People Management
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Design Thinking for HR

Design Thinking has already been identified as a key transformation element for HR, in its quest to improve Employee Experience. However I argue that in many cases this is just used as a make-up methodology, without a full understanding of the potential for change.

Design Thinking is one of the key components of the “Digital DNA” that I suggest based on the Three Mindsets of development (together with Lean and Agile). As HR professionals we often seem to worry about how to apply new principles to the rest of the organisation, but how would this be applied to our function?

A methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos. By this, I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, Design Thinking, HBR

This core concept is transformational for HR. It will involve leaving behind annual processes and approach-based planning for a simpler, more innovative and faster model driven by human-centered principles. And is perfectly applicable to 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. A trend that was already consistently identified in 2016 HR trends survey by Deloitte. Which then allows to really think in terms of Employee Experiences, as these two topics go hand in hand.

Design Thinking casts HR in a new role. It transforms HR from a “process developer” into an “experience architect.” It empowers HR to reimagine every aspect of work: the physical environment; how people meet and interact; how managers spend their time; and how companies select, train, engage, and evaluate people.

Josh Bersin, HR and Design Thinking

However, despite some early pioneers in action, a lot still needs to be done, and I still feel a lot of HR professionals see this as a cool way to have a post-it intensive workshop, and that’s it.

Step 1 – Think in terms of Journeys

One of the first areas to focus on with Design Thinking is to start in identifying with your current internal customers, and identify their journeys.

Customer Journeys , where here the definition of Customer can include generic employees, or specific subsets (candidates, managers, etc.). A Customer Journey map is a visual or graphic interpretation of the overall story from an individual’s perspective of their relationship with an organization, service, product or brand, over time and across channels. This perspective is normally captured in the identification of Personas, which, in the world of HR, should be intended as Behavioral Archetypes rather than as the representation of individuals and their attributes. If you are not able to identify what your customer needs, clustering behaviors, the risk is to create personas that are “average inexistent individuals” (year another averagarian issue).

Designing for the behavioural level means designing product behaviours that complement a user’s own behaviours, implicit assumptions, and mental models. —

Robert Reimann, Emotional Design

The above is fully aligned with the 5 logical stages of Design Thinking (more recently a 6th has been added, the “scaling” to successfully address the need of the move from testing to implementation to the wider audience), which start from empathize, as a way to understand the problem you are trying to solve.

Fig 1.: The 6 stages of Design Thinking, source: Enrique Rubio

I don’t want to go too much in detail in the practical steps, as there are some very well detailed examples, directly applied to specific HR problems.

One of the key component of the definition of a Journey is the idea that HR should think in terms of Customer Service,

Step 2 – Identify the Moments of Truths

The most important step in the definition of an Employee Journey, is in my opinion the identification of the Moments of Truths. Identified first in Marketing, these have been immediately tied in with successful delivery of Customer Service. These are defined as “those few interactions (for instance, a lost credit card, a canceled flight, a damaged piece of clothing, or investment advice) when customers invest a high amount of emotional energy in the outcome”, and are strongly linked to the capability of employees to handle these moments beyond expectations. An important reminder of the need to focus on frontline employees.

Employees deliver exceptional customer service—and perform well at moments of truth—only if they know clearly what they are supposed to do and why.

McKinsey, The ‘Moments of Truth’ in Customer Service

The interaction between customers and the organization touchpoint, intersecting at the “moments of Truths”, create the overall Experience.

Fig. 2: Focusing on what counts in a never-ending journey.

In Employee Experience Design, a very similar concept is used: Moments that Matter. Jacob Morgan, is his book The employee experience advantage, makes a distinction between three kinds of moments that matter:

  1. specific (like the first day on the job),
  2. ongoing (like the interaction between employee and supervisor) and
  3. created (like the annual office party).

John Coné uses another interesting classification (Obvious, Opaque and Invisible).

In any case, these are defined as the moments that help shape the Employee Experience. Tom Haak is keeping an inventory of the ones he has seen mapped. And its from here that I would like to pick an example: it’s number 16, “The Lease Car”, part of the onbaording I assume. And is wrapped with the following comment: I can choose any car I like, as long as it is a Volkswagen Polo.

