Employee Inspired Design


Design thinking goes by many names - human centred design, customer inspired design, user experience design to name a few.  My personal favourite, when applied to HR innovation is Employee Inspired Design. It’s a favourite as it signals a shift in mindset from ‘how do we get employees to perform’ to ‘how can we untap employee performance’. This article introduces five new mindsets HR teams need to adopt an employee inspired approach and build experiences that attract talent and untap brilliance.


No matter what name you use, design thinking is about solving problems centred around needs. It uses three practices:

1.     Empathy to identify opportunities for improvement based on people’s needs, and emotions

2.     Inviting diverse inputs to discover potential solutions

3.     Fast cycles of testing to ensure the chosen solution works

In a recent Entrepreneur.com article, Amantha Imber CEO of Inventium, noted that the right culture and mindset is needed to drive innovation and a design thinking approach. This applies equally to HR. While HR is often seen as a cultural curator, HR teams are not exempt from needing to shift their mindset in order innovate. Here are five mindsets HR need to succesfully adopt Employee Inspired Design:


Mindset #1 The employee is always right


Extending this customer maxim to the employee might feel like a stretch but it’s a needed push towards investing time in understanding what truly engage employees.  At times HR can bring a skewed perspective with a propensity to design for controlling the exceptional cases – the poor performer, the extreme user who is looking for the loophole. However, it’s important to take a glass half-full perspective and design for the best. A great example is the move away from lengthy policies to short and simple principle-based guidelines, a user-friendly format which communicates trust and respect. GE recently changed its lengthy dress code to two words: ‘Dress appropriately’.


It’s important to note is that the employee is always right because they understand their needs best, however, they may or may not have the solutions to address their needs. More on this in mindset #4.


Mindset # 2 Stories are as important as data


Jeff Bezo’s the CEO of Amazon warns his people to be aware of proxies for having real conversations with customers, such as customer research or sales data. In Amazon’s customer obsessed culture, he encourages his leaders to be very close to customers. The same applies in HR, HR’s equivalent to customer research is Employee Engagement information. It’s critical that HR combine this data with real employee stories. Data might tell you where to begin or that you have an issue in the first place, but it rarely tells you why or unpacks the stories which uncover deeper needs, feelings and motivators. Design thinkers are curious about their end user, they invest time in understanding them – deeply to discover unmet needs and the deep causes of their belief systems.

It’s important that individual stories are valued rather than dismissed as one-off extremes that need further data mining before being proven as a trend. Even extreme stories are a valuable source of information that can inspire creative solutions. Design thinkers deliberately seek extremes as sources of insight.


Mindset #3 Being able to adopt a beginner’s view


Innovation is challenging because you need a unique combination of deep technical expertise and a beginner’s mindset. Here’s why. In the early stages of a design thinking process teams need to put their own views on what the solution is aside. Technical expertise is replaced with curiosity and exploration, just like a beginner.


Like many specialists, HR professionals have the tendency to jump in with a solution or jump to the latest best practice. If HR is seeking to be truly innovative they need to let go of this role and become ready to help the organization discover the problems first, then explore the solutions, rather than jump in with theirs. Design thinkers in HR are open to putting their expertise to the side for the moment and allowing the problem to be looked at in a new way. They also invite non-experts in to looks at the problem or potential solutions in a different way, building on ideas to find unique solutions.  Technical expertise comes into play as learnings which guide solutions, helping to exclude paths that have been explored or offer existing paths for others to build on.


Mindset #4 Seeking out diverse thinking


HR has a wonderful community of networks and forums that showcase and share great practices. This provides a wealth of new thinking and a great starting point to draw in new ideas to the design process. There is however opportunity for more. By broadening the forums HR participate in, they can widen their view of potential solutions.  For example, co-working hubs can be studied to understand informal networking and mentoring, science labs can help HR understand how to build a culture of testing and learning or digital marketing solutions can help HR improve and target their communications.


Mindset #5 Accepting the winding road on the way to BIG goals


Lastly, as HR operate in the world of people they are used to ambiguity. However, like any function under pressure to perform, sharing ‘tales of fail’ or having sudden changes of direction on major projects is uncomfortable. Pressure for fast results can drive behaviours that run counter to innovation, such as setting easier goals, jumping to the latest ‘best practice’ or racing to demonstrate progress despite the exploratory nature of true innovation.


Christoph Meinel and Larry Leifer of Stanford highlight the need for embracing ambiguity as a basic principle in design thinking. They write that design thinkers must ‘experiment at the limits of their knowledge and ability, enabling them the freedom to see things differently’. If HR want to set and achieve ambitious goals, they need a mindset of humility, to experiment, learn and accept the winding road on the way.



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