful companies like Citrix, SAP and Proctor & Gamble have been developing innovation competencies of their employees for years, using Design Thinking as the foundation. It can help HR to fulfill an important mission: help to build the innovative organization of the future by integrating a new mindset, new attitudes, toolkits and capabilities in all projects and initiatives that take place within the organization.

Citrix started with initiatives within their product organization, but soon figured out that the scaling up of Design Thinking throughout the organization was the way forward. Because it is very much applicable to everything they do.

So they went further than utilizing Design Thinking as an ‘event’, a one-time exercise that generates energy, but quickly disappears. Instead they created a cultural change throughout all running projects and initiatives.

Modern HR and Design Thinking go hand in hand

This marriage is called Employee Experience Design and is about reinventing work and organisations. You can do this by engaging employees more actively in organisational change and by creating an environment and experiences that inspire people and make them more creative and productive.

More on Employee Experience Design in our next post: “How Design Thinking and Employee Experience go hand in hand”, to be published on September 3, 2018.


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