Design thinking used in HR – why it’s fun – Part 1

By | S. Naga Siddharth | SPAR Hypermarkets

Design thinking seems to be the next wave that is rising. In it’s original intent, it was used by engineers to design products that are more appealing humanly. A company named IDEO pioneered this for many years and it’s founder David Kelly anchored Stanford’s Design school.

So, what is design thinking? Simply put, it is about empathizing with the user for gaining insights about said and unsaid needs, then using those insights for creating solutions that create positive emotions in the user.

One simple example is when a caring mother is feeding her kid (and the kid is watching a Youtube video on iPad), she keenly observes the kid’s expression and gives the next morsel with either dall or pickle depending on what caught the kid’s fancy in the earlier morsel, or as a trend. In this case, the mom has empathized, done repeated iterations and executed a solution that delights the kid.

Figure 1: Design thinking process by School of Stanford

 One example that I have come across is that when McDonalds didn’t have great sales of their milk shake, instead of turning to run of the mill surveys, they turned to design thinking. When they empathized with customers, they found out the following

  • Customers buy it mostly in drive through
  • It is bought in the morning by those who drive 45 minutes or so to office
  • It is bought instead of a doughnut that could be messy
  • Customers look at it as a substitute to breakfast, something that keeps them full till lunch time
  • Sucking the thick milk shake through a straw gave them something to do, a sense of challenge while driving in dense traffic

The result was that the milk shakes turned thicker/creamier and the straw size was calibrated to provide a sense of challenge. More nutritious options were provided and ….. the customers loved it.

Lets look at HR. What do companies do typically? Commission an engagement survey, get results, look at %ages and data slices, make action plans and then implement. By the time the entire cycle is over, employees have changed, the business context has changed, yet the same programmes are being implemented since it has now become a compliance item to be reported to management ?

An instance of design thinking in HR

 Instead, take the case of a Company M that looked at R&R innovatively. The two insights from empathizing with the user (final employee) is that

  • R&R is typically designed with a scarcity mindset. Start with the intention to motivate 100 employees. Provision 2 awards monthly/quarterly. After a lot of iterations, announce the two winners. End up with 98 demotivated employees. Congratulations!
  • R&R depends on manager approvals. Which in turn depends on the manager’s mood, the side of bed she got out of in the morning, his maid’s attendance and a host of other such variables. So, it doesn’t depend on the brilliance of employee performance, it depends on manager’s mental make up. Awesome!

The Company designed a scheme that had a bouquet of awards. Plentiness.

  1. The awards spanned service length, values alignment, role based, spot award, innovation awards. Opportunity to recognize exploded exponentially.
  2. It was a self-nominated, auto approved scheme. Managers who did not approve had to give a justification. Employees know it when they have done something awesome. Trust them to nominate themselves!
  3. Tracked metrics were the minimum number of awards given. A sharp contrast to controlling the number of awards being controlled.

The result was that the company had given away 10000+ awards in less than a year to 2000 employees. This helped them achieve a drastic turnaround in the level of morale across the organization.

More examples in my next article…..

Naga Siddharth (Siddhu) works on Talent, Org. Effectiveness and Innovation at SPAR Hypermarkets India. In his career, Siddhu has worked across industries of Airline, IT, Healthcare and Retail. An keen author, his ebook on HR Design and HR metrix “….is, dare I say it, revolutionary…” according to Dr. Marshall Goldsmith in his foreword.

His other ebooks on Checklist for People Managers, Compensation design and HR analytics in 10 Tweets are all available on Amazon. @nagasiddharth is his Twitter handle

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