How HR Professionals Can Use Design Thinking To Transform Their Company and Career
A few years ago I found the world’s cutest mug. It had a little pug on the front, was large and perfect for drinking tea on a cozy Sunday. It was about 10 minutes after using that mug, tea all down my shirt and my fingers squished into an impossibly small handle, that I threw it out. “Who the hell designed this thing,” I said when I tossed it into the trash bin.
So much of our life is like that mug. It might look good or be necessary, but no one thought of you or your needs when it was created.
That is what Design Thinking solves.
What Is Design Thinking?
Design Thinking is about putting the user at the center of the creative process.
I will be the first to admit that I barely understood the terminology of Design Thinking when I first heard it. The language of Design Thinking was not accessible to me, and I had the false assumption that it was just for designers. But when I became familiar with the principles, my comfort increased. When my comfort increased, I began to realize that I was a designer- all HR professionals are. We design systems and tools for employees.
Unfortunately, what we in HR have often designed is a lot like that pug mug. It might serve one purpose, but falls flat when we look at what the real intended use is.
Take performance reviews for example. The stated purpose is to help employees develop professionally. But if you ask the employees, many would rate performance reviews as having little benefit to their development, citing arbitrary rankings, risk mitigation, anonymous feedback, and other nonsense. They are pug mugs.
When you design the performance review with the employee’s development as the centerpiece- you create something wildly different. Something that encourages conversations, is easy to use, is welcoming and transparent.
The Design Thinking Method
So, if you know you have a pug mug process or system in your employment practice, what do you do? You use design thinking methodology. There are lots of ways to practice the Design Thinking method. Companies like IDEO have written extensively about how to utilize design thinking methodology to improve the experience for users (often customers). Though there are different types of methods they generally follow the same process;
Empathy gather information about the user and their need through research
Define understand the need
Ideate pull together some ideas of what could be done to solve the need
Prototype and Test Once you have a great idea, experiment with it and test how well it worked with your users
Implement get that idea out to all users and refine when needed.
No matter the methodology, the goal of design thinking is to understand the user, come up with some great ideas, and test those ideas with real users until you find something that gives you tangible evidence of the outcomes you seek.
However, if you are like me, you might have read this and still feel like Design Thinking is too ethereal if so, let me walk you through my Design Thinking method.
The Anti-Pug Mug Methodology
The problems HR is solving are often much more complicated than a coffee mug. HR problems deal with human emotion, inequities, feelings of worth, and stability among others. This should not dissuade you from using Design Thinking. The Design Thinking process was designed (pun intended) to solve such complex issues. Just know that the result of your efforts, will not be a perfectly designed mug. Instead, Design Thinking will give you a system or process that is better and more clear, but not necessarily finished or perfect.
The Anti-Pug Mug Method is the same method above but in language and a process that has worked for other HR professionals and me.
I hope it works for you.
Here’s a basic roadmap of how to get started:
What is going on? You first and foremost need to know the problem you wish to solve or the need you want to address. Be specific. If you know that your company has a terrible performance review process, define what part of the process is broken. But keep an open mind, Step 2 might identify a different, more pressing part to focus on.
Learn About Your People and Some Other People Too — Want to know what is not working? Ask your employees. Have focus groups, observe people using the current process, conduct surveys, set up open office hours on a topic. The more information you gather from them and on them, the better your result. Also get outside inspiration. Heard of some fantastic performance reviews at other companies? Ask them what they did to create a process that works. Do your research.
Let’s Get Some Ideas– Start throwing spaghetti at the wall, meaning start throwing out all of the possible ideas you have in your head, based on the feedback you heard. Include stakeholders from around the company in this process, because a few more heads are better. What if we had no performance reviews? What if they were ten questions? What if employees did them instead of managers? This is your time to go little nuts.
Get Into The Sandbox -You came up with a great idea, but it’s a little radical. This is your time to test it out. Do a small launch with one team, or present a prototype to try out with some key performers. Be clear with them that you are testing something new and ask for their candid and thoughtful feedback. My rule of thumb, you know you have a great thing after you finish this step and your process feels like a breath of fresh air. If you hear things like “Wow this was so easy” or “I can’t believe I got this kind of result so quickly,” you know you have something good. Don’t be discouraged if you have to repeat this step multiple times. Going back to step one and starting again is part of this process.
Launch, Learn, Repeat– Once you have received a thumbs up after testing, launch it out in the world. Celebrate, maybe take a short nap. But do not rest too long. You will learn that what worked for the marketing department, does not work for accounting. This is the critical learning of design thinking. You will find problems or potential solutions you were not expecting. Make tweaks and launch again. That is all part of the process.
Now Await The Transformation
The more your employees feel heard, the more they feel valued. The more you center them in your design, the more likely your systems, processes, and products will be used. You will find that this process may take a little more time up front, but it will focus you on real outcomes for your organization. So you will never have to hear in your office “who the hell designed this thing.”
Build a better mug in HR.
Katie Augsburger is a Founding Partner and Employee Experience Strategist for Future Work Design. She has been creating and implementing successful human resources programs for over 15 years. Her work has helped organizations win Oregon’s Best Company To Work, Fortune Magazine’s Most Flexible Workplace, and Fortune Magazine’s Top Consulting Firms among others. Katie has an M.Ed in Curriculum and Instruction as well as a B.S in Sociology. She is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) and Certified Compensation Professional (CCP).