The above is a perfect example of a “Moments that Matter”. Is a future employee is allowed to get a leased car as part of her/his package, this is often “sold” during the hiring process as a “perk” with full availability, but then translated in practical terms in here’s what we have for you.

I still see a difference between the Moments that Matter suggested (which in a journey can be many) and the Moments of Truth (where the emotional load of the employee is really high), and that in my opinion require a strong intentional design, and should be carefully crafted to align with the corporate culture.

The sum of the two (MtM and MoT), identified with your specific personas in mind, will make a standard journey your own employee journey, making this document an important differentiator and a key component of your culture.

Step 3 – Invest in Good Visual Design for communication

A good Journey should be easily communicated to the large public. This is absolutely important, because this should not be just an “HR for HR” tool.

There’s not one way of designing these: use creativity but make sure this allows for the widest possible communication. Which is an important peculiarity of Employee Journeys vs. other type of Customer Journeys. These can (and should) be communicated to the relevant customers. Why? Because this can constitute to create a service contract with the HR function (and not only) and the employees.

Step 4: Scale and Improve

Way too many organizations apply Design Thinking to some journeys, hand the posters in the HR department corridors, and end up making some make up changes to some of the processes or to the latest HR tool implemented.

The real challenge is to implement Design Thinking at scale for the entire organization. The Danish Design Institute has identified a Ladder of development of Design Capabilities in organisation.

Fig.3 : The Danish Design Ladder

As we move away from Product Design, and apply the principles of Design Thinking as a process, we can enable organizations to really be strategic in their Design, and make this part of their strategy. By ensuring the entire HR organisation focuses constantly on Design Thinking, will ensure that other organizational departments will follow, thus enabling the transformative behavior we are all looking for: human-centric mindset.

Step 5: Measure and Evolve

Mapping your Employee Journeys has also another important impact: it allows to identify exactly what needs to be measured, becoming de facto the enabler of truly impactful People Analytics. Vy moving the focus on employee expectations and their behaviors, we however make the concept of experience more subjective, as an experience is by definition personal.

This complexity may push some people to not even start with the measurement focus. But the reality is that it is very important to develop a strategy, and focus on measurement keeping in mind at least three aspects.

Improving the employee experience is the end game, but getting there requires, continuous listening, feedback from multiple channels and functions, integrated to give a holistic picture of the employee lifecycle. 

Laura Stevens, Three basic conditions for Employee Experience

Only this will really make sure your effort will be successful, and will enable the continuous improvement loop that ensures true success.

Linking it to Digital Transformation

To conclude this long post, I would like to build one final link that further supports the importance of design thinking.

By focusing on Employee Experience strategy, we are implicitly activating one of the key pillars of Digital Transformation. What is important, however, is to ensure this is intentionally linked to the maturity we want to achieve. As this is a cultural transformation, one of the best way to adapt the employees behaviors is to transform the services they receives based on the above mentioned behavioral expectations.

Fig 4: Digital Employee Experience Design as an asset for Digital transformation (source: HR Trends Institute)

By adopting a human-centric mindset, Design Thinking in HR, leads to the creation of a happier, efficient workplace wherein employees have access to the right resources, possess the right mindset and are able to make their best contributions at the workplace. This, by itself, can offer huge advantages in terms of attracting and retaining quality talent, creating a holistic work environment and in being positioned as an employer of choice.  

So, what are you steps in adopting Design Thinking?

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Cover Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

This entry was posted in: People Management

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I am an experienced and innovative HR professional dedicated in improving the way organizations achieve results through their people. Over the years I have worked on many projects in different HR domains, gaining a deep understanding of all key HR processes, from Talent Management to Recruiting, from Organizational Design to Leadership Development, from HR Transformation to HR & Payroll Systems implementation at International level. Working with Fashion Brands, leading retailer as well as, through consulting, international brands in industries like Banking, Manufacturing, Professional Services at both Headquarter and local level. Last but not least I consider myself an eclectic and creative personality, with many interests ranging from technology to arts and poetry.

4 Comments

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