Design Thinking for Human Resources

Together with Impact Solutions (now zero360), we recently designed a two day program on “Design Thinking for Human Resources”, an experimental open workshop to explore the topic with experts from the field. HR, as the name suggests, is a people business – Design Thinking is about creating “human centered” experiences – so there must be a way to connect the two, right? In my opinion, there are two ways in which the two converge:

1. Design Thinking as an impact on company culture and leadership

HR departments are facilitators of the infrastructures and behaviors that may or may not allow for innovation in a company. Taking Design Thinking seriously in a corporate context can have implications for goals, leadership, incentives, space, team setup. HR thus plays a very serious role in providing the environment that lets people work in a Design Thinking mode.

2. Design Thinking as a tool to create employee-centered workplaces

HR folks are designers of one of the most relevant, time intense, emotionally involving experiences in people’s lives – their workplace. No fun fair, bank or supermarket can say that of themselves. Designing work experiences that are sustainably responding to some of people’s most important needs (motivation, inspiration, challenge, reward etc…) is one hell of a task and can use some structured methods.

The two day workshop was based on challenges that the participants felt are currently relvant in HR work. While it turned out to be a little hard for some people to apply new methods to very familiar field, it was interesting to learn about the questions that HR departments feel they need answers for. Here are some examples:

1. How to retain talent?
2. How to let older and younger employees cooperate and learn from each other?
3. How to make the output of HR work more exciting?
4. How to plan HR more long term?
5. How to bridge the gap between academia and business?
6. How to create incentives for team-based work?
7. How to take away insecurities when starting a new job?
8. How to create work-life-balance for executive jobs?
9. How to create a fair salary increase system?


Trying and reflecting Design Thinking methods with the teams, there were two big ingights that turned out to be new yet relevant to HR work:

1. Getting away from surveys

I know surveys are an instrument to make HR measurable, but I don’t think they’re suited to do innovative and empathy-based HR work. My feeling is that HR departments can gather much more interesting information by working qualitatively and with extreme users (for example very new employees, employees with many kids, employees who quit, applicants who didn’t take the job… depending on the problem you want to solve).

2. Getting experimental

When I worked in a corporation, I experienced HR as an environment in which things are planned to their death behind closed doors. “Pilot programs” were often launched at a point when there was no going back from the concept anyway. I believe HR folks can benefit from the idea of prototyping and co-creation. Maybe I’m wrong here, but I’m positive employees would appreciate the idea of giving feedback to something unfinished, a draft for a re-org, an idea for a training or a prototype of a new incentive system.

Since Design Thinking is often communicated in a very product- or service design focused manner, the Design Thinking community has some way to go to make it relevant and actionable for HR people. Let’s see where this is going.

(HPI Academy / Impact Solutions)