Design thinking – what you need to know

Design thinking is a tool that Stanford University’s d-school has formalised and taught to engineering students since 2006.

While it is not a new approach, what is new is its application outside of product development where it originated. In 2018 it is tipped to make serious inroads into the HR space.

In short, design thinking – also called human-centred design – is a problem-solving process focused on solving the needs of a specific group of people, such as customers or employees.

It aims to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into value and market opportunity.

Jennifer Pangas is an experienced HR professional who has recently moved into OD and design thinking consulting via her company HRHack.

She said design thinking may sound ‘soft’, but it’s a very scientific discipline with clear steps to understand needs, seek broad inputs to solve those needs, and then test those potential solutions to ensure they work.

“Keeping the end customer at the heart of each stage is critical,” she told HRD. “Applied to HR, design thinking puts employee needs and emotions at the centre of the design of processes and solutions.”

Pangas said design thinking tools can be applied to any challenge in which you are solving something for a human – in other words, everything that HR does. She has seen HR teams apply it to reward, performance management, L&D, HR services and career management.

Examples include Cisco, which has used design thinking to develop its HR strategy, and tech company Atlassian, which has used it for its performance management approach.

Liam Hayes, chief people officer at engineering firm Aurecon, said his focus in 2018 will be on redesigning the firm’s employee experience. To this end, he recently recruited an industrial designer with an innovation background to join his leadership team in order to embed design thinking into the employee experience.

“It we had to do it as an HR team, with our HR knowledge, the danger is we’d end up with a similar outcome to what we have today,” he said. “We’re challenging ourselves to do something different, and really working with our senior leaders to look at this from a holistic point of view.

“We’re not looking at employee experience just from the HR point of view but at all elements that impact the employee experience, and making sure it aligns with and supports the type of client experience we want to deliver as a business.”

Hayes added that the goal is to challenge how HR engages with the end users of its services, and work backwards from there.

“That human-centric approach is taking us down a very different path to anything we’ve done before,” he said.

Pangas emphasised that design thinking is not only about engaging employees; it can also involve bringing in leaders or experts from other fields to solve the problem. “I encourage my clients to engage people who will bring completely different thinking, particularly when ideating potential solutions,” she says.

The repercussions can be massive. In the legal profession, for example, design thinking is completely revamping traditional business models.

Canadian NewLaw thought leader and author Mitch Kowalski has spoken at seminars on how design thinking can be used – nowhere more so than in law firms that are so overinvested in their original model that they miss and even ignore the changing needs and desires of their clients.

“The key to long-term law firm success is balancing the need to fully exploit what currently works with the need to explore new ideas,” he said.

“Design thinking law firms are those that achieve that balance; these are firms that continually reassess if they’re moving in the right direction by truly empathising with clients.”