Design thinking as a tool for HR transformation
HR functions have not always been well regarded in organizations. A cynical operating leader once remarked to me “HR is too important to be left to the HR department.” He was only being partly jocular. The element of administration, expense control and proximity to the top, has led to HR being often regarded with a mix of suspicion and disfavor. This is beginning to change. “HR as a strategic partner” is no longer a mere buzzword. There is a new emphasis on organizational excellence, and the role of learning, teamwork and a culture that fosters innovations. This, then is both the opportunity and the challenge for HR. But how does HR adapt to become both a transformational force for, and a custodian of organizational excellence?
The emerging field of design thinking may hold some promise to combat this challenge. Design thinking involves both process and mindset dimensions, and involves:
a) Eclectic cross-functional teams building an outside in view of a user’s situation through creating simple and usable insights.
b) Using an iterative process of insighting, ideation and prototyping to arrive at solutions quickly. In design thinking terms, this is ‘fail fast to succeed early’.
As organizations are adapting to the changing environment, many gurus and consulting organizations have attempted to map out what the transformational role of HR may look like. David Ulrich, a renowned management scholar has called upon the CEOs to regard CHROs as the architects of the new organization order. The idea is that this architect, through an optimal combination of aesthetics, space, balance and movement can breathe life into four walls of a building. In this context, let us look at what are some of the new responsibilities of an HR architect? How can design thinking become a tool for the individual to design an optimal, living & breathing, people-centric blueprint of an organization?
Empathy maps reveal perceptions from the user’s point of view, and by forcing research that looks at both emotions and reason, gets a truly people-centric view of a situation.
Role Work complexity has increased manifold and in the new age organizations, talent has become the most critical asset. HR professionals have to perform the dual role of:
a) Facilitating engagement
b) Enabling line managers to perform training and mentoring roles
In order to design the interventions and everyday processes required to perform this role, HR managers need to immerse in the context of both the employee and the line manager. As an example, for employee issues, this would involve understanding the factors affecting employee engagement from the employee’s point of view. This includes both rational and emotional dimensions. As these are not easy to articulate for many employees, an HR professional would need to immerse in the job context, and conduct unstructured conversations with employees in their work setting. In this setting, empathy maps are a valuable tool to build systematic understanding. An empathy map clubs user feedback under four dimensions – think: the user’s opinions on the subject of interest; feel: the user’s emotional reactions on the issue of interest; do: the user’s actual actions related to the subject; and say: verbatim quotations. The advantage of this tool is that it reveals perceptions from the user’s point of view, and by forcing research that looks at both emotions and reason, gets a truly people-centric view of a situation. A leader may not see it as a negative that his team members call him ‘busy’, but an empathy map could reveal that for some team members, busy could imply ‘difficult to approach’.
Role In the era of war for talent and fierce competition for skilled resources, the traditional function of selection, hiring & managing the employee does not ensure highly skilled talent walking in the door and adding value for the organization. Today’s HR professional has to find ways to become a savvy broker for talent who has the expertise to size up the market, understand candidate’s expectations & find out innovative ways to match the talent to the job.
In order to understand the war for talent from a prospective candidate’s point of view, AEIOU is a very interesting framework, which enables to unravel this insight.
Activities: What does the user do on a daily basis? How does he get his information? Where does he travel?
Environment: What are the objects in the vicinity? What does his home look like? Who are the people around him?
Interactions: Who does he meet? What conversations does he have?
Objects: What are objects that are a part of his life? What value do they have from him?
User: What do I know about the user’s profile? Age? Demographics? Lifestyle?
An analysis of this sort may reveal the differences in activity and profile between a passive candidate (somebody who fits the recruiter’s need, but is happy and successful in his current job) versus an active candidate (somebody who is searching actively but is not such a good fit) and may drive more strategic sourcing.
Steward of organization culture
Role According to Global Human Capital Trends, a 2016 Deloitte report, HR function is taking on a new role as the steward and designer of new people processes. The mission of the HR leader is evolving from that of “chief talent executive” to “chief employee experience officer.” HR is being asked to simplify its processes, help employees manage the flood of information at work, and build a culture of collaboration, empowerment, and innovation.
The mission of the HR leader is evolving from that of “chief talent executive” to “chief employee experience officer"
The chief issue here is the predominant mindset of solution finding. Too often, we try too hard to find the right solution, not realizing that when problems are ill-structured. The answer then is to observe (there is an important distinction between observation and interpretation – we need to learn to separate symptoms from diagnosis), create comfortable conversations based on observations, and then use early insights to try solutions. As a simple example, observation might reveal that some people do not talk in meetings. The conversation may reveal introversion or a feeling of being overwhelmed by the more talkative. Solutions could include calling on people to speak with randomization, asking people to write down impressions and then share exactly what they have written. Another way to generate relevant information is to ask probing questions. The technique of “five whys” is always very effective. In an instance when an employee appears to be demotivated to put in her best performance, the HR leader can better understand his/her situation by asking multiple “whys” to unravel his/her story -“why’ he/she felt a certain way, “why” he/she and others around her behaved in a particular way, “why” would he/she not want to do the assigned task etc. This type of inquiry enables real issues at a much deeper level to the surface, which can lead to various methods of problem-solving. Such techniques of fact-finding preceded by observation and followed by experimentation make up the ‘Look, Try, Do and Learn” cycle of design thinking. Two points emerge here. Simple insights lead to multiple possible approaches. It may not be possible to determine a priori the best answer, the approach is to try something that seems promising based on accurate problem identification and learn quickly from what works (and what does not).
In conclusion, design thinking provides “process expertise” in the hands of a user. It allows non-judgmental observation of a situation at hand, facilitates a dialogue that helps identify root causes and employs multiple approaches to effective problem solving. Human Resources as a discipline will benefit from embracing this technique as this implies that HR must abandon preconceived notions of how and why people work the way they do and demonstrate the very openness that they seek to build in the organization. For a HR leader, design thinking tools offer a powerful methodology to build a culture of ideation and experimentation necessary for success in today’s context. The hope is, when these leaders become design thinkers themselves, they can then start curating such an experience that is transformative, both for themselves and for the organization as a whole.