Make a Difference with Design Thinking

/, Design/Make a Difference with Design Thinking

By Sue Newcombe

In my experience HR people all set out to make a difference and many do this very successfully.  However so much of HR time is chewed up through those all too frequent urgent but important actions that really only ‘plug the dam wall’ rather than making it impossible for ‘holes’ to occur in the first place.

If you and your HR team find your time is predominantly spent in ‘hole plugging’ activities that you have become very skilled and mastered in such as hiring replacements for resigned employees, firing poor performers, updating policies, resolving conflicts and industrial disputes, analysing negative comments in employee surveys, creating or updating forms, hearing bullying and harassment complaints, etc then likely your experience of being an HR leader – while valued, busy and often heroic –  is really nowhere close to making that difference that you initially set out to do.

If this resonates at all then think deeply about how you can make a change for yourself and influence a change for your organisation.  What you have always done locks you into repeating cycle unless you make a conscious shift both in thinking and in behaving.  One way is to reframe those predominant urgent activities that chew your time up and see them as being ‘designed’ and that you are dealing with an end result of “inadvertent design”.   For example, let’s look more closely at the time you spend on replacing resigned employees.   You might be seeing the starting point as the receipt of the resignation letter but of course you know it actually starts much earlier.  What events lead to that employee initially considering resigning?  Without reverting to a blame game and if the change you make is to spend as much of your time on uncovering the ‘inadvertent design’ steps that lead to the resignation decision in the first place as on replacing that resigned employee you may well uncover some ‘holes’ that can be redesigned for improved retention.

Design Thinking is not, in my experience, anywhere close to being embedded within the mind or skill set of HR, so it’s not surprising that there is rarely any advantage seen or taken from this approach.  As HR becomes increasingly aware of the benefit that can come from applying ‘design thinking’ they can become more influential in making a sustainable and tangible difference.  There is a growing emergence of the connection of HR and Design Thinking and this is largely under the umbrella of “Employee Experience (EX)”.  Up until quite recently ‘employee experience’ hasn’t featured significantly on the HR horizon other than perhaps as part of the increased focus on employee engagement surveys, diversity and inclusion, talent management, and well-being programs.

HR can and needs to continue making that significant difference  we need in the workplace. Becoming more aware of and skilled in effective employee experience design is one of the ways to achieve this.  Too often HR is tasked with coming up with new solutions for any number of employee related needs without sufficient access to or awareness of new thinking.   New and improved solutions can come from using human-centred methods and tools, such as journey maps and personal stories, to give insights for improving the design of the employee experience.

To do this, it is important to first be aware of and then apply the recognised steps of Design Thinking.    These can be summarised as:

  • Empathise – gain a deep understanding of the employee experience from the employees themselves
  • Define – identify opportunities, challenges, roadblocks, derailers and missing elements
  • Ideate – use proven methods and techniques for effective brainstorming, imagine innovative ideas and solutions
  • Prototype/Test – test ideas and solution, reduce complexity, explore quick fails – all to improve the design.

It will be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that learning ‘design thinking’ is simply a matter of reading a few articles and books on the subject together with working back through the steps and using those brief descriptions I have given in the dot points above.   You may be clever enough for this but I strongly recommend you take time here to develop your knowledge and skills.  Design Thinking has been applied in other functions (e.g. IT) for quite some time and there is expertise out there for you to take advantage of.  If it is new to you best go in with fresh eyes and a clean thinking canvas. Be aware that you are already a master in finding solutions for human-centred problems in your workplace and that it will be reasonably natural for you to revert to your current methods.  Know this can be a roadblock and derailer or you in the application of Design Thinking.

My advice is to take the approach that it is like adding a new language and new culture to your own employee experience. Your current HR skill set should not be discarded but it will be greatly enhanced and changed as you master the new skills of design thinking.    Enjoy the journey into this new phase of HR and the change you can bring to the employee experience.


About Sue Newcombe
Sue is a seasoned HR professional with extensive HR leadership experience in some of Australia’s largest organisations including BHP Steel, IPW Group & Minova. Find out more about Sue here: